Street Smarts: Trying Not to Dress Dumb

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Street Smarts: Trying Not to Dress Dumb

As the weather hots up, so does the fashion. Summertime in Korea is when even the vaguely fashion-conscious try out the new look of the year. It's time to parade that latest acquisition, whether it be a pair of sunglasses, a T-shirt or a meticulously sculpted torso. Fashionable concepts diffused through the fashion spreads materialize on the streets.

Over one sunny weekend in mid-June, the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition sampled the feel of Korean street fashion. Seoul's famous fashion districts - Idae-ap (the area outside Ewha Womans University), Daehak-ro, the streets around Gangnam subway station and Apgujeong-dong - are where many young trend-conscious Koreans experiment and express their style. There we met with young Koreans aged between 17 and 28, who shared with us some of their personal shopping tactics and summer fashion ideas.

In Seoul, popular belief has it that people dress differently on either side of the Han River. It is said that young people hanging out in Gangnam (south of the river) spend more money on clothes and have more of a penchant for big brand names than those in Gangbuk (north of the river), who prefer to bargain buy. There is even a certain popular look called the Gangnamyeok passyeon (Gangnam station fashion) composed of three must-haves: a knit V-neck vest, shorts and yellow hiking boots.

Is this north-south fashion division evident on the streets? First we headed for the areas near major universities, Idae-ap and Daehak-ro, in search of the popular fashion. Here, at least in our random sampling sessions, the answer appeared to be no. Three 18-year-olds - Park Sang-hyeop, Gye Jun-gyeong and Chung Seok-bin - whom we met in Idae-ap, were among the best-dressed young Koreans we saw. When asked what they look for when shopping, they enthusiastically answered in unison: "Whatever stands out!"

A hot, uninspiring hour passed before we began to spot a handful of outrageously dressed Koreans in the crowd. Young women with bright yellow or orange hair, long or spiky, wore tight T-shirts and three-inch platforms. Their eyes were heavily made up, complete with dramatic false eyelashes.

The fashion-conscious types we met north of the river liked the hip-hop or ethnic looks. A few women were spotted sporting a bindi, an Indian jewel pasted on the forehead, and men wore logo-bearing shirts and pants that appeared three or four sizes too large. Earrings and a necklace with a pendant, for both men and women, seemed indispensible.

Arriving in the crowded Gangnam station area in mid-afternoon, we spotted young men wearing the Gangnamyeok passyeon style after just a few minutes. Bae Mun-jin, 17, wore a look that was a cross between dandy and preppy. He told us that his most recent purchase was the navy blue shorts (pictured right), which he bought in Dongdaemun market. Although he likes brand names, he doesn't mind wearing jjabi (Korean slang for fake goods). His friend Lee Seong-jae, also 17, said that he preferred the hip-hop look inspired by Korean actors such as Yang Dong-geun. His hat may flash the Nike logo, but his boots have no name.

Kim Hyun-ju and Yu Byung-jun stood out as their blue outfits matched nicely. They predicted that their "resort wear look" - complete with thongs and Hawaiian print - would be their fashion theme for the coming summer, but both Miss Kim and Mr. Yoo insisted they never followed the trends. When asked where he had his hair done, the 28-year-old Mr. Yu laughed and admitted, "I do it myself!"

In the fashionable district of Apgujeong-dong, there appeared to be more of an emphasis on "sleek" than on "creative," and this Gangnam district did seem more preened and expensive. Most noticeable were the young women in their early 20s wearing clean-cut dresses and pant suits, and more pedestrians were flaunting sunglasses. This year two types of shades are obviously in: futuristic wire glasses with colorful lenses and retro shades with darker lens and plastic rims.

Twenty-year-old Ju Si-nae and Jang Hye-jin made an immediate impression with lightly tanned skin and hair color that went well with their color scheme. This summer, they said they would like to see themselves in sexier outfits that expose more skin. They plan to wear nasi (the sleeveless top) worn by popular Korean actresses.

A couple of break-dancers we met on the street weren't into any particular brand names but were concerned about their overall look. They shop in Apgujeong-dong because the shops there carry their favorite styles, mostly imported from abroad.

The results of our random, unofficial survey suggested that, contrary to popular belief, young Koreans do not necessarily consider the price tag the primary marker of style. And the young Koreans we met were adamant that when shopping, they are not slaves to brands or trends. They all claimed they came up independently with their own style - but the hip hop and classic dandy looks prevailed. More mainstream-trend-conscious people were found to the south of the river where the look was predominantly conservative. A few hipsters to the north of the river were more outrageously, but not outlandishly dressed, but they popped up in the south, too.

It may be too simplistic to generalize that Korean street fashion is made of only two types divided by the Han river. Striding everywhere in Seoul streets were the freely mingling young Koreans, who knew how to keep cool in the hot hot summer this year.

by Inēs Cho

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