Seoul, the plucky capital of South Korea is quickly claiming the spotlight as Asia’s Style Central. With the help of some plugged-in denizens, we discover the Korean fashion hotspots you’ll want to know in this sprawling metropolis.
“Forty years ago we were still wearing traditional Korean clothes! These days it’s a Uniqlo T-shirt and a Chanel jacket with a Fendi bag. Seoul has become a very, very trendy city, and everything is changing so fast,” Korean fashion designer Demi Choonmoo Park tells me as we sit in her showroom in Apgujeong-dong, surrounded by racks of her abstract, architectural creations.
Park, who has fingernails painted black and sports a modified mid-period Liza Minnelli hairdo, has been a famous avant-garde designer in South Korea since the early 1990’s. It’s my first day in Seoul, and she is explaining the local mores to me, ably translated by her 30-year-old son and business associate Mo Choi, snug in a black tee and dark Tom Ford sunglasses.
They decide to take me on a quick tour of their neighborhood before we settle in for lunch at Grano, a fashionable Italian restaurant (Italian food is everywhere in Seoul, I will soon learn) with a Beverly Hills–worthy outdoor patio. In fact, Mo describes the neighborhood as Los Angeles (the terrain; the wild mix of building styles; the valet parking) meets Tokyo (long, treelined shopping boulevards; an insatiable appetite for designer labels).
First impressions, based on an evening spent staring out the 21st-floor windows of my room at the Park Hyatt, itself a design triumph by the Japanese firm Super Potato: Seoul is silvery and soaring rather than conventionally pretty. But what it lacks in a unifying aesthetic it makes up for with a spectacular commitment to what’s next in art and architecture.
Evidence that this is Seoul’s moment? Everyone from Phillip Lim to Tory Burch can’t seem to open gigantic, ambitiously designed outposts fast enough; Prada collaborated with Rem Koolhaas’s OMA to create their Prada Transformer, a 66-foot-high steel structure that drew an international coterie of gawkers at its debut in 2009; and perhaps most telling of all, Rain, the floppy-haired Korean pop phenomenon and style icon, recently topped a Time readers’ poll of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Some observers have compared Seoul’s obsession with high-end products, fueled by new money and a burgeoning upper-middle class, to the Japanese hunger for cool consumer goods, dubbing Seoul the new Tokyo. And Seoul does indeed boast a staggering 9 million–plus citizens (spread over 235 square miles), many of whom appear to be on a continual prowl for Rodarte and the Row.
But the city strikes me as also having much in common with Beijing or Shanghai, where the voracious desire for style has an almost liberating character, as if old rules about how one must dress and act are being thrown off in favor of a new way of living, a quest for self-determination cloaked in leather trousers and glitter cardigans. (This yearning for freedom, sartorial and otherwise, not incidentally can also encompass a struggle for expanded civil liberties and a larger role in society for women—but that is another, far more complicated story.)
I have long been fascinated by the far-ranging effects that a powerful, seemingly irrational love of getting and spending can have on a formerly hidebound culture, so I am deeply curious about this new, much-talked-about Seoul. I can barely contain my excitement as Mo and his mom lead me down streets bereft of pedestrians—something else in common with L.A.—but filled with shops crammed with ersatz Birkins rendered in a riot of colors. Here, stores with names like W Concept Red offer Korean interpretations of British schoolbags and chopped-off gray sweatshirts with pearl-buttoned epaulets and a street nicknamed Rodeo Drive is home to a popular hole-in-the-wall where ballet flats sell for $20 a pair.
After lunch, we head to the store-choked neighborhood of Cheongdam-dong and Boon the Shop, a Korean fashion boutique so glorious that it literally makes me catch my breath. (This sharp intake of oxygen will occur often in Seoul, where the stunning array of goods allows even the least distinguished merchandise to seem suddenly desperately desirable.)
“It’s Boon the Shop—you know—like Felix the Cat,” Kyungho Ian Kwon, the store’s creative director, explains, giving me a quick tour. Margiela and Libertine; Gareth Pugh and Vionnet—all are displayed around an atrium dripping with a vast sculpture by French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel called, suitably, Ivory Double Necklace. “This store is not about Chanel and Dior, not about what other people wear,” Kwon says, and, indeed, in an area he dubs “Confident Day Life” I see a Marni coat that is elegant despite seeming to have been made of woven straw.
Kwon, resplendent in slightly floppy Rick Owens corduroys, a Chrome Hearts chain looped around his neck, takes me on a short stroll to visit Boon the Shop Men’s Store, on the way passing the Seoul branch of Chrome Hearts, a sexy/goth extravaganza so massive and seductive that, he informs me, Japanese shoppers regularly make pilgrimages there.
