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Searching for Heart of Discount Buying in Seoul

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A lot of consumer goods that used to be labeled “Made in U.S.A.” are now labeled “Made in Korea.” Much of this merchandise is sold at discounted prices in Itaewon shopping district in the heart of Seoul. And American tourists are flocking there to buy the bargains.

Itaewon has catered to foreigners for centuries. During the late 1500s, the area provided shelter for invading Japanese warriors. At that time, the district became known as Etain-dong (place of foreigners).

American military personnel are quartered at nearby Yongsan. Modern Itaewon has grown up around the base, with dozens of shops, boutiques and arcades overflowing with merchandise. The main shopping street is four blocks long, and alleys branch off to both sides. These, too, are congested with shops. There are hundreds of retail outlets.

Economic Success Story

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In some ways, the area exemplifies Korea’s remarkable economic success story. In the past 30 years, the national habit of hard work has turned postwar devastation into modern industrial productivity. As an outlet for Korean-made goods, Itaewon is a showcase for Korea’s phenomenal progress. In the past 10 years, the district has become famous among non-military travelers and has attracted bargain hunters from around the world.

A typical shopping list might include leather and eel skin apparel and accessories, custom or ready-to-wear clothing, sporting attire and accessories, lacquerware, pottery, luggage, brassware and jewelry of topaz or amethyst. These products are duplicated in several shops. That keeps competition high and prices low. If one shop doesn’t have what you want, go next door. Merchandise will be slightly different, prices similar. Bargaining is expected, and you don’t always have to initiate it. Frequently, a shopkeeper will cut his initial price in half, if you seem disinterested.

You can get a quick overview of the sorts of things available by stopping in at any of the duty-free shops. These are small department stores, for foreigners only. Duty-free does not mean best price, nor does “for foreigners only” mean best quality. But the shops are convenient.

Abundance of Porcelain

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Products range from ladies eel skin wallets with many compartments ($24) and men’s lambskin blazers ($120) and leather bomber jackets ($75) to lacquer jewelry cases ($43) and strands of silk-covered beads (80 cents each, in 16 colors). Korean celadon porcelain, with its lovely green finish, is abundant. A decorated vase costs $24, the plain vase of higher quality is $35. Smoky topaz and amethyst are set in gold and silver. Prices vary with size and quality, and it’s best to know your stones before buying these uncertified specimens.

Korea House (123-13 Itaewon) has a collection of goods, including celadon, eel skin, lacquerware and dolls. Men’s kidskin jackets are $45; trendy bulky leather jackets with big pockets are $110. There is also a fine sampling of wall ornaments with hand-carved gourds adorned with intricate decoration and tassels of brightly colored silk rope ($10 to $20).

Brass trinkets are also sold at Korea House, but a better source especially for furniture and larger items, is the Brass Garden (60-4 Itaewon), with two floors of glittering brass goods. On the second floor are brass beds, ranging in style from square-edged modern designs, to sunbursts of brass and the ultimate in curlicue, with full canopy ($240-$800). There are brass baby cribs ($190) and single sizes surrounded on three sides by shiny brass trim. The ground floor is a world of small accessories. Brass eagles and ducks serve as bookends ($5-$10); lamps in all sorts of shapes stand, sit or hang; dozens of picture frames await photos ($13). The shop will ship purchases; the average price to send a bed to the United States is $90.

A Liking for Lacquerware

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Lacquerware tables, chests, screens, trays and bowls are popular. At Pony Shopping Center’s Lacquer Shop are lacquered touch-tone phones (with inlaid mother-of-pearl decoration, $75-$130; dial phones cost $60).

There are dozens of ready-to-wear clothing and accessory boutiques. From outside, these look very much alike. Clothes are displayed in windows, doorways and on racks in the street. Finding things you like requires some poking around. Note the name and address of stores that have your styles, so you can find them again easily.

You may encounter recognizable lables but there is no guarantee that a label is legitimate. Counterfeiting is rampant. Check that the seams are straight before you buy and that the material sold as silk, wool or leather isn’t some cheap synthetic.

Arirang Silk Shop (64-10 Itaewon) has silk dresses for $25-$40, blouses for $15-$18 and some organza floral prints for $50. Hanmi Variety Shop (123-13 Itaewon) has colorful sun dresses of cotton and silk blend for $11. Trendy pedal pusher pantsuits ($38), linen day suits with mother-of-pearl buttons ($100) and gauzy dresses with rope belts ($20) are found at E Wha (132-32 Itaewon).

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Newking (123-13 Itaewon) has garments, including jackets ($19), white slacks ($20) and T-shirts ($5). Polo T-shirts ($2), shorts ($5) and cotton sport shirts ($5) are sold at Hyundai Town (64-18 Itaewon). Stock up on jeans for $7-$10 at Pony Shopping Arcade (58 Itaewon).

Theatrical Sandals

While you’re there, visit an adjacent stall to pick up tennis and running shoes ($10) and high-tops ($13) and leather deck shoes in shades of brown ($10). Eel skin footwear is sold at Balentino Shoes Salon (128-13 Itaewon), where men’s loafers and cordovans cost $40, and ladies’ pumps are $37. Rococo (123-32 Itaewon) has ladies’ eel skin pumps for $30, and there are some theatrical sandals of silver with sequins and studs ($25).

Stylish eel skin belts ($8-$10), key cases ($5) and medium-size clutch bags in seven colors with shoulder straps to attach ($38) are sold at Elie Eel Skin Shop (128-9 Itaewon). There are also eel skin briefcases with pigskin lining ($65) and exotic snakeskin briefcases ($215). Kab Bu (119-14 Itaewon) has racks of supple lambskin leather clothing for men and women--trench coats ($120), trousers ($50), jump suits for motorcyclists ($185)--as well as leather garment bags ($120) and expandable briefcases ($85). Kab Bu custom-makes leather garments in 24 hours at 33% to 50% increase in cost. There are about 100 leather pelts in various colors and weights to choose from, and you’ll get the style and fit you want.

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Wool, silk and polyester clothing is also made-to-order in 24 hours. The standard price for a two-piece suit, men’s or women’s, is $120; shirts and blouses cost $15-$25. Tailors have patterns and bolts of fabric on hand. Be careful about your choice of material, and keep a sample of your selection. Sometimes wool and polyester blends are sold as pure wool; silk and polyester are billed as pure silk.

Many customers have been satisfied with the results at Hit Town Arcade Continental Tailor (119-18 Itaewon), and airline crews with frequent stops in Seoul favor L.A. Town Custom Tailor (56-13 Itaewon). It’s always best to go with a recommendation, so you get slightly better service and, perhaps, a discount.

Suitcases, Too

If you’re wondering how you’re going to get your new wardrobe home, purchase a suitcase at one of the many luggage shops or from a street vendor. Sturdy black, blue or gray garment bags cost $10-$15. Carry-on bags that unzip in three tiers to become full-size suitcases with wheels cost $12. Regular shoppers often buy a large shoulder bag ($8) at the entrance to an arcade, and then stroll through filling it up with purchases.

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Be warned that U.S. Customs doesn’t favor importation of counterfeit goods, and some items may be confiscated. If this happens, or if your new suit disintegrates at the cleaners, or your brass bed peels after you accidentally spill coffee over the headboard, you should contact the nearest office of the Korea National Tourist Corp. (KNTC, at 510 West 6th St., Los Angeles; phone (213) 623-1226) to complain. There is no guarantee of compensation, but KNTC will argue your cause with the merchant in question. They say they get good results, and monies are refunded within several months. Always save your receipts. KNTC needs them in order to take action.

Prices in this article reflect rates of exchange at the time of writing.


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