Koreans are sometimes known as the Italians of Asia, for their willingness to give themselves over to high emotion. Nowhere is this more apparent than in stores. No one beats the shoppers of Seoul for sheer fervour, whether they're trolling for Ann Demeulemeester knock-off bags or military tunics from Korean brand Bean Pole International.
Fashion districts dot the map of this sprawling city. For a sample of both ends of the fashion spectrum, you can't beat Apgujeong and the adjacent Cheongdam Fashion District - for international brands and South Korean labels - and Dongdaemun Shopping Mall Town, for quality fakes as well as edgy fashion-forward designers. If you've got the money and stamina, it's easy enough to do both districts in one day, thanks to the excellent subway and affordable taxis.
Apgujeong and Cheongdam Fashion District This area, south of the Han River, which bisects the city, features broad tree-lined streets and twisty laneways full of retail treasures. It offers the ultimate in upmarket shopping, with all the usual suspects from Prada to Jil Sander. Ladies who lunch flock here from all over Asia.
If you visit at night, check out the façade of the posh Galleria department store ( www.galleria.co.kr), which anchors the area. With 4,300 glass discs pumping out 16 million colours of light, Galleria lights up the night as multicoloured waves crash across its shiny skin.
But to make a day of it, start at Butterfinger Pancakes, an American-style diner, for chocolate pancakes (82 (2) 3448-1070). Then hit the nearby Designer Shoe Alley (between Galleria and Gucci) for South Korean designer shoes in wild styles that won't be in North America for another year.
Duck into Whoo Spa Palace for a ritzy rubdown using herbs and massage techniques developed for the Korean royal family (82-8-0022-0303). Later, Xian (82-2-512-1998) is an elegant choice for dinner, with its silk-hung dining room and food that flawlessly combines Asian and continentalinfluences.
For a late night on the town, try Platoon Kunsthalle (82-2-3447-1191; www.kunsthalle.com), dedicated to street art, club culture and political action while featuring four concurrent exhibits, a resto-bar and an event hall where DJs spin.
Apgujeong Station, Subway Line 3; Cheongdam Station, Subway Line 7.
Dongdaemun Shopping Mall Town Located near the Great East Gate in central Seoul, Dongdaemun is one part village market and one part city of the future. There are street stalls selling cheap goods, a bustling wholesale market, and 20 high-rise malls in fancifully designed structures ranging from glass cylinders to neon-trimmed pyramids. Doota ( www.doota.com) is the craziest of these - shopping as funhouse experience. (Its motto is "FASHION IS WAR!")
Once the young crowd has pushed you past the entrance court where a Korean-pop boy band covers the Arctic Monkeys' Scummy Man , eight floors await, with 1,400 packed-in boutiques featuring everything from young Korean designers (in Basement 1), as well as high quality luxury knock-offs. The third floor's bag and shoe offerings - Marc Jacobs and Miu Miu - are staggering and plausible.
But finding anything in particular demands patience. The stores, packed cheek by jowl, are really stalls and stands, nooks and crannies - all of them open-fronted and most no more than three metres wide, merchandise so thickly stacked and hung and otherwise arrayed that shopping becomes a true treasure hunt.
Often the shoppers themselves are more fascinating than the fashion, hunting in prides up and down the heavily mirrored escalators. They cry out in ecstasy over dresses so layered, flapped and zipped you could camp out in them - and the best T-shirts anywhere. I fought a 13-year-old boy for a "TOUCH ME I'M SICK" tee (South Korea has thousands of H1N1 cases), but one of his confreres gave me a tae kwon do sucker chop and all was lost.
Dongaemun Subway Station, Subway Line 4. Some malls are open 24 hours a day, while others open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Special to The Globe and Mail
* * * Where to stay
LOTTE HOTEL SEOUL 82 (2) 771-1000; www.lottehotelseoul.com. New, deluxe double rooms from $227. An upmarket business hotel, mixing vaguely belle époque opulence with traditional Korean touches. The Lotte has recently doubled its size - ask for a room in the new tower.
EASTGATE TOWER HOTEL 82 (2) 3407-0700; www.eastgatehotel.kr. Doubles from $100 through www.agoda.com. Opened in June, this basic hotel (a two-minute walk from Doota) offers studios with kitchens and washer-dryer units. Very popular with young Japanese shoppers in town for a spree.
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