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Adventures in Fashion… Sort of.

Abrupt Departure, Fashion, Dongdaemun Shopping Center, Seoul, Korea

Last week, in an effort to increase my meager sweater collection, I decided to visit one of Seoul’s largest fashion districts, Dongdaemun market. A guidebook I’ve been using had this to say on Dongdaemun:

Twenty-six shopping malls, 30,000 specialty shops and 50,000 manufacturers. All within a 10-block radius. . . . [F]or fashion junkies looking for unique designs at decent prices, Dongdaemun is the place to go.

Sounds promising, no? Being the intrepid explorer that I am, I outfitted myself with every conceivable necessity I could want for and headed on my way. Getting there was easy enough (maps and an iPod featured prominently), but when I emerged from the subway station, I was assaulted by the swirling chaos around me. This was not Macy’s.

More often that I’d like to admit, I find myself standing in the middle of a crowded sidewalk trying to figure out what the hell is going on: my mouth is agape; my eyes are straining as I look for English signage; I turn frantically from right to left to right again; I talk to myself under my breath and sometime even sputter aloud. I’m that guy. Usually I’m aware enough of my surroundings to avoid being a clot in the arteries of a busy thoroughfare. When I can, I walk with the flow of foot traffic until I can find a safe eddy in which to stop and get my bearings, but in Dongdaemun, there were no such eddies because the sidewalk was clogged with vendors selling leather jackets and boiled fish cakes on a stick. Because the Korean people with whom I was sharing the sidewalk were not dawdling and window-shopping, I knew I had few options. These people meant business. To avoid being literally murdered by an ajumma or run down by a messenger on a motorbike, I allowed myself to be swept unceremoniously into the nearest building, the Dongdaemun Shopping Center. It seemed as good a place as any to begin my sweater hunt…

I was not prepared for what I found: hundreds and hundreds of independent stalls selling textiles of all kinds. Imagine if instead of produce, the farmer’s market sold fabric.

This was everywhere. Everywhere.

And the place was packed, both the booths and the pathways between them. Oh my God, I thought, Is this how Koreans buy their clothing? Do they get everything tailor made?! How do I know which kinds of fabrics will work for which kinds of garments? How do I know how much to buy? How will I explain all of this to a vendor who speaks no English? Although one in ten stalls seemed to have some loose theme—pastel plaid or wool for suits, for example—most of what I saw before me was a bird’s nest of clashing prints and colors presided over by a press of Korean salesmen jockeying for attention. Not my attention, mind you—they knew I was out of place—but the attention of the throngs of Koreans carrying notebooks with lists and diagrams.

I didn’t have my wide angle lens on me so I couldn’t capture the effect, but it was packed. To the roof beams. And look! There in the background is one of the notebook-wielding Korean ladies!

By this point in my story, a savvy reader, especially one who has any experience with garment construction, will have guessed that I was not actually in some nightmare version of a Korean mall. I had inadvertently wandered into the fabric market that feeds the many tailor shops of Seoul. With that realization, my horror melted away and I began to explore.

Fabric stored in every conceivable manner

All the drag queens in San Francisco couldn’t exhaust Dongdaemun’s supply of feather boas.

When viewed as an art installation, rather than a tool for using, Dongdaemun Shopping Complex became a study in foreign culture. Not Korean culture, but the culture of tailors. As a baker, I know what it means to be this kind of target demographic, so it was fascinating to wander through a four-story building dedicated to a single industry. There were lace shops and shops filled with furs.

And not a GreenPeace protest in sight… Koreans don’t tolerate that kind of thing.

There were boutiquey stalls staffed by fashionable twenty-somethings and  traditional stalls guarded by scowling oldsters.  Between these shops and the scooter-mounted delivery guys waiting outside travelled wizened old men (fabric sherpas?) with walking sticks and fabric-laden wooden brackets strapped to their backs. If I spoke the language and were I a radio documentarian, I would totally interview these guys. I bet they have some interesting stories…

The fabric sherpas were EVERYWHERE, and most of them carried much more than this guy. Don’t get in his way. He’s been doing this since before you were born.

After exploring the fabric market, I eventually found what an American would recognize as a mall, but alas, no sweater (Problems: I am an XXL, and I refuse to wear Rick Santorum’s rejected sweater vests). There’s more to be said about THAT experience, but this post is long enough. Suffice it to say, I’m really, really glad I stocked our wardrobe as well as I did before leaving for Korea. I can’t imagine that Korea takes kindly to nudism.

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