In Boon’s men’s store I admire a faux-leopard backpack enhanced with mirrored tiles by MCM, the German accessories house that was recently bought by a South Korean company and is experiencing a spectacularly successful second life.
Kwon and I hop in a taxi—cabs are plentiful and cheap, a good thing in a town that is so spread out—and go to Dosan Park, a long street anchored by Hermès and Rick Owens. (Owens, for some unfathomable reason, put a larger-than-life statue of himself in his Paris store. Here, at least, it’s only a bust.) Any assumption that one Hermès is like every other is dashed when you arrive at the store’s lower level, where a mesmerizing display of archival Hermès pieces—riding crops and clocks; gleaming boots and silver cups—is arranged in Joseph Cornellesque tableaux and hidden in the windows of treelike columns. (So haunting are these arrangements that, in my fevered, jet-lagged state I will dream about them that night.) The writing on the walls may be in Korean, but the objects speak the universal language of desire.
Dosan Park is the Madison Avenue of Seoul, if that street were lined with architectural experiments. Kwon describes the shops here as being “like matchboxes thrown together.” At the Ann Demeulemeester store, for example, the exterior is covered in grass. You descend a steep stone staircase between two mossy walls to Tom Greyhound Downstairs, an underground recess awash in beaded Ashish minidresses from London and clear Perspex wing-tip shoes. At Daily Projects, a Ping-Pong table greets you at the entrance (which is on the second floor); inside, there are purses shaped like giant silver lips.
At this point, even the least astute shopper will have noticed that Korean fashion lovershave an obsession with the finest and most rarefied of European and American labels. But did you really travel all this way to purchase Céline and Chloé at even higher prices than in the United States, albeit displayed to magnificent effect?
In search of homegrown brands, I head for Garosugil, which Kwon assures me is delightfully trendy and full of local boutiques. As with every other destination I will seek out during my time in Seoul, I arrive by car (personally, I am not inclined to master the metro on such a short trip, though it is by reputation excellent) and have to hand the taxi driver a slip of paper with my destination written on it in Korean. This system has distinct drawbacks: if you are headed for, say, the Hyundai department store and decide halfway there that you’d rather hit Supernormal, you have no way of conveying that fact to the driver.
Because Kwon has insisted that everyone on Garosugil will speak English (“You’ll be fine!” he says), I am surprised by what I find. Perhaps something about me is deeply intimidating, but for whatever reason, no one in any shop will utter a word of my native tongue, and in some places they even refuse to hand over a business card. This total lack of communication does not prevent me from enjoying Garosugil, a fun area of outdoor cafés, vintage shops, and street vendors selling everything from hippie jewelry to pastel-colored soaps shaped like bunnies.
No one speaks a drop of English at the chic shirt shop Victoria Bay, despite the fact that scrawled on the wall is: “In the traditional sewing technique of dress shirts we are making for women, we are doing our best to make the best shirts.” And indeed the blouses, soft and floppy and with interesting twists and details, are lovely. At Les Choix de Caramel there are champagne-colored tanks with beaded necklines; at Mogool millinery, a blue-and-white-dotted hat, halfway between an oversize baseball cap and a cloche, is around $130. Behind a restaurant courtyard I discover the resale shop ILMO, where that rarest of birds, Azzedine Alaïa on sale, is spotted—it’s not Korean, but at 50 percent off, a sleeveless maroon skating dress is too good to pass up. (Or is it? Alas, it is still around $2,000.)
Any number of Korean fashion boutiques offer what appears to be this season’s version of the national dress—a frock with a cotton knit top and a long tulle tutu skirt—usually for less than $100. This item shows up in abundance at the unfortunately named Sophie Powderrooms Paris (a moniker that nevertheless pales in comparison to the faintly disgusting, completely nutty Z.I.T. by Zoom in THE).
Though I am told this neighborhood is even cooler at night—and a lot of the stores are open until 10 p.m., another plus for the acquisition-minded—I am back at the Park Hyatt by eight, delirious with jet lag but nevertheless greatly anticipating the day ahead.
On Saturday, I meet Michael Reyes and his partner, Aidan Cowling, at the stone fountain outside Shinsegae, one of the only department store buildings still standing from the prewar period. The pair, both in their late twenties, came from Toronto to teach English for a few years. “There was nothing for us in Canada,” Reyes, an aspiring arts writer who has a black stud in each ear, tells me as we set out to explore the jewelry department. I fall in love with an $8,000 pendant by the South Korean house Minetani, a combination of diamonds and white sapphires arrayed in a floral plaque reminiscent of early Cartier.
