Romantic vintage accessories can be found at Romiwa, a store specializing in vintage clothing and shoes, located in Hongdae.
/ Korea Times Photos by Cathy Rose A. Garcia
By Cathy Rose A. Garcia, Hwang Sung-hee
Vintage shopping, according to Project Runway's Tim Gunn, ``used to be the turf of the eccentric and bohemian.''
``The idea of wearing old clothes was simply not mainstream. It wasn't until the early '90s and the ascendancy of grunge that vintage really hit the mainstream. Grunge as a fashion moment passed but the doors of vintage clothing shops had been thrown open, never to close. Subsequent trends meant interest in vintage has waxed and waned, but just barely. It has successfully permeated the red carpet, and instead of suggesting eccentricity, now suggests taste, a good eye and subtlety,'' Gunn said, in his book ``A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style.''
Vintage fashion is fast gaining ground in Seoul. More young and hip people are heading to second-hand shops in Hongdae, Samcheong-dong, and even Gwangjang Market to find one-of-a-kind, stylish items.
Lee Yu-mi, who owns Romiwa vintage shop in Hongdae and a big fan of second-hand clothing herself, says vintage appeals to individuals with distinct styles and tastes.
``Today, boring trends and mass-produced clothes dominate the fashion industry. There are only one-of-a-kind vintage items, so it's very unlikely that another person will be wearing the same clothes as me. … Anyone can buy high-end designer items if they have the money, but with vintage, only one person can have that one distinct piece. There are things money can't buy,'' Lee told The Korea Times.
Located in Jongno, Gwangjang is famous for its ``meokjagolmok,'' an alley filled with food stalls offering appetizing Korean snacks like ``nokdu bindaetteok'' (mung bean pancake) and ``bori bibimbap'' (barley rice with wild vegetables). It is one of the oldest markets in Seoul, with hundreds of stores selling textiles, traditional hanbok, fresh fruits, magazines, plants, clothes, shoes, bags, toys and imported food products from the United States. and Japan.
Unknown to many, the second and third floors of Gwangjang Market are filled with stalls selling second-hand clothing, mostly from Japan. Every day, tons of clothes, shoes, bags and other items are literally being dumped there.
The market may seem chaotic at first, with the maze of stalls that look eerily similar and the narrow aisles jammed with people. A musty scent fills the air, while stalls are overflowing with heaps of used clothing, bags and shoes. (Pay close attention since some ajummas were spotted sleeping on top of their wares.)
To make it easier for shoppers, some storeowners have neatly arranged shirts and sweaters by brand (Lacoste and Polo Ralph Lauren seem to be the most popular). Racks are also filled with skirts, dresses, jackets, pants and denim jeans. Used caps, leather bags, neckties, scarves, hats and shoes, and even stuffed toys, are also sold at the market.
Look hard enough to find some of this season's hottest trends like furry vests, plaid shirts and floral dresses.
Prices are cheap, but not as low as you would expect for second-hand clothes. Wool Ralph Lauren sweaters and colorful Gap cardigans were being sold for 10,000 won. A handful of designer items like a red Armani trench coat (it was being sold for 40,000 won) and a Burberry jacket were spotted, although their authenticity cannot be ascertained.
Kim Jee-ah, a 23-year-old student, often goes to the market to hunt for unusual T-shirts and retro dresses. She says she is bored with the same styles offered at the department stores, not to mention the expensive price tags.
``It's fun for me, and it saves me money. It can be tiring looking through all the clothes. But it's worth it, especially when I find something, like a leather jacket that's really cool and it's only 30,000 won,'' Kim said.
Despite the relatively cheap prices, stall owners are also being affected by the economic crisis. ``There seems to be less shoppers now because of the recession,'' said a stall owner, who has been working at the market for 30 years.
Pawing through used and sometimes dirty clothing at a market may not appeal to everyone. Thankfully, there are several quaint boutiques that sell nice and clean clothing items that have been carefully selected from other flea markets and vintage shops in the U.S., Japan and Europe.
Luna was the first vintage shop to open along Geotgoshipeun-gil in Hongdae. With its eye-catching display and collection of sexy and cute clothes, Luna has attracted a diverse clientele for the last five years. Prices are affordable, ranging from 9,900 for blouses to 35,000 for dresses.
Han Ji-yoon, owner of Luna, said the shop's customers include students, theater people, stylists and top stars like K-pop group Wonder Girls and actress Lee Young-ae.
``We were the first vintage shop to open in this street five years ago. The other shops followed our lead. Now there are several vintage shops here,'' Han said.
True enough, there are several other vintage shops along the same street. Romiwa stands out from the other vintage shops with its pink facade and chocolate brown signboard.
Stepping into the shop, it feels as if a treasure chest of special old-style tems has just been opened. The shop is overflowing with girlish vintage dresses, vivid pumps and antique jewelry that will entice any shopper. Romiwa has charmed many regular customers over the last four years with their consistently well-selected vintage pieces. The neat display is a treat for the eyes and it eliminates the need to go through piles of clothes, which some might find to be a hassle.
Lee, the owner, makes frequent trips abroad where she scavenges through various second-hand shops and flea markets.
``Over the last ten years, I've grown to be a very picky vintage shopper. I don't select a piece just because it looks pretty to the eyes. I look at the design, the fit and small details like buttons. Of course, you can't forget about the condition of the piece,'' explained Lee.
Although Romiwa's prices are higher than other shops (dresses are priced around 50,000 won), there is a good reason for that. Lee makes sure the clothes are clean and pressed before selling it in the shop. Clothes with outdated styles (think wide shoulders and unnecessarily long skirts) are tailored to have a more updated look. Romiwa also offers online shopping through their Web site at http://www.romiwa.com.
Another shop, Vintage Mama, offers vintage dresses in light airy fabrics, paisley prints and florals (price is fixed at 19,000 won), as well as second-hand leather bags.
Vintage Mama owner Shin Young-ju said the shop has been open for a year, and sells a mix of old and new clothes. When asked where the store gets its vintage clothes, she said ``it's a secret.''
For anyone who aspires for that Louis Vuitton purse but cannot quite afford the hefty price tag at the flagship store, there's another option. Head to Rodeo Street in Apgujeong where there are rows of ``junggo myeongpum'' or used luxury goods stores.
In these hard times, one shop assistant said there are more people selling their designer bags and watches for quick cash.
Second-hand designer bags, watches, shoes, clothes and jewelry, most of which were barely used, are sold at 40 to 60 percent off the regular price at the shops. The price and quality of the luxury goods vary drastically from store to store.
Shelves are lined with designer handbags from Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci, Dior and Hermes. For example, a little-used large LV Neverfull tote bag had a 750,000 won price tag, while a worn out suede Chanel shoulder bag was selling for only 600,000 won.
These used luxury goods stores are just the place for people who still want their fix of designer goods but at a discounted price.
Tips for Vintage Shopping
Vintage shopping is not for everyone. If you're looking for a specific dress or a certain coat, you will almost surely end up being disappointed. The thrill of vintage shopping comes from unexpectedly finding a beautiful item or something you really love.
At Gwangjang Market, it is almost impossible to try the clothes on since there are no dressing rooms. You should be prepared to make some alterations on the clothes.
Before buying anything, check for stains, holes, missing buttons, discoloration and other damages. Also make sure the zippers are functioning on pants and jeans. Wash the clothes or have them dry-cleaned before you wear them.
Always remember to be practical. A lovely designer dress that's too small is not worth buying even if its only 5,000 won. What good is a bargain if you can never wear it?