Shopping in Myeongdong, an old part of town revitalized with everything from nouveau Korean street food (french fry-covered corndog and french fries on a stick, anyone?) to cutting edge indie boutiques to Seoul’s flagship Uniqlo store. Photo from flickriver.com.
I took a dream vacation last month. Not to some tropical hideaway surrounded by crystal clear waters. Not to a romantic European capital overflowing with crumbling palaces and fine wine. No, I went on a shopping vacation. To Korea.
For me, Seoul is the place to go to shop. Tokyo – too expensive. Singapore – too western. Hong Kong – too inconsistent. While Seoul may not be the bargain it used to be, the quality of goods and quantity of goods make it a shopper’s dream. So when my husband told me he was going on a once-in-a-lifetime Pebble Beach weekend with the boys, I took that as my cue to plan a once-in-a-lifetime-solely-to-shop-without-the-hubby trip with my mom.
My list was ready. Namdaemun for eyeglasses and dried vegetable chips. Myeongdong for buttery leather bags. Olive Young for beauty masks. Any subway station for pinky rings and earrings. And Dongdaemun for clothes. I was in Seoul for nine days, not including travel time. I shopped … for nine days. I’ll admit, by the sixth day, I was a little tired. So I only shopped for three hours that day. But I did go shopping all nine days. And, oh, what glorious shopping. It was everything I thought it’d be.
Not that I spent a ton of money. The beauty of shopping in Seoul is that you focus on what Koreans do best, and ignore the rest. (Anything you can buy in the States? Forget it. There’s a super high tax on imported goods and you pay a premium.) No, to make the most of shopping in Seoul, you have to know where to go and what to get. After nine days of non-stop shopping, this is what I’ve distilled.
Koreans are renown for their flawless skin, and for good reason – they reportedly have 14 steps in the average beauty regimen. And their beauty products are ingenious, technologically far advanced, adorably packaged and relatively affordable. Trending right now in Seoul are thin cotton masks (they call it “pack”) infused with snail excretions or a snake venom-like peptide hailed as a Botox alternative. The newest masks feature a two-step process that includes a post-mask cream to seal in benefits. For me, the snail mucus masks give me a really great glow the next morning, with less oil on my T-zone. It helps my makeup to really “sink in” for more natural-looking coverage.
Another big must-buy: BB cream. Sure, we’ve got BB cream now in the States, but in Seoul, they’ve got BB cream for every finish you can imagine – matte, dewy, shimmering (which means extra dewy – love it!), and for a wide range of Asian skintones. One of my favorite moments was encountering a shelf full of BB cream with descriptions and images of each color for different Asian skintones, from more olive to pinkish to golden. What a difference from going up to a Nordstrom beauty counter and having the saleswoman pull out the one yellow-based “Asian skintone” foundation. One shade does not fit us all!
But my all-time favorite beauty boutique in Seoul has to be Too Cool For School. This hip little store, located in the heart of Myeongdong, is too cool for school. The cutest packaging, the most ingenious products (BB cream in a powder compact? Rice wine scrubs?) – I can spend hours here sampling products and reading descriptions of new ways to glow-ify your skin. And they load you up on free samples with any purchase.
Here’s the dilemma. Glasses the hit my cheek when I smile. Glasses that hit my eyelashes. Glasses that are too small for my wide cheekbones. Glasses that sit too low on my bridge. Here’s the answer: Glasses (and sunglasses) that are made for the Korean face. That means they’re big, have thicker nose pads, come in funky colors and designs, and are affordable. I found Namdaemun to have the best selection and quality. Whether you want prescription glasses or just some cheapies to accessorize with (at $10-$12 a pop, you can afford to buy one for every day of the week), Namdaemun is an eyewear nirvana.
You don’t have to be a magpie to become mesmerized every time you walk through a subway station. The glitz of all that sparkle emanating from so many vendors pulls you in like gravity. Lots of good lighting makes every single ring, earring and necklace look gorgeous. A tiny star and moon? Perhaps the delicate bow? Ooo, that little dangly crystal. The designs are endless. And strategically placed photos of the hottest Korean actress or pop-star (even guys) donning exactly that design seals the deal.
For me, I had been searching for fun pinky and knuckle rings for a few years now. (It is hard to find a size 2.5 ring without going custom.) In Seoul, they were everywhere. And at more fashion-forward shopping venues, like the Doota building in Dongdaemun, I found stunning Marni-lookalike chunky plastic necklaces, bowtie necklaces (in silks, leather or pearl), and oversized cocktail rings in every permutation imaginable.
Wanna know more about visiting Seoul? Check out our review of Seoul’s über modern Incheon Airport in our Summer 2012 issue, and read more about my adventures in our upcoming Fall 2012 issue, out in early September.