Hannah Bae: Fashion is essential to tourism

Hannah Bae: Fashion is essential to tourism

Style draws big-spending visitors, garments make awesome souvenirs

Pop quiz: what’s the common thread between a hunky Hong Kong TV announcer, a Singapore resort’s glamorous PR girl and a sunny California transplant in Shanghai?

Answer: their wardrobes all include treasured garments from Seoul’s Dongdaemun market.

It’s no coincidence, as the sprawling complex of shopping malls and wholesale retailers attracts more than two million visitors per year, including just about half of all the tourists who come to Seoul. It’s a must-visit for any real clothes horse on a trip to Korea.

When you buy something in another country, you always have a story to tell about where you got that particular item. 

-Jill Fairchild

But Dongdaemun’s not the only reason why Korea’s becoming a starred destination on the fashion map.

As K-Pop continues to rise, the country is also becoming a hotbed of design.

On the music side, edgy American designer Jeremy Scott is dressing the girl group 2NE1 in wild-patterned neon leggings and winged sneakers in metallic leather.

Then there are the romantic dramas that have spurred the “pretty boy” trend of chiseled, coiffed and tailored young men clad in handsome creations by local designers including Juun J. and D.GNAK.

More on CNNGo: 3 top Doota boutiques for the fashion-forward femme

Seoul is hardly alone in its ability to draw more visitors with a passion for fashion.

London, Paris and New York are already world-famous as shopping destinations, but there are also unlikely newcomers, like the English town of Bicester. The town’s many designer outlet stores have drawn so many deep-pocketed overseas visitors, it's now Britain's third-biggest shopping destination after Harrods and Selfridges, and its train station posts signs in Mandarin and Arabic.

The members of K-Pop group 2NE1 have become muses for American designer Jeremy Scott and ambassadors of Korean fashion.

What’s the big deal over overseas retail therapy sessions? Well, it’s just that: big deals.

There’s a reason why I see people toting empty suitcases for Seoul-Hong Kong flights, or Tokyo-Seoul, or Seoul-New York, for that matter. For me, it was the 80-percent-off sale at the West Village Marc by Marc Jacobs a year ago.

I ended up weighed down with so many bags my New Yorker friend said I looked like a “Japanese tourist.”

Then there’s the emotional value.

Jill Fairchild, founder and publisher of the “Where to Wear” city shopping guides, told Forbes magazine, “When you buy something in another country or another city, you always have a story to tell about where you got that particular item. You create lasting memories with your purchases.”


That’s exactly why it was so hard for me to part with a beloved pair of ballet flats, scored during a twilight trip to London’s Portobello Road in 2005, well after their dancing days were over. Every time I wore them, tattered as they became, I could still remember dusk falling over west London and the chill in the autumn air as my friend and I navigated the narrow aisles lit by bare lightbulbs.

You see, this is what a beloved purchase does: it crystallizes your memory of a particular time and place. And hopefully, on future trips, these memories lure you back for more.

Contenders for hottest Korean fashion designers Steve J, Yoni P, Juyoung, Son Jung Wan and Lie Sang Bong pose with actress Vanessa Hudgens at the Concept Korea Spring 2012 fashion show at New York Fashion Week. Whether they have tourist drawing power remains to be seen.

The opinions of this piece are solely those of Hannah Bae.

More on CNNGo: Quality vs. quantity: Chinese and Japanese tourists go shopping in Korea 

Hannah Bae left the monuments of D.C. for Seoul’s newsrooms in 2007 armed with a Princeton-in-Asia fellowship and a whole lot of enthusiasm. In addition to her day job of editing breaking news, she spends her free time freelancing for such organizations as the AP, GlobalPost, the German Press Agency dpa, Wallpaper*, Nanoomi.net, TBS eFM radio and now CNNGo. 

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