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Lucire: Volante

Shopping time Korea is a crossroads of east and west: premium fashion with an east Asian sensibility is the order of the day.

Luxe for life

From the streets of Seoul to the laid-back elegance of Jeju-Do to beachy Busan, Korea’s passion for global fashion is a reality in everyday life, writes Elyse Glickman
photographed by the author




THE KOREAN TOURISM ORGANIZATIONS global campaign is brilliantly summed up in one word: sparkling.

On one hand, Koreans know a thing or two about effective branding. In larger cities, shopping areas are ablaze with the world’s great designer and high-street brands, from Armani to Zara, all grappling for the hearts and minds of a supremely stylish population. Asian labels, such as Ralph Lauren-esque Bean Pole and Armani Exchange-ish Giordano, thrive because they know what modern Koreans want: western chic with a flair that is still very definitively Korean and unquestionably upscale. On the other, Korea has a rich history to draw upon.

Reinforcing Korea’s “sparkling” brand-building efforts is a king’s ransom of phone-book sized glossy lifestyle, fashion and wedding magazines (such as Heren) that are selling ads and finding readers, even as many of their western counterparts are shutting down or cutting back. Fashionistas need not need to know how to read or speak Korean to intuit Koreans want to present their country as an enchanted place where there is seemingly no recession and everybody can live life to the fullest. For history buffs, however, Korea is a complexly sparkling gem that rose from a tumultuous history to emerge as one of the most progressive countries in terms of technology, commerce and lifestyle—especially from 1988 forward, when Seoul hit the world stage when it hosted the Olympic Games.




Seoul, currently ranked the world’s second largest metropolitan area, is a dazzling maze of gravity-defying skyscrapers, neon and winding highways best showcased at night. However, the soul of Seoul can be found by day within that maze, via the many temples and palaces that can be found in every corner. They are laid out and preserved so effectively that stepping onto the grounds is almost like stepping back in time.

Bosingak Bell Pavilion, Jogyesa Temple and the complex housing the Gyeongbokgung Palace, National Folk Museum of Korea and National Palace Museum of Korea are full-on cultural immersions into Korean history, anthropology, landscape and architecture, where the modern skyline of Seoul almost seems to vanish.

The North Seoul Tower and its surrounding park, meanwhile, offer a graceful look at modern urban recreation at its best. However, both experiences bolstered with both subtle and evident modern creature comforts, as well as above average shopping opportunities.

While the North Seoul Tower’s souvenir boutiques offered an impressive mix of kitschy (fun airbrush-painted passport covers adorned with the Tower and ethereal cats) and classy offerings (i.e. delicate sterling silver jewellery by Special Hands), my stunning Seoul-based English language guide, Sharon Choi, advised me to not leap at the first thing I saw, though I bought a Special Hands pendant anyway. She, of course, was right. When it comes to shopping, a sensory overdose is a very real possibility for even the most seasoned hard-core fashionista.




Seoul offers everything from chaotically colourful open-air flea markets near local universities (Yonsei and Hongig), to trendy, crowded chain-store vendor-lined shopping streets of Myeong-Dong, Namdaemun and Dongdaemun for reasonably priced fast fashion that this year is leaning towards a very preppy æsthetic.

Those with more upscale tastes and deeper pockets, whose standards are shaped by department stores Harvey Nichols, Neiman-Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Lane Crawford or Galleries Lafayette, will be impressed with Shinsigae, which spins its luxury-crammed departments and floors to dizzying heights. Lotte, which one will quickly realize is the ultimate national brand, has its name on department stores that are akin to Macy’s or David Jones, mixing high end and more moderately priced labels.

Seoul is also home to Coex, one of the world’s great megamalls that visually and contextually takes the entertainment–shopping–family recreation–dining experience to ultra-modern extremes. One of the best hotels on Jeju Island also bears the Lotte name, as well as an adorable gift shop with some hidden (affordable) jewellery treasures and a quirky free-standing branch of Louis Vuiton.

After cruising the consumer-driven concourses and lanes, however, I was pleased to realize Sharon and I were very similar not only in our tastes in fashion (she scours Banana Republic when visiting North America), but also our style of shopping: admiring high-end labels and quality, and preferring stores focused on either classics or great one-off pieces. However, given our similar careers, we also have similar limitations on our annual clothing budgets.

Intuitively, Sharon knew her favourite haunts were going to strike a chord with me. After a morning of appreciating Jogyesa and other temples, she figured I would be inspired by the gallery-lined Insadong shopping street and the positively charming Ssamziegil, a relatively small shopping centre with a design inspired by artisan villages from earlier times. The merchandise itself, however, is as appealing to anybody with 21st century sensibility seeking head-turning accessories and home accents.

Just steps from the mini-mall, however, Sharon and I scored intricate hand-crafted earrings from Gu Pil Seo (1F, 169-2, Gwanhun-Dong), that deftly blends antique-y silver accents from old Korean royalty and semi-precious stones hewn into modern shapes.

From Sharon’s point of view, however, there is no better shopping haven than Doota, essentially Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory but with clothing, bags, sunglasses and shoes replacing the different forms of chocolate and novelty candy. For Sharon, Doota represents the most complete shopping experience, incorporating the perfect blend of western and Korean fashion influences, good quality, reasonable prices and tailoring that is spot on for career women over 25 and under 50. Though Shinsegae was label heaven, I could have easily spent a day perusing every micro boutique on every floor of Doota.

