Posted : 2008-08-08 16:40
Updated : 2008-08-08 16:40

Book Explores Fashion Districts and Women

A map of the Apgujeong and Cheongdam-dong areas in southern Seoul that also branches out to parts of Sinsa-dong that appears in the chick lit ``Apgujeong Diary.'' This area is home to luxury brand shops, department stores, cafe/bars/restaurants as well as spas and plastic surgery clinics.
/ Courtesy of Sodam

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

A young woman can often be spotted on the streets of southern Seoul. While chatting on her Prada-LG phone, she totes a limited edition Louis Vuitton bag by Richard Prince and sips on a low-fat Starbucks soy latte. She enjoys ``Sex and the City''-style brunches and swears by the Manolos that the hit TV show preaches. She is the quintessential ``doenjangnyeo,'' or literally soybean paste girl, who has come to symbolize a consumption-driven lifestyle that inspires both awe and contempt.

When doenjangnyeo entered popular vocabulary a couple of years ago, it spurred nation-wide ``controversy.'' The heat has died down, and the all-too familiar term seems to have become the topic of passing jokes. It is even accepted as a way of life ― pop singer Seo In-young and her blatant love of ``sinsang'' (sinsangpum) or the latest product, upgraded her stardom to superstardom.

The Apgujeong and Cheongdam-dong areas, with their long line of couture brand shops and omnipresent valet parking, represent the fleeting trends of the youthful consumer group and homeland of the doenjang girls. It is where ``Rodeo safari,'' or hot wheels like Lamborghini's, cruise slowly through the Rodeo drive of Apgujeong-dong.

``Apgujeong Diary,'' a best-selling chick lit novel by up and coming TV scriptwriter Chung Soo-yeon, endorses the so-called doenjang life. It takes readers to every nook and cranny of the Apgujeong/Cheongdam-dong area and provides helpful tips, like how to dress for a night of clubbing at hotspot Circle, and where to grab a late night snack in the neighborhood. The book traces the romance and daily life of a woman who applies make-up with precision and care to head to a gym ― where hot celebrities and potential dates linger ― and speaks of switching boyfriends weekly like manicures.

Local bookstores are full of books scrutinizing the daily life of a doenjang girl, but among others ``Cheongdam-dong Women'' (Sigongsa: 228 pp., 12,000 won) stands out. This critical essay by fashion columnist Ouchan Shim challenges popular belief about this unique strain of women.

Bashing Myths About Doenjang Girls

Shim, a former Tokyo resident who splits his time between Paris and Seoul, is a popular writer for major fashion magazines like ``Vogue.'' He is also known for orchestrating hallyu actress Song Hye-kyo's project to launch her own line of handbags with French brand Celine, which was a big hit last year. In his second book since ``Paris Women, Seoul Women'' (Sigongsa: 2004), Shim writes as both an insider and outsider ― as a guy pal of these women victimized by the doenjang label and fashion leader who knows Cheongdam-dong by heart, but also with a foreign eye that can discern aspects of a very familiar yet distant place and its people.

The book is divided into three parts: general analysis and categorization of Cheongdam-dong women; selective case studies looking into the secret lives of the subjects; and finally a more general portrait of the Korean feminine spirit outside of the Cheongdam-dong habitat. What could have stopped short of being an overstated, run-on opinion column trying to mimic a scientific observation becomes at once insightful, as an honest set of thoughts about one's surroundings aided by the use of intriguing anecdotes.

Moreover, the author, a self-proclaimed feminist who constantly quotes Simone de Beauvoir, writes with both the greatest affection and criticism of ``the women who have come to symbolize Korea yet can never define her.'' He begins by pointing out the highly derogatory nature of the doenjang girl concept. Armani suit-clad, Prada briefcase-sporting men who pour out of Star Tower in Yeoksam-dong, which is home to top business firms, never get snubbed as doenjang boys, he says.

Contrary to the common stereotype, however, Shim argues, ``Cheongdam-dong women'' are not Louis Vuitton-sporting, Starbucks-sipping doenjang girls. These women do not wear readily identifiable clothing and accessories, and some go as far as to rip off the labels of designer clothing. Nor do they frequent the American coffee chain ― the one in Cheongdam-dong doesn't have valet parking and their picky taste buds are already accustomed to the gourmet coffee of cafe/bistros like Harue.

The author analyzes, thus, the women's sometimes unwitting role as true trend spotters and setters, and goes as far as saying ``the trend in Cheongdam-dong is thereby the truth.'' He discerns five types of women to be found in the venue: Hermes Berkin bag-carrying housewives who set consumer patterns in the arts and culture scene (but not everyone who's rich and lives in Cheongdam-dong fits under this category); Cheongdam royalty who have their own sense of style and aren't affected by seasonal fashion collections; Ferragamo headband girls who idolize Vera Wang wedding gowns; celebrities passing through in their Starcraft vans; and the observers that experience culture shock.

The entries on both typical and atypical cases of women from each subgroup read like juicy gossip, but are ridden with poignant observations. In the latter part of the book, Shim goes on to make sharp comments about institutions that undermine women: the Miss Korea pageant (which is currently creating a huge debate over the crown-winner's ``questionable'' looks) despite its increasingly brains and beauty appeal, continues to undermine women, and how the popular TV show ``Beauties Chatterbox'' has deteriorated from shedding light upon issues like the difficulties foreign brides and bar girls face in Korea to being an ``American Idol''-like star making program.

All the same, the author himself comes from an industry that is often condemned for generating this consumer-driven lifestyle, complete with cellophane-thin models. Schoolgirls are not put off even by eating disorders to fit into the beauty standard du jour and prostitute themselves in illicit rendezvous with middle-aged men to get their hands on a Gucci bag (but Shim, too, points this out). The book thus raises questions that the author and reader have yet to answer.
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