South Korea isn’t a ‘first choice’ destination for many vacationers, but fashion-minded travelers will want to give Seoul a look. The Itaewon district there is crammed with custom tailors; leather shops and high-fashion boutiques offering discount prices.
Itaewon has a main thru fare with lots of tourist shopping and dining, but the leather goods and fashion vendors are a major draw. You can purchase custom-tailored leather jackets for around $125 and most of the good shops will offer your tailoring by day’s end if you arrive in the morning. The same goes for the suits. A custom fit takes only a half hour, sometimes more, sometimes less, and the suit can be ready for pickup within 24 hours. All sizes, patterns, materials and colors are available. You can come in with your own specifications or pick from an endless supply of catalogs.
Tourists are often amused by the names of these shops, which come in a wide array of good and bad English. “Mama Bag,” “Friend Shop” and “Baby Hunt” are all clothing and accessory stores. Half the fun of shopping in Itaewon is the slightly surreal atmosphere of enthusiastic vendors, odd names and unique souvenir items like the piles of diving helmets and brass temple bells you’ll see along the street. You can also pick up an array of local religious iconography including temple dogs, statues of the Buddha, and various incarnations of Hindu and Christian spiritual figures.
There are also plenty of vendors along the main street selling leather and suits off the rack for incredible prices. Some of these are of dubious origin, however. Beware of knockoffs and stolen property. One merchant sold Gap leather jackets retailing at $225 but with all labels crudely removed from the jacket. The price? $75.
Another vendor hawked Gucci watches for $25. These kinds of purchases may sound like a steal, but beware-you can get into a lot of trouble from the Customs agent for trying to bring pirated or stolen designer goods through the Customs line. Penalties are high, including fines and possible jail time for certain types and quantities of merchandise.
There are legitimate bargains to be had on name brand clothes. Some flea market type stalls in Itaewon sell brand names like North Face and Alpine for incredibly low prices. The low-priced goods are buried in piles of inferior clothes, which gives the impression the vendors don’t understand the value of the Eddie Bauer or Gap label. These bargains are legitimate and well worth a look. It’s easy to feel slightly guilty getting such great deals based on the ignorance of a shopkeeper, but Itaewon vendors sell high quantities of merchandise year-round thanks to the presence of American military bases in the region.
Designer bags are a popular item in the shopping district. Louis Vuitton, Prada and other famous names are in good supply here. There are shops that will custom design your handbags, carrying cases and other bags for a good price. They use imitation designer materials, practically indistinguishable from the real thing. This is a bit of a gray area when it comes to customs-if your handmade bags have no designer imprint on them, are they technically counterfeit? Ask a Customs agent on your way into the country for assistance with these purchases, as the rules governing them seem to change from time to time. What is perfectly legitimate today may be illegal tomorrow because of the controversy over pirated goods from Asian countries.
Shopping in Itaewon is a fun and exciting experience. If you come to South Korea with a bag full of clothing designs; you’ll come home with a pile of custom clothing. You can also dive into the market with no plans or wants at all, but chances are you will find something that you can’t live without. It’s the nature of Itaewon, where there truly is shopping for everyone.