Given our time was limited (as there was another sumptuous temple and an equally lavish buffet dinner waiting), we scored lovely linen tunics at They International and summer bottoms from [Pa]:Plus for a mere US$25 per piece and comfy-but-fashion forward sandals from Ficce Design Studio.

After several hours of shopping and dining out at some of Seoul’s more fashionable establishments, it’s easy to find the uniform of young Korean women irresistable: ultra-feminine, defined by ruffles, bows, lace trims and flowing fabrics, whether the individual prefers a clean preppy look, a girly ladies-who-lunch look or something more edgy and modern. That said, the honest truth is that this look does not always work head-to-toe on curvier figures (like my imposing 5 ft 8 in, size 10 US frame). More frustrating still, sizes are limited (though many of Doota’s offerings were forgiving and more generous with larger and European sizes).

When it comes to skin care products and treatments, however, there is happily something for everybody to take home and enjoy. Sharon introduced me and my enthusiastic Brazilian colleagues to the Story of Whoo and its younger sister brand O’Hui, both offering sunscreen products that were at once luxuriant and state-of-the-art.

However, with Korea as a noted international centre for day spa, medi-spa and cosmetic surgery innovation, other guides from the KTO noted many visitors have come to Seoul for more permanent souvenirs.

To give us a taste of the country’s emerging beauty–cosmetic tourism segment, we were bee-lined soon after our arrival in Korea to Seoul’s Anacli Centre, widely acclaimed for its treatments and private-label anti-ageing skin care products for men and women. Though the centre was nicely appointed, and had plenty of free copies of Heren to pour over in the waiting room, the treatments were relaxing, simple and administered by calm, attentive practictioners—exactly what you’d want after an 11-plus-hour flight. Though I indulged in my stash of O’Hui powder sunscreen at the glamorous Busan branch of Shinsegae, my Brazilian fellow travelers wisely waited until they hit the duty-free.

Though one cannot totally escape the siren call of Seoul’s buffet of labels and luxury shopping, experiencing Busan and Jeju-Do offer wonderfully laid-back facets of the Korean lifestyle as well as spectacular scenery and cultural offerings very different from Seoul’s cosmopolitan sprawl. Plus, getting to Busan gives one an excuse to ride the real life KTX “Seoul Train”, which includes panoramic views, cookies and unlimited wifi in the first-class section seats for a few extra dollars.

Busan has its beachy and remarkably international aspects (Germans, Americans, New Zealanders and Australians intermixed freely with locals at Haenundae Beach—something Sharon was quite pleasantly surprised by; the UN Cemetery and war memorials) as well as a well-appointed shopping district (anchored by Lotte and Shinsegae). However, the real centre of interest is the Jagalchi Fish Market and downtown streets more commonly frequented by locals (where my Brazilian friends found true bargains on their favourite athletic shoe and clothing brands, in colour combinations very different from what they could get at home, and I snagged an organic cotton tunic from the local branch of Dolsilnai, a “traditional” chain of clothing stories now looking for younger customers).

Jeju-Do, even with patches of in-your-face romance engineered for the bustling Korean wedding and honeymoon markets and well-heeled families with young kids, is a lovely breath of fresh air. What’s most memorable about the UNESCO Heritage-certified site island are its wide-open rural spaces, heavenly stretches of coastline, agricultural flavour and an intoxicating smell of jasmine in bloom and citrus that permeates the entire island.

There are also many ways visitors can experience Love, Korean Style. It’s fun to see that so many Korean newlyweds so committed to one another, they even sport colour-coordinated or identical outfits. Most Korean films shot in Jeju are love stories, and markers indicate the spots were key scenes were shot so newly married fans can create their own Kodak moments. However, so many park areas are so breathtaking, all visiting couples will need is their sense of adventure at such places as Chonjiyeon Waterfalls, and the Yongmeori Coast.

While the Lotte Resort puts travellers, honeymooning or otherwise, in the lap of over-the-top east-meets-west luxury, Shilla offers a more modern and subdued form of five-star glamour. The Hyatt is old school Hyatt (down to its airy 1970s trademark atrium) accessorized with 21st century amenities. Visitors also have the option of staying in authentic pension-style accommodations, as well as venturing away from their comfy rooms for rich cultural and natural highs–from Chung Gye Chang Stream and Yongsuam Rock and a rigorous hike up to Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunset Peak) to the O’Sulloc Tea Museum (Sharon recommends the soft-serve green tea ice cream, while our Brazilian friends loved the boutique stocked with wonderfully packaged, nicely priced exotic teas and skin-care products) to a vibrant collection of art galleries and cultural museums such as the Folk and Natural History Museum.

In presenting its best face to the outside, the KTO and Korea’s hospitality industry tap effectively into a culture that is now a masterful blend of history and modernism. However, to fully appreciate these efforts, like Dr Moon and his team at the Anacli Clinic, you have to look below the surface to get a real sense of Korea’s value on quality of life. It’s not just found in hotels, restaurants and stores, but also in the meticulous attention to cleanliness in many public spaces, to friendliness of people on the street to the futuristic Incheon Airport (see right column).

Though we all may have differences of opinion of how important luxury is, living well is an absolute necessity, and seeing that mindset in action is fascinating. •


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Incheon International Airport: the only way to pre-fly



Elyse Glickman is US West Coast editor of Lucire.


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