People walk around the streets of Itaewon, Yongsan, which has been designated as a ``special tourism district’’ for its international cuisine and shopping attractions. / Korea Times Photo by Cathy Rose A. Garcia
By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
Itaewon, one of the most popular tourist places for food and shopping in Seoul, has drastically changed over the last few years. But while there have been obvious improvements, there are still many aspects for Itaewon to clean up its act and offer an even better image.
Designated as a ``special tourism district,’’ Itaewon attracts foreign residents and tourists mainly because of its many international restaurants and various stores. Restaurants in Itaewon have gained a reputation for offering authentic cuisine from all over the world. It is also the birthplace for many food trends in Seoul, such as ``brunch,’’ ``shwarmas’’ and ``better burgers.’’
Itaewon, however, is also practically synonymous with fake designer goods. Intellectual property rights are still blatantly being flouted in broad daylight. Not exactly the most ideal tourist place to be highlighted during a high-profile international event such as the upcoming G20 Seoul Summit in November.
As soon as one gets off at Itaewon subway station, one will see stalls selling souvenirs, cheap trinkets, as well as fake Fendi scarves, Louis Vuitton hats, Bulgari silver jewelry and Calvin Klein underwear. These blatantly fake items are only the tip of the iceberg, as the ``high quality’’ designer knock-offs being are sold in the backstreets.
The numerous street stalls also cause pedestrian traffic congestion on the sidewalks. On weekends, it is quite difficult to navigate the sidewalks as people buying goods from the stalls block the people who are trying to walk by.
The main stretch of road from Itaewon station to Noksapyeong station has definitely been spruced up. The cracked sidewalks have been paved, and even the street stalls are uniformly sized and decorated with traditional Korean drawings.
However, the backstreets are another story. Although some small restaurants have sprouted up in the area, it still seems quite seedy and dirty. This upholds a deeply held perception that Itaewon is dangerous at night.
Even traffic in the area is a problem. Numerous tourist buses are sometimes parked along the main street, causing traffic jams on the already narrow streets.
Stores for global brands like Nike, Adidas, Calvin Klein Jeans and Samsonite can be found along the main street, but people go to Itaewon for a different shopping experience. It is an open secret among locals and tourists that Itaewon is the best place to snag high quality replicas of designer bags, shoes and clothes.
At first, you’ll find some stores only have badly-made, cheap counterfeits of Coach, Gucci and Prada handbags displayed on their shelves. But as you walk around the street, you will hear the word “Gabang’’ from random men standing or loitering outside the stores.
If the word for bag piques you interest, will be led down the backstreets to a hidden location, where you can sit and flip through a Japanese magazine showing all the latest luxury handbag designs.
Almost all of the hottest styles are available ― the Balenciaga motorcycle bag, the Chanel flap purse, the Louis Vuitton Speedy bag, Chloe Paddington bag and Alexander Wang duffel bag.
And, just because it is a replica does not mean it will be dirt cheap. One vendor quoted 450,000 won for an oversized Balenciaga bag, while another charged 300,000 won for a small Chanel 2.55 purse.
Even at the Hamilton Shopping Plaza, the vendors openly sell fake handbags, alongside amethyst jewelry and ginseng products. One store owner showed a black Hermes Birkin bag for 400,000 won, but while it did have a striking resemblance to the original, one could still tell the leather was not of high quality.
``If you want a really good copy, I have one that is exactly the same as the original. But it’s expensive, it’s 800,000 won,’’ she said.
It is quite ridiculous to be paying 800,000 won for a fake purse, but some people might say it’s a ``bargain’’ compared to paying thousands of dollars for the real thing. The real Hermes Birkin bag is notoriously difficult to procure, with a long waiting list and prices range from $5,000 to upwards of $20,000.
Many of the stores also sell export overruns and good quality imitations of designer clothes. Here one will find ``almost-real’’ Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dresses, Burberry trench coats, Gucci dresses and Missoni knit tops.
The clothes look similar but the tags have been ripped out, but sometimes one can still recognize the designer brand. The prices range from 30,000 for a ``DKNY” sweater to a ``Chanel’’ tweed jacket for 65,000 won to a ``Gucci’’ fur-lined winter coat for 180,000 won. Upon closer inspection, the quality of the fabric and tailoring is sub-par.
Away from the bustle of Itaewon market, the area from Hangangjin Station to Cheil Communications Building is slowly developing as a must-go-to area, similar to Garosu-gil or the Cheongdam neighborhoods.
Some sites have already gained a reputation, such as The Spice owned by celebrity chef Edward Kwon, delicious desserts from Passion 5 and specialty cupcakes from Life is a Cup of Cake. The antique shops, Andre Kim Jewelry boutique and Comme de Garcons flagship store are attracting a young and hip clientele.
The Comme de Garcons flagship shop is located within the hard-to-miss black and white dotted building, located 200 meters from Hangangjin Station. Rose Bakery is housed on the first floor of the building, while across the street, there’s a new Japanese dessert place called Kyotofu that sells unique Chocolate Miso and Lemon Yuzu cupcakes.
This area of Itaewon is slowly being gentrified, but much improvement is yet needed. The sidewalks are still not fixed properly, and parking is still an aching headache for some restaurants and shops.
Itaewon may look like it has been given a much-needed makeover, but the changes are only on the surface. Anyone who has made a wrong turn in the backstreets knows that Itaewon still has some rough edges that need to be smoothened.
Despite all its shortcomings, Itaewon is still the most foreigner-friendly district in Seoul. There are tourism information centers, where visitors can find information in English, Chinese and Japanese. Most of the shopkeepers can also speak English or Japanese, making communication easier.