A Buying Spree In Once Pricey Seoul
Kim Hyun Ho can barely keep up with demand. As he flips through orders in his cramped A-One Custom Tailor shop in Seoul, a Japanese calls to order his second suit in four months. Why not? Kim's outfits are $200 apiece.
Once the seventh-most-expensive city in the world, Seoul has become a shopper's delight. Since the won crashed in December, leather goods, clothes, and antiques are selling at unbelievable prices if you have hard currency. Antique chests that fetch $4,000 in San Francisco cost $400 in Seoul's shops, and department stores sell designer women's wear at appealing prices. An influx of shoppers keeps top Korean hotels more than 80% full.
You'll want to visit Itaewon's 1.5-kilometer shopping stretch. A 10-minute drive from downtown, this district offers low prices and shopkeepers conversant in English and Japanese. For the best deals, hit shops in the alleys off Itaewon Road, the main drag. One tailor shop popular among diplomats is Hyundai Town Custom Tailor, in an alley off the Hyundai Town shopping complex (8-22-793-5112). Owner Tony Hur can make a man's suit in 48 hours for between $180 and $300. If you're in a rush, he'll visit your hotel for measurements and fittings and deliver a garment in 36 hours. Or visit the above-mentioned Kim Hyun Ho's A-One (8-22-792-7294), popular among Japanese visitors. It's on the second floor of the Hamilton Store midway in the Itaewon shopping stretch.
For even higher-quality workmanship, head downtown to Sogong-Dong Road. Try GQ Custom Tailor shop, (8-22-752-9594) in the Plaza Hotel or Haechang Custom Tailor (8-22-752-2733) nearby. You'll pay $600 for a fine wool suit, vs. at least $1,000 in New York. Fabrics are usually Korean, but imported woolens are available.
Itaewon also boasts great buys in leather. Most items bearing brand names are knockoffs, although some genuine goods are smuggled in by local suppliers. Wako leather handbags, which resemble the upscale Coach line, sell for $50. Tumi computer bags and Bree shoulder bags go for $100. And check out the antique wooden chests on sale in the district. "They're 30% to 40% cheaper than a few months ago, in dollar terms," says Song Suk Yung, general manager of Itaewon's largest antique shop, Ko Jeon (8-22-796-6194).
Start your search for chests not in Itaewon, however, but by strolling along Insa-dong in central Seoul. Visit Tongin Store (8-22-733-4827), which sells antiques and reproductions at fixed prices. Then head back to Itaewon, where prices are better. Begin at Chosun Antique Shop (8-22-793-3726). Located at the corner of Itaewon Road and the street leading to the Hyatt Hotel, the store has chests dating from 1850. The knowledgeable manager, H.S. Paek, will explain a chest's history and point out repairs and touch-ups. A 100-year-old, two-tiered clothing chest sells for $400 to $700. Wedding boxes the size of a fat briefcase and used by bridegrooms to store jewelry and family documents cost less than $200. There are plenty of fakes, especially cheaply made modern Chinese copies. But reputable dealers will specify in writing if an item was repaired.
INTREPID. Items more than 200 years old may not leave the country, so you may want to settle for reproductions. A well-made end table sells for only $100. Shopkeepers will pack small items for you to carry home, or will ship large ones for an extra $200. Arranging transportation and paperwork on your own may not be worth the hassle.
Really intrepid shoppers should visit central Seoul's wholesale markets at Namdaemun (South Gate) or Dongdaemun (East Gate). You'll find deals on leather, clothes, handicrafts, art, and ceramics. The problem is language. But the Seoul Hilton has singled out 21 dealers at Namdaemun market, three-minutes' walk from the hotel. They display yellow "Hilton Friendly Shop" signs and normally have English-speaking sales staff. The Hilton supplies maps with their locations. For the ultimate in bargains, this is the place.