Since the 2012 release of PSY’s megahit “Gangnam Style”, Hallyu, a term for the Korean wave, has taken the world by storm. Nowhere is this cultural tsunami more evident than in the realms of fashion and beauty. Where once this dynamic East Asian country barely registered on the global style stage, these days you don’t have to look far to find a little piece of South Korea in almost any corner of the planet.
K-beauty stores now vie for real estate on the streets of Manhattan, K-pop blasts from taxi speakers in Shanghai and Manila and elements of K-fashion have been steadily popping up in some of the world’s trendiest fashion labels. But you’ll need to make a trip to the source to get a true taste of all things Korean.
Seoul is the country’s largest city and its capital, home to over 10 million residents and many well-known global conglomerates like Samsung, Hyundai and LG. But the city itself also embodies a sense of the national ambition. In 1988, Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics, the world’s bigggest sporting event and a chance for the host city to flaunt its stuff. More recently, there has been a drive to construct more stunning architecture in the city, of which the best examples are the Dongdaemun Design Park and Plaza by the late Zaha Hadid, and Seoullo 7017, a decommissioned highway-turned-overhead park, the city’s version of New York City’s Highline.
But wander Seoul’s bustling, frenetic boulevards and you’ll immediately see that style and fashion are big business. From the boutique-lined streets of Gangnam, to fast fashion in the bustling Myeong-dong area, to the sprawling underground shopping plazas found in many of the city’s major subway stations, you’re never far from the latest trends.
“The shopping options in Seoul are endless,” says Yvette Cruz, fashion blogger on DistrictGal.com, and an expert on the Korean fashion scene. “For example, on Garuso-gil in Sinsa-dong, the whole road and surrounding alleys are completely full of boutiques. You can find independent shoe stores and clothing shops that are really trendy and affordable.”
The Korean wave washes up new trends almost daily in Seoul, the ebb and flow most often based on what the latest “it” celebrity or pop star is wearing — anything from a Korean hanbok (traditional dress) to the preppy/sweet/sporty styles donned by the latest singers.
What really makes the Korean fashion scene stand out is the easy accessibility to these new trends that seem to pop up overnight. “Whatever the new trend may be, you’re going to see it all over Korea within the next day,” says Yvette. “It’s crazy how fast things move here.” With trends changing so rapidly, affordability is key, and the sheer number of choices in Seoul creates options to fit every budget — making Seoul a true shopper’s paradise.
What is Korean fashion? Walk down any street in Seoul and you’ll see a myriad of different styles and sub-cultures, influenced by everything from major American and European brand names to the sartorial selections of the latest hip hop and K-pop stars.
“K-pop isn’t the pinnacle of Korean fashion, but it helps people explore what Korean fashion really is,” says Sua Kang, a fashion designer whose interest in style began as a child watching her mother make hanboks. Kang grew up on Jeju, a small island south of the Korean peninsula, and moved to Seoul to start her own fashion label, Suara. “K-pop opens the door for people to discover Korean fashion,” she explains.
It may come as a surprise to find that most Koreans still embrace a subdued vibe when it comes to clothing colors and styles, but that’s slowly changing as trends become more diverse. “While most people outside Korea may think Korean style is reflected in music videos, Koreans wear mostly dark colors with a relatively conservative style,” says Rydia Kim, a fashion designer and Seoul native.
Rydia has a penchant for color and Korean design elements, and believes fashion has the ability to change the mood of the person wearing the clothes, as well as those around them — all elements she plans to incorporate in her soon-to-debut fashion label Wear My Kimchi, which will focus on unisex street wear with an emphasis on Korea. “I love, love, love designers that incorporate and innovate Korean elements in their design, whether it be utilizing Korean language, patterns or symbols,” she says. “I thoroughly respect any and all designers that are creating authentic, modern ‘Korean’ fashion.”
The hottest looks
From Korean-inspired design, to luxury labels, to cool, edgy street styles, fall is Seoul’s most fashionable season, making it the best time to pack your suitcase with the latest on-trend pieces. What are the hottest looks?
Sua recommends stocking up on ethnic patterns, turbans and bandana headbands, as well as pumps, and colorful, diverse materials. Yvette’s picks for fall include trench coats and headbands. “Headbands are a thing in Korea, whether they are cat-eared, bows, decorative accents or some sort of jewel. Buying a headband is a good way to incorporate an inexpensive trend,” she says.
You’ll want to head to Hongdae, the city’s ground zero for young and hip street styles, for some of the best bargains. The super trendy stores surrounding Hongik University are filled with shoes, bags, jewelry and other K-pop fashion items that will inject a dose of K-style into your wardrobe, without breaking the bank. Dongdaemun Market is another must-shop stop, with over 20 malls bursting with of-the-moment bargains. In both areas, the general vibe of sartorial daring exuded by both the locals and visitors inspires a more fashion-forward outlook.
While Korea may still be emerging on the high-end global fashion stage, there’s no better place than Seoul when it comes to shopping for trendy, stylish fashion to wear right now.
This story first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Smile magazine.