Reyes and Cowling favor an exhaustive if exhausting pace, so we visit a rough-hewn spot called Korea Paper, in the Insadong neighborhood, where sheaves straight off the bark are for sale, as far from cool South Korea as you can get but somehow cooler still for it. Our next stop is the supremely ratty but fascinating Dongmyo folk flea market, near the brand-new Zaha Hadid–designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza & Park, whose bright roof is ultra-green in both senses of the word. At the outdoor market, antique ink brushes decorated with jade and turquoise are an insanely cheap $10 (I buy a bunch for gifts, but as of this writing have not been able to part with any of them). Cowling wants to show me Cheonggyecheon Stream, a sunken-riverbed version of Manhattan’s High Line, where couples stroll. Am I nuts, or are a lot of these pairs dressed alike? The fellows laugh and tell me that, yes, this is a supremely South Korean phenomenon—for people in love to dress like twins, and it even has a name: “couple-look.”
I want to go to the famous Dongdaemun night market, which, as I understand it, is really rocking at 2 a.m. Though it’s only nine, the market (actually a series of huge, warehouse-like malls crammed with everything from shoes to suitcases, camisoles to coats) is hopping. Here among the supercheap clothes I select my own version of Seoul’s tulle tutu with, fortunately, a drawstring waist (clothing here runs small), that costs around $54, from a booth called Primus.
“You’ve picked a hot spot!” says Mun-Soo Kwon when we meet on Sunday at the Rose Bakery in the awe-inspiring Comme des Garçons store in Hannam-dong, Seoul’s newest rediscovered neighborhood, which has been described as the equivalent of Manhattan’s Meatpacking District five years ago. (To wit, across from Comme, a building that houses a firm called Dada Associates has a pink pig on its roof.) Kwon lived in the United States and worked for a number of designers; now he’s come home to start his own line. Today he is impossibly handsome in Comme diaper trousers and a cutaway jacket.
The Comme store (seven floors connected by five tunnels) is just in front of the Leeum, the Samsung Art Museum, whose three buildings have been designed by Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel, and Rem Koolhaas. But there’s no time to enter this renowned temple of contemporary art! Instead we taxi back for lunch (Italian, what else?) at the Galleria, Seoul’s answer to Bergdorf Goodman. Though we have a bit of trouble finding it, Kwon insists that I must see Space Mue, and he is right. A vast screen on the wall imprints fleeting pixels on a beige Lanvin coat; a cardigan from the British cult brand Marcus Lupfer sports gold sequined lobsters on its pockets.
On my last day in Seoul, I am finally being treated to a Korean luncheon courtesy of Kuho Jung, whose line, Hexa by Kuho, I had the pleasure of seeing at the Park Avenue Armory during New York Fashion Week. Mr. Kuho, as everyone calls him, is carrying an electric-green schoolbag that he just bought in Hong Kong and has thick nerd-chic spectacles. He lived in New York City for years, and we reminisce about Manhattan in the 1990’s.
I know that Mr. Kuho wants to take me to 10 Corso Como, and it has required all my strength to avoid entering this temple of mercantile delights earlier in my trip. At last lunch is over and we are ready to pass through the store’s polka-dotted portals. I have been to the Milan flagship, and it is justifiably famous, but this...well...this is something else. The all-white interior is the perfect backdrop for merchandise both obvious (Alaïa, Marni, et al.) and less familiar—Kuho’s clothes are here, including an abbreviated jacket with a thick rubber back belt. I am besotted by a series of vintage crocodile and alligator purses by a designer called Dylan Ryu, who finds Chanel and Dior bags at the Porte de Clignancourt market in Paris and Portobello Road in London, then artfully embellishes them with ribbons and badges.
Kuho and I drive over to Mapo-gu, an area near Hongik University with a bevy of small shops specializing in leather and jeans to serve the local student population. It’s a low-rise quarter, far from the glassy towers that typically define Seoul, and the boho residents could pass for Williamsburgers, but for the surfeit of Vuittons—real? fake?—dangling from their black-clad arms. We visit Market M, a store famous for its simple wooden furniture. At Mee, the rough-hewn cement entrance gives way to a plethora of plaid trousers and oversize argyle pullovers. When it’s time for a break, I shyly suggest an Ann House—I’d love to see one before I leave, I say, and am astonished that Kuho has never heard of it. But persistence—and help from a smart phone—locates a branch right in the heart of this unlikely hipster neighborhood.
Ann House turns out to be a study in saccharine perched on the second floor of an office building. “We call this Princess Style,” Kuho tells me. All the other patrons are teenage girls; we sit on pink-and-white floral sofas and eat sugary cakes—offered free with the sugary drinks—in our own little room, where a pink Mickey Mouse fan buzzes on the table and illumination is provided by a chandelier dripping with purple plastic crystals. As we gaze out the window at the passing scene—young lovers exuberantly dressed in couple-look; trendsetters with choppy haircuts—Kuho muses that places like this are fast disappearing in a changing landscape of upwardly mobile, sleek Seoul. “Every time I walk down a familiar street, there are new stores, new restaurants I’ve never seen before,” he says. “You go away for a few weeks, and Seoul completely changes.”