What to look for in a leather jacketIf you’re visiting Korea, a leather jacket is probably one of the things you’ll be most tempted to buy.
Stroll down the main street of tourist-centered Itaewon, and you’ll see them spilling out of practically every other storefront, second in ubiquity only to the suits that tailors are constantly urging on passing foreigners (“Custom-made suit today, sir?”).
Actually, leather jackets are one of the best buys in Korea ― if you know what to look for.
In the heyday of the export apparel industry in the late ’80s and early ’90s, big Western brands like the Gap, Banana Republic, Chevignon and Donna Karan had factories here that specialized in leather garments. Years of domestic competition, and technological collaboration with European tanneries and fashion houses, earned Korea’s leather industry a reputation for being highly competitive in the international market.
Today, the industry’s production is down compared to its peak in the ’90s, prior to the Asian economic crisis. Many of the brands that had factories here have moved production to China and southeast Asia. But Korea can still boast of producing high-quality leather (and non-leather) garments.
During the years when Korea’s apparel industry specialized in exporting, a kind of local shadow industry was born that took advantage of the industry’s technology and materials.
So-called bose sijang ― markets specializing in leftover merchandise ― dealt with irregular or defective garments that were meant to be exported but didn’t pass inspection, as well as garments that used the plants’ leftover materials, patterns and labels.
These markets flourished in two areas: Itaewon and the Dongdaemun market. Both became hunting grounds for local shoppers and tourists, as well as retailers and wholesalers looking for brand-name goods at discounted prices.
But getting a serious bargain has become as tough as finding a diamond ring in a mountain of clothes. What makes shopping in the bose markets difficult is that local merchants add in garments made for the local market ― not to mention fakes.
It can take an experienced eye to see the differences, and the real bargains. But a bit of knowledge helps, since the sea of leather you’re looking at can actually be broken down into a few categories.
Bose, minsu, real and fake
Ask the seller whether the jacket is “bose” or “minsu.” Bose means it was originally meant for export; minsu means it was made for the local market, which means price and quality will vary.
Among bose goods, there is “real” bose, meaning the original pattern, material and label are intact, but the jacket might have minor defects.
So if you’re familiar with brand name products, that’ll help. If you’re lucky, you might find something that’s essentially the same as an item that can be found with a much bigger price tag elsewhere.
But there is also fake bose, which might have the original label (the labels can be obtained at black markets) and might copy the original pattern, but is made from inferior materials. Then there are top-to-bottom fakes, with forged labels. These are made locally or imported, usually from China.
Minsu jackets, made for local sale, tend to have the highest prices, because they’ve gone through legitimate channels of production and distribution, as opposed to the black-market nature of bose.
Trust your eyes (and fingers)
Leather comes in many varieties. The highest-end leather is extremely well-polished lambskin, which can be so soft and delicate that it almost feels sticky. Calfskin is also delicate and soft, but feels a little lighter.
The two can be hard to distinguish, so ask the seller. Cow and buffalo hide are sturdier and heavier, hence more practical.
Deerskin, especially suede, is extra-soft to the touch, but resilient. Pigskin is usually cheaper than other kinds; its porous appearance tends to make the jacket cheap-looking, and if thin, it tends not to hold up very well.
Suede, too, comes in different kinds, from lamb to pigskin; it looks luxurious, but it’s high-maintenance. Cow, calf and pony skins, with their authentic, short, coarse furs, are also available; they are costly, relatively easy to maintain and can retain body heat extremely well, but the fur tends to wear off easily.
When trying on a leather jacket, see whether it looks expensive; if it’s cheap-looking, it’s not worth buying, regardless of the price.
Feel the leather, and do ask the seller what kind it is ― these days, artificial leather (so-called “pleather”) can be as soft and expensive-seeming as the real thing.
Ask about what kind of care the leather will require. If you’re shopping in the wholesale market, ask about the source of the merchandise.
If you’re looking for a practical, urban jacket for warmer months, go for the “napa,” or polished, leather in lambskin, calfskin or lightweight cow hide. A blazer-style cut, the minimal-looking car coat or a biker-style jacket, with thin acetate/rayon lining and a zipper front, will work.
For something heavier and warmer, go for the bomber or safari style, made with buffalo, deer or sheepskin, with a lining of fur or detachable padding. If it’s fur, see if it’s genuine; acrylic or cotton fur doesn’t retain heat very well.
Check how the jacket looks when it’s buttoned or zipped all the way up for the proper fit and size. And pay attention to small details like buttons, zippers and stitches.
If you’re buying a bose jacket, be sure the zippers and parts are authentic, as some parts can be replaced. If the buttons are metal, be sure to get extras, since metal buttons fall off easily. Keep an eye out for jackets made for the Japanese market, which tend to have higher waistlines and shorter sleeves. Finally, most export sellers are familiar with foreign brand names, so while shopping, you can tell him or her which popular brands work best for you.
by Ines Cho