Being an editor of a fashion and design magazine, it may not surprise you that I love to shop: for food, for furniture, but above all, for the love of fashion. So it pains me that the more I visit my homeland of South Korea, the less I desire to shop there. It sounds counter-intuitive; after all, South Korea and its residents are light years ahead of where they were, fashionably-speaking, when I first visited Seoul as an adult in 1995. In fact, according to research conducted by McKinsey, every year since 2006, the sale of luxury goods in South Korea has risen at least 12% to an estimated $4.5 billion in 2010. And projections are that luxury consumption will continue to surge: in the first four months of 2011, sales at department stores were up more than 30% compared to 2010. For me, this should mean the availability of more domestic and global brands and more shopping experiences.
But, my love of shopping doesn't necessarily correlate with a love for buying. The pleasure I derive from shopping, particularly of luxury goods, is probably 90% imagination and appreciation. Okay, more like 99.99% (merely looking at a Kelly bag will eat up 15% of that daily budget). Admiring artfully constructed pieces, beautiful lines and luxurious fabrics is as much a sensual tactile experience for me as attending an uplifting concert or indulging in a delectable dessert.
And therein lies the disconnect. My shopping experience at the Lotte Department Store in Seoul is very different than at Printemps in Paris, Barneys in New York City and even Holt Renfrew in my hometown of Toronto. Rather than the usual excitement, I'm turned off and quickly exhausted (to the relief of my fiancé). Why would that be when many of the same brands can be found in each? It's not the fact that imported luxury goods are pricier in Seoul than in Paris, New York City and Toronto; they are, but that shouldn't detract from my shopping experience when I'm not intending to buy. Rather, it's the nagging feeling I get whilst navigating through the department store, that all my fellow shoppers want to do is buy, buy, buy, without much discretion or appreciation for quality or craftsmanship. When fashion is reduced from an art to merely a target for consumerism, the value of the luxury goods experience diminishes - and this is what happens when I shop in Seoul.
|Louis Vuitton logo on car in Seoul
It has been oft reported that Koreans love luxury brands. More so than most other countries, luxury items are a way of signaling social status and self-indulgence. Furthermore, the pressure to conform and to keep up with the Kims is top of mind for many Koreans. When walking around Seoul, one would be hard-pressed to miss not only a sea of trends but also an ocean of logos. "People wanted other people to know that they were wearing something expensive, so they bought famous brands, often with conspicuous logos or labels," reported McKinsey. The Louis Vuitton Speedy bag is nicknamed the "3-second bag" because, not surprisingly, you see it every 3 seconds! Relative to its neighbours, Koreans also don't seem to mind showing off their luxury purchases: "while 45% of Japanese and 38% of Chinese believe that 'showing off luxury goods is in bad taste,' only 22% of Koreans do," reported McKinsey in its 2010 report.
Naturally, I was pleased to read that a significant result of the 2011 McKinsey report was that attitudes towards luxury goods have changed since last year's survey. No, the report wasn't suggesting that buyers are turning away from luxury goods (on the contrary), but that buyers are looking for more unique luxury products. In 2011, 45% of those surveyed agreed that "owning luxury goods is not as special as it used to be," compared to just 21% in 2010. Furthermore, Koreans increasingly prefer luxury brands or items that help differentiate them from the crowd; by comparison, no such change was observed in the Japanese. In other words, Koreans are slowly coming around to a more individualistic way of dressing (albeit, still luxuriously). Think less Chanel quilted purse and more Billykirk x Opening Ceremony.
As a matter of course, the laws of supply and demand have kicked in and the desire for more individuality is leading to the introduction of new luxury brands, making the market more competitive. Contemporary brands, such as Miu Miu, that target younger customers or designer fashion houses such as Alexander McQueen have made strong entries into the market, according to McKinsey. Replacing every other Louis Vuitton monogram bag in Seoul by a PS1 by Proenza Schouler or a beautifully crafted Henry Cuir bag or, even better, a bag from a yet to be discovered Korean designer would make for far more interesting people watching on the streets of Seoul. Changing consumer preferences combined with the fact that the Korean fashion market is still growing gives me hope: here's to hoping that a more diverse, and even imaginative, fashion experience will be in the cards for my next visit.
 In September 2010 and 2011, McKinsey surveyed 1,000 Koreans who had purchased at least 1 million Korean won (US$845) in luxury goods in the previous year across four categories - fashion apparel, leather goods, shoes, and watches/jewelry. Among the respondents were 200 "heavy purchasers" - those who had spent at least 10 million Korean won (US$8,450). McKinsey also interviewed 24 senior executives of luxury-goods companies.
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