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Kwang Jang Market caters to traditional fashion

[Glimpse of Business in Seoul 24th in a series: Kwang Jang Hanbok Market]

Nov 17,2008
Shop owners clad in hanbok attend to customers at Kwang Jang Hanbok Market in central Seoul, one of the oldest traditional markets in the capital. By Jeon Min-kyu
The hanbok epitomizes Korean traditional dress, but there are few occasions for Koreans to actually don the costumes except on one’s first birthday (dol in Korean), wedding, and on 60th or 70th birthdays.

Due in large part to the rare occasions a hanbok is needed, the traditional garment is not widely sold. Mostly sold at independent shops, it is not to be found at department stores or ordinary shopping malls.Some famous brands catering to well-heeled customers carry Korean designer tags.

Kwang Jang Market is one of a few traditional markets in Seoul where hanbok is available at wholesale prices. For children, the price tags start from upwards of 30,000 won ($22; only cash is accepted) while the cheapest hanbok for adults costs around 150,000 won. There are also some shops that rent out hanbok for costs of up to 100,000 won.

Visitors to Kwang Jang Market find themselves navigating between four main shopping sections - those selling clothes, fabrics, street food (mainly Korean snacks) and fresh produce such as vegetables and seafood.

A corner of Kwang Jang Hanbok Market in central Seoul. By Jeon Min-kyu
Hanbok shops are scattered about, some on second floors, others in clusters of small shops selling both textiles and custom-made products.

Also in the area are stores where one can purchase accessories for hanbok - jjokduri (a kind of tiara), daenggi (hair ribbon), norigae (a type of pendant tied to decorate the hanbok top) and ggotsin (shoes made of rubber, the term literally meaning flower shoes).

Just like in modern apparel shops, such as those in Itaewon, dozens of hanbok hang from the ceiling, lining store walls, while rolls of colorful textiles sit on the shelves.

Namdaemun Market may come to mind first when it comes to traditional markets.

But Kwang Jang Market is another in the city, with a history of over a century - so much so that presidential candidates traditionally pay a visit there during campaigns to court grassroots support. President Lee Myung-bak and his colleagues did so during his campaign.

The market is located by Cheonggye Stream in central Seoul and within a five-minute walk of Seowun Market, famous for electronic gadgets at bargain prices, and Bangsan Market, where baking ingredients and tools as well as home interior accessories are available.

The origin of Kwang Jang Market bears a relationship with Namdaemun Market. During the Japanese colonial period, three people bought the area to set up another market after the Japanese government confiscated the management rights to Namdaemun.

Initially, the main items sold at Kwang Jang Market were agricultural produce and other raw goods but soon the range of items included textiles, beddings, kitchen items and imported products. Now the site accommodates 5,000 independent shops, according to the Kwang Jang Market Association.

“I’m here to buy hanbok for the first birthday party of my daughter,” said Kim Na-yeon, a 28-year-old housewife who was carrying her baby in a stroller. “It’s for a one-time use because babies grow so fast and I was told this market offers economical prices.”

The cost of baby hanbok starts from around 35,000 won; prices vary according to the quality of the fabric and design.

For grownups, the spectrum of prices is wider. The priciest hanbok costs millions of won, or sometimes tens of millions of won, but those who could afford that price likely would go to Cheongdam-dong, a trendy fashion area in southern Seoul where shops include a handful of well-known designer hanbok brands.

In most cases at Kwang Jang Market, a couple can purchase a pair of quality hanbok for 600,000 won. Ladies get ggotsin and other accessories for free on top of that. Ladies’ hanbok is slightly costlier because the skirt requires a bigger amount of textile.

“Those hanbok sold in expensive southern Seoul areas are mostly overly hyped. The costs involved are enormous,” said Kim Young-joon, who runs Gibbeunnal Uriot, which supplies hanbok at wholesale prices to higher-end retailers. Customers who are taller than Korean standards - for example, those who are over 1.9 meters tall [6.2 feet] - may have to pay extra, he noted.

In the case of Beoma Judan, the shop pursues the principle of selling more at cheaper costs. The minimum cost for a pair of hanbok for a couple starts from 350,000 won.

“What’s the use of selling at expensive prices when you have few customers in this [economically] difficult time?,” said Lee Soo-yeon, owner of the shop.

Word of mouth has led people from areas outside Seoul to visit here. Accordingly, customers can expect to wait up to three weeks for their hanbok to be completed after a fitting, while ordinarily, shops take around 10 days.

Those who have hanbok-making skills can buy an ensemble at the cost of 35,000 won-50,000 won - the cost of the cloth, according to Park Jong-soo, owner of Chungnam Judan. Judan stands for silk goods.

“If you have the talent to make hanbok, it gets amazingly cheap,” she said.


By Seo Ji-eun Staff Reporter [spring@joongang.co.kr]



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