Wear in the World: How to Dress in Seoul

With the rise and visibility of Korean models like Irene Kim, street fashion in Korea is now getting some serious cred.

With the rise and visibility of Korean models like Irene Kim, street fashion in Korea is now getting some serious cred.

I stopped by my local pharmacy a while back before going into the office.

“Cute necklace,” the 30-something female pharmacist commented as she rang me up. “Where’d you get it?”

“Korea,” I answered. Yes, it just happened to be a necklace I had purchased on a recent trip there.

“Koreans dress so well,” she continued. “I mean, they’re always so put together.”

I couldn’t disagree. This had been my seventh trip back to the country of my birth, not including a year-and-a-half stint working there as a travel editor for an expat magazine before joining Audrey Magazine. And every time, what they wore, especially in comparison to what I wore, never failed to amuse, sometimes amaze, even discombobulate.

Koreans are really into being put together. Whether it’s to the office, to school, or on a group hike up a mountain, they’ve got the look down. (You haven’t seen coordination until you’ve seen a gaggle of rainbow-hued ajummas — middle-aged Korean women — dressed to go hiking, each one wearing a different neon colored windbreaker, oversized visor and hiking pole.) Even when the baggy-jean-hip-hop look was really hot, there was something about the way Korean teens put the look together — the certain tilt of the baseball cap, the chain hanging off the belt loop — that looked, well, put together. If “nonchalant elegance” and “effortlessly cool” are buzzwords in the American fashion community, they’ve never heard them in Korea. Instead, it’s all about thoughtful coordination — the right earrings with the right shoe and the right skirt.

Which is amazing to this Southern Californian, especially for an Asian country where the four seasons are unabashedly distinct and usually treacherous in its execution. During my first jangma (monsoon) season, which hits smack in the middle of an already sauna-like summer, I was agog that the torrential downpour and suffocating oppressiveness of the air did nothing — not a thing — to discourage subway-commuting Seoulites out of their bow-embellished Ferragamo flats. Not a single rainboot or even sneaker in sight. (I had just traveled to Vietnam, so I did what they do in such situations — I donned flip-flops. Big mistake. They broke halfway home and I had to call a friend to come pick me up.)

This time, when I traveled to Seoul, I thought I was ready. I planned out an outfit for each day — ones that looked like I was ready for the office rather than a day of shopping. Leather shorts and tights, bright colors for colorblocking, my trusty Phillip Lim cropped blazer I wear over everything.

Big fail.

Not only was it too hot to don any of my outfits as planned (75-degrees fahrenheit is different in Seoul when it’s also humid and you don’t have a car), none of my looks looked right in Korea. Colorblocking? Sure, but only on the neon trainers everyone wore. Warm weather leather? Only on refined handbags by Prada, Louis Vuitton or Gucci, paired with everything from minis to casual workout gear. Even my messy topknot was wrong. No one had super long hair or bed head — every coif was precisely cut, perfectly done. (Angled bobs and sleek pageboys were especially popular.)

It was enough to make this fashion editor — one who gravitates toward ugly-cute designs and hails le difference in wardrobe choices — question her own aesthetic. The nerdy-chic button-down I bought at Myeongdong’s Uniqlo? Not ironic enough to wear in Seoul. The flared leather skirt and cocoon top I planned for Day 5? I suddenly felt like I was 5.

Thanks to rise and influence of Seoul Fashion Week, style experimentation is increasingly visible on the streets of Seoul. Photo by Michael Hurt.

Thanks to the increasing influence of Seoul Fashion Week, Seoulites are beginning to embrace style experimentation. Photo by Michael Hurt.

Nonetheless, I did take away some good lessons from one of Asia’s most stylish cities. One, less is more, at least where makeup is concerned. Seemingly bare faces really did reign there, and young women didn’t seem too concerned about shine. It was the look of BB cream everywhere — dewy, bare and, if not flawless, still pretty dang good.

Two, a really nice, classic bag does add some oomph to whatever you’re wearing. I still remember being stuck behind a girl on the escalator carrying a minimalist Prada tote and examining its intricate, gorgeous hardware. It’s a rare moment for me to lust after a bag. And I lusted after that bag.

But most importantly, I learned to really appreciate American style. We’re spoiled for choice back in the States, and personal style is always celebrated. It’s what makes me feel good about wearing a voluminous neoprene top or asymmetrical jacket. And while I, too, like to feel “put together,” the American in me always makes sure to add a bit of the undone, whether it’s a clashing shoe, one too many rings, or a messy topknot.

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