Fast Fashion vs Dongdaemun
By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
Forget about designer and luxury brands. For savvy shoppers, ``cheap and chic'' is the name of the fashion game.
Dongdaemun Market has traditionally been the fashion mecca in Seoul.
With its 27 shopping malls and 30,000 stalls offering a wide assortment of clothing, shoes and accessories from Korean manufacturers, it's one place where there is something for everyone.
In recent years, there has been an influx of international ``fast fashion'' brands, challenging local manufacturers and retailers. In Myeongdong, global retail chains Zara, Mango, Hennes & Mauritz (H&M), Uniqlo and Forever 21 have opened shops.
Since both Dongdaemun and fast fashion brands boast of providing fashionable clothing and accessories at inexpensive prices, The Korea Times hit the fast fashion shops in Myeongdong and the stalls in Dongdaemun to find out if it's true.
Global Fast Fashion in Myeongdong
The streets of popular shopping district Myeongdong are now dominated by international fast fashion retailers like Zara, Uniqlo, Forever 21, Mango, Gap and now H&M. Homegrown label SPAO recently jumped into the competition for the fickle wallets of Korean shoppers.
For everyday basics, Japanese fashion retailer Uniqlo is the undisputed leader, in terms of variety, quality and price. While many of its sweaters, cotton shirts and dresses range from 19,000 to 39,000 won, Uniqlo upped its style quotient by collaborating with iconic German designer Jil Sander on the +J Collection, which features coats, shirts and jackets but at a higher price point. It also recently introduced UJ, a line of jeans that focus on fit, fabric and finish, ranging from 29,000 to 79,000 won.
SPAO is a brand launched by Korean retail conglomerate E-Land to challenge Uniqlo at its game. Located next door to its Japanese counterpart, SPAO offers casual clothing, as seen with the stacks of candy-colored hoodies, graphic T-shirts and skinny jeans. Jackets (39,000 won) and shirts (9,900 won), with designs worn by popular Korean groups Girls' Generation and SuperJunior, are proving to be best-sellers among fans and tourists.
Forever 21, a U.S. company owned by a Korean-American businessman, is very popular among the younger crowd for its trendy offerings. The flagship store, located at M Plaza, carries a wide selection of clothing and accessories. With fresh stocks coming in every day, shoppers will almost always find something new to buy.
On the upside, prices at Forever 21 are reasonable, although it seems slightly higher than retail prices in the U.S. For instance, a lime green belted knit dress is sold for 39,000 won in Seoul, compared to $29 (around 33,000 won) on the U.S. Web site. However, the styles are somewhat too trendy, which would likely last only one season before being thrown away.
Spanish brand Zara offers stylish, sophisticated and well-made garments for young working women. Zara has a distinct feminine style that is tasteful and modern, which is perhaps why shoppers find the prices reasonable for its quality. Light knit dresses start at 69,000 won, while classic trench coats are 149,000 won and office blazers 119,000 won.
Swedish fashion giant H&M only opened its flagship store at Noon Square last weekend, but it has already attracted thousands of shoppers.
All four floors were packed, as people scrambled over flirty frocks, bleached denim jackets, distressed jeans and spring coats. Unsurprisingly, the rainbow-striped sweaters and knit dresses by French designer Sonia Rykiel for H&M quickly flew off the shelves.
However, the most disappointing thing about H&M was the pricing. Items appeared to be more than twice or even three times the prices in the U.S. and other countries.
For instance, a denim jacket was priced at 59,000 won (around $50), but a check at H&M.com's U.S. Web site revealed the exact same jacket was only $14.99 (excluding tax) or around 18,000 won. In Hong Kong, the same jacket was advertised on its Web site for only HK$149 or US$19.99.
It seems while these stores offer up-to-the-minute trends and designer-inspired clothing, it's not as ``cheap'' in Korea as in other countries.
Dongdaemun, one of Seoul's oldest shopping districts, is defined by the towering shopping malls that offer a homegrown version of ``fast fashion.''
The market opened in 1905, but was transformed into a modern fashion town with the introduction of shopping malls in the 1990s.
The 24-hour wholesale and retail shopping area quickly became known as a one-stop shop for fashion and accessories. According to the Dongdaemun Special Fashion Town Council, daily gross sales in the market are around 50 billion won and it accommodates a daily floating population of one million.
It is impossible to check out all the stalls in the 27 malls in the area, so most young people flock to the multi-level shopping malls. Doota, Hello apM, Migliore, GoodMorningCity and Cerestar, located along the main road, offer floors of clothing, shoes, bags, accessories and jewelry targeted at young men and women. It usually opens at 10:30 a.m. and closes at 5 a.m. the next day.
Doota, perhaps the most popular mall, looks and feels like a department store with its sleek and tasteful interior. While its stalls have the usual mass-produced items, there are also innovative designs from up-and-coming brands such as Small Friends, J Moon by Moon Jinyoung and Contemporary Space.
Unlike most of the market where haggling is almost a requirement, Doota requires all its sellers to have fixed price tags. It prevents sellers from arbitrarily hiking the prices for customers, especially tourists.
There are some pricey items at Doota stalls, such as a leather jacket for 429,000 won and yellow snakeskin pumps for 178,000 won, but also some relatively cheap ones like vintage T-shirts for 15,000 won and lacy tops for 20,000 won.
Flower print dresses, which are expected to be another trend this spring, range from 40,000 to 60,000 won, almost similarly priced to ones found in Zara or H&M.
Migliore and Hello apM cater to a mostly youthful crowd, hence the stalls usually sell casual clothing such as bright colored hoodies, cartoon character-logoed T-shirts, ripped jeans and mini-skirts. There are a handful of stalls selling men's and women's suits, with small signs that indicate these are copies of Prada or Chanel, at a small fraction of the price of the originals. The prices are cheap, like 5,000 to 10,000 won for T-shirts and 20,000 won for skirts, but there are usually no price tags.
On the other side of Dongdaemun market, the wholesale clothing markets, such as Pyounghwa Clothing Market, Jeilpyeonghwa Market, Designer Club, Area 6, Nuzzon and U:US, open around 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.
A slightly older crowd usually ventures out to these markets, where prices can be cheaper but only if one has the patience to look, compare and haggle.
Designer Club offers a good selection of women's clothing, with black jackets at 20,000 won and printed A-line skirts for 20,000 won. At Nuzzon, acid washed skinny jeans were on sale for 17,000 won and pastel-colored spring coats were 25,000 won, while Jeilpyeonghwa Market had some men's suits for around 40,000 to 50,000 won.
Dongdaemun has a uniquely Korean charm, with its maze of stalls, bustling atmosphere and overwhelming crowds. Prices are a tad lower than global fast fashion brands, but not as cheap as people might expect. Another concern is the lack of sizes, since T-shirts are usually available in one size, while dresses, jeans and pants are available in limited sizes.
If you want to get a feel for the excitement of Dongdaemun, go there on a Friday or Saturday night, with a pair of comfortable walking shoes, lots of patience and energy. Also bring cash since additional discounts are usually given for cash payments. Be ready to haggle. Many of the wholesale malls are closed on Sunday, while retail malls are closed on Monday.