In Designer Coffee, The Grounds CountBe it dingy neighborhood cafe, a 150-won vending machine, or one of the Starbucks behemoths, the usual coffee options often leave caffeine-lovers cold.
But now some of top creative directors in the Korean fashion industry have shown a more successful and pleasing alternative way of serving coffee based on their artistic instincts.
Their approaches are often copied by wannabes and other imitators; however, none can match the quality and vision that these style gurus have created. Most of these derivative stores disappear after a season or so, but the originals have brewed up a formula to success that allows them to prosper over time.
Just walking into beautiful places like Mou, Cafe Rre or Plastic is a pleasure because of the gorgeous decor and pleasant service. But more important are the inspiration and ideas behind the style.
The owners of the three coffee shops below were once creative directors in the fashion industry. Their keen understanding of the unique characteristics of the local market was fundamental in making their shops not only the most popular, but also the leading trendsetters of taste and style. Some may complain about the steep price of their drinks, but others are more than willing to pay for the fine ambiance that is so hard to find in this city.
Name: Cafe Rre
Location: Cheongdam-dong behind the Gucci shop
Hours: noon - 10 p.m.
Cafe Rre (pronounced "re") is owned and run by Korea's most successful coffee shop businessmen: Ju Dong-yul and Ju Su-an. The Ju brothers claim that this cafe is a magnificent reincarnation of Grand Vefour, the famous Paris cafe located near the Versailles.
The walls and ceiling are entirely covered with hand-carved gilded frames. The elder Ju Su-an commissioned Korean artists to paint neo-classic images based on those he saw when he worked in France and Italy as a shoe importer for many years. All of the imported ceiling lamps, velvet drapes and other French decorations, such as door handles and chairs, are impressive. It took 18 months for 22 experts to finish the interior.
Trendy young people have filled this French-style cafe since it opened last summer. Across from Cafe Rre is Harue, another famous coffee shop, also owned by the Ju brothers. Mr. Ju Dong-yul said, "To compare the two, Harue is a typical coffee shop you might expect to find in Austria; Cafe Rre is a fancy coffee shop frequented by chic Parisians."
Until the end of October, Cafe Rre will serve French and Italian food during meal times, along with wine and coffee. Coffee costs 7,000 won ($5.30) on average, and coffee beans from Japan are roasted in the Harue kitchen each day.
Mr. Ju Su-an says that having operated the two places, Harue and Cafe Rre, has taught him the difference between running a coffee shop and a restaurant, and that his concept of a people-friendly brasserie needs to be closer to Korean tastes.
Starting in November, Cafe Rre will be redesigned to be more familiar to local clients. The Ju brothers plan to reopen Cafe Rre as a "brasserie de Coree," and will sell not only select French wines and delicacies, but also Korean soju and side dishes.
"Visitors to my cafe should experience something new while feeling comfortable," said Ju Su-an. "That is the key to success."
Location: Sinsa-dong near Dosan Park
Hours: 11 a.m. - midnight
Even when working hard as a haute couture designer for nearly 20 years, Cho Eun-sook enjoyed drinking coffee. She went to Figaro in New York and Dumago in Paris and became impressed with their romantic atmospheres and most of all their history. She thought coffee meant more than just drinking the beverage; it was about creating a traditional place for creative people to rest, talk to one another and work on their projects. She especially thought such a place in the heart of Seoul was necessary.
In 1996, she commissioned the architect Lee Jong-hwan to create Ms. Cho's dream coffee shop. The minimal building, consisting of bare concrete walls and a garden of sequoia trees took one year to complete. Ms. Cho wanted to create an artistically modern yet natural space where creative minds can come and feel comfortable. And it is open 365 days a year. In short, Plastic is the culmination of all of Ms. Cho's experiences and ideals.
Although Ms. Cho considers her high ceiling － 5 meters high － "not so economical" and lack of any holidays is "too hard," she believes that her good taste and diligence have created a pleasurable place for all those who come to Plastic. The regular, faithful customers at Plastic are people that Ms. Cho proudly says are the opinion leaders from around town along with well-dressed professionals engaged in the art and fashion industries. Ms. Lee looks around and sees her shops full of artists and other creative types － all the people she hoped would come when she first planned the cafe － and it makes her very happy. She said, "When the economic crisis came in 1998, my Plastic became even more crowded than before."
The first Plastic, which opened four years ago, was so successful that in 1999 she opened Plastic 2 in nearby Cheongdam-dong.
Later this month she will introduce 10 kinds of "refreshing organic green salad" along with a daily soup. At Plastic, regular coffee costs 6,000 won.
Location: Sinsa-dong near Dosan Park
Hours: 11 a.m. - midnight
Mou means "rain at dusk" when its Chinese characters are translated. Lee Sang-il came up with the poetic inspiration when he was drinking beer while designing the shop. Mr. Lee, famous in Korea for Hair News, an upscale hair salon, hopes visitors would feel that same level comfort as they did at when he opened his salon. He planned the cafe to offer an inviting atmosphere, and he uses fresh flower arrangements, stone columns at the entrance, exotic ceiling lamps.
During the day, Mr. Lee works at his salon upstairs styling hair for his loyal clients; by night, he goes to another office in building, home of Lee Sang Il Plan, an interior design company, designing various creative projects. Mr. Lee told the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition that he wanted Mou to be what he had imagined for a long time. He enjoys putting his personal touches on the coffee shop. He arranges the fresh-cut flowers himself every week. He placed the lamps and candle holders which he purchased in Morocco and Turkey two years ago. The bathroom floor, made of navy blue, square floor tiles, was imported from Indonesia. He also designed the floor lamps, the most prominent design feature in the cafe. The lightbulbs inside the hand-carved marble lamps give off a soft glow that reflects onto the white ceiling and fills the entire space － an impressive 330 square meters.
Outdoors, lies another 130 square meters, consisting of a small pond, a flower garden and a few places to sit. Mou's specialties include imported beer and various exotic coffees. The best-selling brand is a Gradation Evening Dress, a hot coffee served with fresh whipped cream and a chocolate stick. A popular request is Summer in Truphan, an iced coffee with a banana-chocolate flavor, served with chocolate syrup. Mou is the only coffee shop in Seoul that serves gourmet chocolate to complement the strong, dark coffee. The chocolates sold in Mou are made at Garu, the confectionery located on the first floor. Regular coffee costs about 7,000 won.
by Inēs Cho