On this street, bourgeois values carry a high priceOpening a shop on Karosu-gil in Seoul is in itself a way of making a statement about yourself: It means you’re an artist or a collector who disdains mass production and popular taste; that you’re not out to make money but to show off your refined sense of taste; that you're well-traveled and belong to a social class that’s young, liberal and educated.
Karosu-gil, a street in Sinsa-dong ,on the south side of the river, the name of which literally means “an alley lined with trees,” has its own vibe and its own scene.
The street, which stretches about seven or eight blocks through one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Seoul, is like a small island of shopping pleasure for Korea’s cultural elite. David Brooks, the famed author of “Bobos in Paradise,” would have called it one of the few neighborhoods in Seoul where the status codes of its shoppers aren’t based on the amount of money they have, but on the subtlety of their tastes.
A fashion slogan on a T-shirt that was recently hung on a window display at a shop by a Paris-educated Korean designer in the neighborhood adequately summed up the typical mindset shared by the area’s visitors: In bold black print, it read, “Write, Read, Listen, Kill, Sleep.”
The shops on the street invite an odd mix of style and consumption. At Art n Dream, a design bookstore in the area, a giant photo book by Helmut Newton, which presented a raw image of a naked woman on its cover, was put up in the display window for only 4.9 million won (almost $5,000).
Style-conscious cafes and bars in the area borrow heavily from their European counterparts, serving a small number of clients in rooms that fit no more than four or five tables. The products on stalls in many boutique shops have no price tags; vintage shops sell a small portion of collectibles handpicked by the owners during trips to Europe or Japan. A rusted tin laundry basket from Paris costs up to 200,000 won. It costs as much here to buy a kid a tiny vintage toy as it would to buy him a month’s worth of milk.
Many of the neighborhood’s shops blur the line between private studios and stores. Bar 19, for instance, is a designer studio in the daytime and a trendy wine bar at night.
Choi Hae-sun, the owner of Otaru, a small vintage shop, said she recently closed her store for over a week while she was away on a business trip to Europe. Ms. Choi, a retired advertiser, sees her shop more as a gallery for her vintage collection than as a store.
“What I sell in the store depends entirely on what I want to buy on my trips,” she said. “I wouldn't buy something I don’t like just because it would sell.”
Bloom and Goute, a studio run by a florist, gives group lessons on Western-style flower arrangement and sells fresh-baked cookies. Project Karosu-gil, a Japanese bar in the neighborhood, was founded when three friends decided to get together to create an artistic project.
In 2002, Choi Du-su, an artist from London, renovated a three-story house and its parking lot, turning it into an alternative gallery named Project Space Zip (From the Korean word for house, jip). He had to close the space last year, however, as the cost of rent rose higher than he could handle.
Karosu-gil has been around for years, but its emergence as a hip neighborhood for young trendsetters is a recent thing.
Over the past decade, shops have come and gone, but the street has catered to owners of design studios and dealers of private art since the early ’90s, selling prints and wall paintings to decorate the high-rise apartments of rich Gangnam housewives. During the Asian financial crisis in 1997, however, many artists were forced to move to cheaper neighborhoods. Most of the shopkeepers here now moved into the neighborhood after 2000.
One of the reasons many designers and artists began to look for new ways to capitalize on their spaces was the rising cost of rent. Many shop owners in the neighborhood, however, say they’re more interested in enjoying their business than profiting from it.
“The shopowners in the neighborhood share a sense of pride,” said Kim Hui-seon, the owner of Art n Dream. “They want more people to shop in their stores to be able to pay the rent. At the same time, I think many shop-owners want the neighborhood to just be as it is. They want their shops to cater to a small but tasteful clientele.”
That sense of pride is evident in both the shop-owners and the visitors the neighborhood attracts.
Media coverage of the neighborhood focuses on the dynamic crowd of celebrity chefs, florists, collectors, designers and artists in the area who count on their name power to draw customers. Others, however, have referred to the neighborhood as a community that shares “an intellectual privilege,” made up of a select few who regularly travel abroad.
“The street is not so much a place to make a sale,” admits No Eul-seon, an artist who used to run a craft shop in the neighborhood, “and it never has been. But it’s a great place to make a name in the scene and meet the crowd.”
The neighborhood’s narrow streets, dotted with posh cafes, theaters and shops, stand in sharp contrast to the surrounding areas of Sinsa-dong or Apgujeong-dong, two loci of entertainment and fashion packed with luxury shops and giant buildings of restaurants and franchise coffee chains.
But that’s Karuso-gil’s selling point. It sets itself apart by turning up its nose at mainstream fashion.
“We’ve been a step ahead in discerning what’s good,” Ms. Kim says. “But in the end, there’s nothing new about our strategy except that we want a place that’s quiet and not so crowded.”
by Park Soo-mee