The spectacular elegance of this necklace stands in stark contrast to our next adventure: a stroll through the gaudy, densely packed Myeong-dong, a pedestrian shopping area where the occasional car nevertheless barrels through and threatens your life. It’s an exuberant streetscape bursting with kids and laden with tables groaning with faux Fendis and pretend Pradas. Suddenly, Cowling asks a guy in a Garfield costume for directions—it seems there’s a cat café nearby, a quintessentially South Korean institution the boys think I need to see. It’s on the fourth floor of a building, and I am satisfied to merely peer through the glass at this place, where you can bring your feline friend to frolic with other animals while you sip a coffee. (There are also dog cafés, Cowling tells me, and they are a lot more frantic.) Then he confesses that his own favorite ironic watering holes are the uniquely South Korean restaurants known as Ann House, whose whimsical cottage décor is said to evoke Victorian-era dollhouses crossed with Anne of Green Gables. (It turns out that the novel’s plucky orphan heroine, “redheaded Anne,” as she is called here, has an enduring popularity in South Korea to rival that of Jerry Lewis’s in France.)
Alas, there’s no Ann House nearby, so we head to Samcheong-dong gil, a boulevard near the Gyeongbokgung palace, where we visit a shop called Korean Traditional Folk Dress Museum that is not a museum at all, but will custom-create and ship to you a traditional hanbok, Korea’s high-waisted, spun-silk version of the kimono. Elegant wood cabinets bearing bolts of every conceivable hue and heft of silk line the shop, and a photo of Hillary Clinton adorns one wall. But this old-fashioned place is an anomaly in Sagan-dong. Far more typical is a shop like MenuNsauce, where a bright orange cotton dress is around $400, or Z. I. Gallery, from the South Korean actress Zia Kim, which this season has apple-green silk coats with orange trim and muslin blouses that close with tiny beaded buttons.
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.”
Ann House 3-367 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu; 82-2/335-0656.
Ann Demeulemeester 650-14 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/3442-2570.
Boon the Shop 82-3 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/542-3864.
Boon the Shop Men’s Store 599 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/542-8896.
Chrome Hearts 82-6 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/3443-0055.
Comme des Garçons 739-1 Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu; 82-2/749-1153.
Daily Projects 1-24 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/3218-4075.
Dylan Ryu Atelier Suite 202, 56-9 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-1/2260-4960.
Galleria 515 Apgujeong-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/3449-4114. Hyundai 429 Apgujeong-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/547-2233.
ILMO 535-13 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/515-0970.
Korean Traditional Folk Dress Museum 74 Sagan-dong, Jongro-gu; 82-2/734-9477.
Korea Paper 101 Pagoda Building, Insadong, Jongro-gu; 82-2/734-1881.
Les Choix de Caramel Garosugil, Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/545-9244.
Maison Hermès Dosan Park 630-26 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/542-6622.
Market M 328-27 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu; 82-2/337-4769.
Mee 330-14 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu; 82-2/324-7662.
MenuNsauce 70 Palpan-dong, Jongro-gu; 82-2/723-2777.
Mogool 545-10 1F Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/3445-6264.
Rick Owens 651 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/516-2217.
Shinsegae 52-50 Chungmuro 1-ga, Jung-gu; 82-2/310-5384.
Sophie Powderrooms Paris Garosugil, Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/518-3645.
Space Mue 93-6 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/541-3633.
Supernormal 80-1 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/511-0991.
10 Corso Como 79 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/3018-1010.
Tom Greyhound Downstairs B1 650-14 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/3442-3696.
Victoria Bay 546-1 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/547-0420.
W Concept Red 159 Samseong-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/565-8477.
Z. I. Gallery 177-18 Gahoe-dong, Jongno-gu; 82-2/739-1241.
Park Hyatt, Seoul
This 24-story glass tower, set south of the Han River near the COEX convention and shopping center, caters to Seoul’s nouveaux riches and visiting business travelers. The sleek, minimalist interiors—in both the common areas and the 185 rooms—are airy and punctuated by Korean antiques. The guest rooms, with their floor-to-ceiling windows, polished wood floors and headboards, and baths and shower stalls made from rough-cut granite, have a sort of Frank Lloyd Wright–meets–Zen master aesthetic; all have luxurious extras like Bang & Olufsen stereos, Aesop toiletries, and 300-thread-count cotton linens. The hotel’s fitness center is one of the best in the city, with an indoor pool and treadmills overlooking the city skyline; the spa has plunge pools, steam rooms, and iron-handed masseuses. There are three on-site restaurants and bars; our pick is the Timber House, decorated like a traditional Korean hanok (house); stop in for sake and soju cocktails, fresh sashimi, and (on many nights) live jazz performers.