SEOUL — In the late 1990s, the Korean Wave — “Hallyu” as it’s referred to in its native tongue — began as South Korea’s television, film and music industries gained greater international followings, especially among its Asian neighbors.
The increased popularity of the country’s entertainment not only boosted tourism in Seoul, it generated interest in the city’s burgeoning fashion industry too. Fans came to seek out the same styles of clothing that the casts of their favorite TV programs wore.
Nearly a decade after the K-Wave’s first ripples, Seoul remains a top vacation destination for Chinese, Taiwanese and especially Japanese travelers.
At the Seoul Fashion Center, a fashion-integrated support center established by the Seoul city government in 2000, Kim Tae Hoon says the more than 2 million Japanese who visit annually often come with a very set agenda.
“The first reason Japanese come to Korea is for the food,” says Hoon, SFC’s marketing and promotion team manager, before quickly adding, “The second is to shop for clothes.”
Catch a Japan-bound flight out of the city and you’re likely to see more than a few Japanese women taking advantage of lax carry-on luggage regulations as they weigh themselves down with bags brimming with new purchases.
This wasn’t always the case. In an article detailing the rise of South Korean fashion in the magazine Seoul last December, Jennifer Flinn wrote: “A few years ago, any self-respecting Japanese young woman would have died of shame rather than be caught in the same outfit her Korean cousin was flaunting in Myeongdong. Now, vacationing Japanese populate those shopping corridors on clothing hunts.”
Why have so many Japanese women, and to a lesser extent men, become infatuated with Seoul’s apparel only in the last few years? Prior to the recent trend, there just wasn’t much style to be found.
After the end of the Korean War in 1953, business attire was the standard due to the country’s textile industry being one of the biggest exporters of men’s dress shirts in the world.
Economic development in the early ’90s inspired people to take more risks with their wardrobe, and designers took the opportunity to push conservative boundaries, giving birth to the currently fertile fashion environment.
“Until very recently, suits or other formal wear were requirements for men, as were dresses, high heels and makeup for women,” explains Michael Hurt, the editor in chief of Feet Man Seoul, South Korea’s first street-fashion magazine.
“As any Korean knows, a man walking the streets in the ’90s in shorts and sandals would be stared at, or a woman without makeup in an office situation would be thought of as rude or lazy.”
According to Hurt, designers were initially influenced by styles in the United States, Europe and Japan, but eventually they filtered trends from abroad through a Korean lens. As the industry strove to take on a life of its own, creators made an effort to craft something different for local consumption.
Seoul’s quick acceptance of fads from around the globe has allowed for rapid growth, but Jain Song, the founder of clothing line Jain By Jain Song, says the practice has had negative effects.
“We are very fast to absorb things from others,” says Song, who was named the “fastest-rising star in the Korean fashion circuit” last year by The Korea Herald newspaper. “We never fall behind, but this can make people look and act very similar to one another. This happens everywhere, but I think on a whole, we are less creative in making our own style and focus too much on getting new things.”
Junhee Yoo, a Korean-Japanese student who lived in Seoul for five years, agrees.
“People think that it’s cheaper, which the media has encouraged them to believe, and they think it’s different, but when they go there they find out that it’s actually similar in style and price,” says Yoo. “The department stores are expensive, and even though the markets are cheap, their quality is much lower.
“Like many Japanese I knew who lived in South Korea, I didn’t buy my clothes there very much. Most of them would come back to Japan to shop and return to Seoul with bags packed with new clothes, sometimes even to the point where they would have to ship extra boxes over.”
But others, such as Feet Man Seoul contributor Ryuji, feel that this slight sense of familiarity is one of the many attractions for consumers from abroad and locally.
“I think part of the allure of shopping here might be being able to find things that are either hard to find in one’s own country or are somehow different from the things one can usually find at home,” says the fashion diarist.
“There’s a lot of unique stuff here,” says his coworker Hurt. “A lot of it fits the cute, feminine aesthetic that a Japanese, Taiwanese or Chinese person might connect with, and the prices are right.”
Lee Ju Young, a designer for the popular brand Resurrection, points out as well that “the quality of the sewing and fabrics are quite good.”
It’s inevitable that as Seoul’s relatively young fashion world ages, it will develop its own identity, creating crazes instead of mimicking them. Due in part to the success of the K-Wave, SFC’s Kim feels this is already happening.
“Korean fashion used to follow Japanese fashion. People used to say that anything that was popular in Japan would come to Korea a month later,” explains Kim. “Now they are saying that any popular fashion items in Korea will be in Japan and China in two months.
“Koreans are more confident — now we aren’t so interested in Japanese or other countries’ fashions.”
Japanese who haven’t quite shopped till they dropped despite the twilight hour approaching can find solace in the massive Dongdaemun Market, where many shops remain open 24 hours a day. Kim cites the safety of Seoul and the late hours that many of the smaller boutiques and stores keep as part of the appeal of shopping in the city. Much lower cab fares than those found in Japan make bargain-hunting an option long after the city’s extremely affordable subway system ends its service.
“The Japanese who come here for shopping really seem to like the ‘more bang for the buck’ that many places in Seoul offer,” he suggests.
According to Shinjuku’s GM Travel, flights from Tokyo to Seoul start as low as ¥32,000 including all taxes — maybe the cheapest destination out of Japan right now. More so than the fashion, this reasonable rate, coupled with the mere 2 1/2-hour ride, will probably ensure that short holiday/shopping trips remain popular excursions for Japanese.
“We went to Seoul mostly for fun, Korean-style massage, shopping and eating,” says Chieko Omi, who flew there with her sister Makiko last month. “Cosmetics were cheaper, so we bought some for ourselves and our friends, but Japanese clothes are higher quality, so we didn’t go clothes shopping.”
Such current attitudes don’t discourage fashion locals, though.
“We have a lot to enjoy — shopping, food, history, entertainment — and Seoul’s size is just right,” the designer Song says. “It is not too big and has everything you need right here.”