Sleepless in Seoul? Head out for a night of... shopping

Sleepless in Seoul? Head out for a night of... shopping

While the rest of Seoul sleeps, Dongdaemun night market buzzes with celebrities and other nocturnal patrons
Dongdaemun shops
Dongdaemun shops show no signs of slowing down late into the evening.

It's a nippy 1 in the morning, and while much of Seoul sleeps, Dongdaemun shops.

In Doota, a multi-floored labyrinth of clothes, manicurists, accessories, coffee bars, shoes, toys, toiletries and teapots, clusters of very late-night shoppers drift from concession to concession, perusing an array of wares that will be selling right up until this mall closes -- at 5 a.m. 

One of the most boisterous shopping areas in Seoul, Dongdaemun attracts well over 2 million visitors a year and almost 50 percent of the tourists who come to Seoul. Comprising a string of vast, neon-drenched, cut-price department stores (of which Doota and Migliore are the most famous) and several wholesalers markets, the Dongdaemun Fashion Town, as the outlets here are collectively known, has long attracted a broad church of Korean and foreign customers, along with a very specialized niche: nocturnal shoppers. 

Bags full of goods bought by wholesalers and waiting to be taken away on buses and vans.

The night owls

But just who are these night owls? “Though not this late, we sometimes have up to two times more customers in the evenings,” says Park Dong-su, manning trendy menswear store Horse Cabbage. “While there are lots of kids during the day, nighttime sees more wholesalers, students and a lot of Japanese and Chinese tourists.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, nighttime, according to some of the staff here, brings a more dedicated and even refined breed of shopper. “We see so many little fights during the day,” says Im Min-seong from next to a railing of studiously dowdy retro-chic dresses. “People always want discounts, which we don't do.” (As the swankiest of Dongdaemun's late-night malls, Doota operates a no-barter policy.) “We have more regulars at night,” adds a nearby attendant. “The people that come then are more like friends.”

Which is not to say that the wee hours don't bring their share of more exotic characters. “Quite a few celebrities come here at night,” says Lee So-yeong at the women's boutique Ruby. “The famous ones can be a bit harder to spot, as they'll usually be wearing hoods and caps. The C-listers, though, will be fully made-up and looking glamorous.”

But the stars, high-flying or not, aren't even the most memorable of Lee's clientele. “We sometimes get transgenders late at night,” she says. “They'll come in here and I won't know anything about it until they open their coats and I can see they're flat-chested -- and they haven't had the operation down below.”

Inside U:Us

As lively as the malls are, however, the shopping action really kicks into overdrive at the cluster of wholesalers across the street. It may now be pushing 2am, but around this large, four-way junction, techno music booms, saucy K-pop videos play on a massive overhead screen, and the pavements are clogged with rows of laundry bags stuffed full of newly bought garments. The junction separating the three biggest wholesalers has turned into a virtual bus terminal, with a slew of signposts welcoming vans from as far afield as Daejeon, Gwangju and Busan.

Inside U:Us, one of the biggest stores here, the scenes are no less manic. Rapt-looking buyers, notebooks in hand, scuttle from stall to stall, striking and abandoning deals on bulk buys. “It’s like this pretty much every night,” says Ms Kim, standing next to an impressive array of Popeye and Olive Oyl t-shirts. “Our stuff goes out all over the country, so Dongdaemun influences what people everywhere from Daegu to Jeju Island are wearing.”

Yet these wholesale superstores are no less of a draw for casual shoppers too. As well as being far more nicely fitted out than the words “wholesale market” might suggest, the sheer spectacle of a shopping area hitting its stride after midnight is a magnet for people from far beyond Korea’s shores. “I come to Dongdaemun four times already,” says Miyu, a Japanese tourist. “It’s very exciting. There’s nothing quite like this at home.”

Pyounghwa Fashion PlazaPyounghwa Fashion Plaza is easy to spot.

Pyounghwa Fashion Plaza

Equally unique, but rather less manic, is the nearby Pyounghwa Fashion Plaza. Founded almost 50 years ago by a group of merchants displaced during the Korean War (Pyounghwa is Korean for “peace”), Pyounghwa is a throwback to a Korea of yore, where boisterous ajumma (middle-aged women) sit cross-legged and swap noisy banter, and the smell of kimchi and dried octopus hangs heavy in the air. 

Business is slow today, so some of the stalls -- packed to bursting with straw hats, cut-price jeans, gaudy golf shirts and thick, gold-buttoned blousons -- are either closed or have their owners fast asleep under blankets. “We do a fair bit of retail sale by day,” says underwear merchant Park Jin-ho as he dusts off a box of long johns. “But after midnight we get people driving in from Gangwon and even Jeolla Province to buy stuff for their shops.”

Made in North Korea

Though wholesale was long the lifeblood of the Dongdaemun area -- with clothes being designed, made and sold within a few floors of one another -- the dynamics are changing due to lower cost producers from China and, more recently, even closer to home. “About 30 percent of our stock is now made in Kaesong,” says Park, referring to the largely South Korea-funded industrial complex just over the border with North Korea. “It’s cheaper because of the exchange rate, and we can get it down here even faster.” In a market largely founded by victims of the Korean War, the power of reconciliation -- and cash -- is alive and well. 

Getting there

Take subway line No 2 or 4 to Dongdaemun History & Culture Park Station, leave via exit 14 and a row of stores, including Doota and Migliore, are on your left. To get to the wholesale markets, including U:Us and Designer Club, leave via exit 2.

London-born, Edinburgh-raised Niels Footman has been living and working in the South Korean capital of Seoul for eight years.
Read more about Niels Footman