The Vast World of Dongdaemun's Clothing Markets > K-POP

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The Vast World of Dongdaemun's Clothing Markets

It was a Tuesday morning and the street outside Dongdaemun Design Plaza was lined with racks of clothes. On my commute to work, I turned the corner at the intersection of Euljiro and Jangchungdan-ro to find the entirety of the sidewalks and plazas down the street set up as an outdoor clothing market. Racks and tables stacked with clothes were put together—some beneath tents, others out in the sun—as makeshift shops. Shoppers and pedestrians walked down the sidewalk following a rainbow of colors, seeing everything these independent clothiers had to offer—from casual clothing, accessories and shoes, to elegant gowns and traditional hanboks. Shoppers strode through signs reading “5,000 ₩,” “10,000 ₩,” and “BIG SALE,” filling hand-held baskets with articles of clothing. I was excited by the scope of it, but at a loss for where to start looking. I was witnessing just a small section of Seoul’s fashion center: Dongdaemun.  


Dongdaemun Market is the largest shopping district in Seoul. Covering over ten blocks, it is divided into several different shopping districts, consisting of 26 malls, and about 30,000 specialty shops and 50,000 manufacturers.


In its beginnings, Dongdaemun was a wholesale night market, open from 1 AM to 1 PM. Now, it is open during the day, and the district has become more modernized and trendy, but the night market tradition still stands. At night, clothing stands blossom down the streets, stores and malls remain lit-up, and motorcycles and trucks scurry around the streets, bringing store-owners large boxes and bagfuls of clothes. Most shopping malls close around 5 AM.




There are some luxury malls with high end fashion and cosmetics stores (such as Doota Mall), but the spirit of Dongdaemun lies in wholesale, retail, negotiable affordable prices, fast fashion, and many independent shop owners (which can be seen at places like the Shin Pyeong Hwa Fashion Town market, and malls like DDP Fashion Mall).


Offering everything the fashion industry could offer, spanning so much territory, it can be difficult to get your bearings. When I first set out to explore the Dongdaemun market, it was overwhelming—figuring out how to choose among the seemingly infinite options.




Walking through the stands on the street that Tuesday morning, I was taking my time, to observe everything. I grabbed a couple white shirts off of a rack, and continued looking around. The lady working there walked up to me, took the two shirts, put them in a bag, and said “10,000 won.” I didn't protest—I was planning on buying them anyway, and the price was good—but this interaction showed me the particular culture of shopping in the Dongdaemun markets. There’s no time to waste, no loitering around. The sellers are there to sell everything they can, and buyers to buy everything they can. It is straight to the point and fast.


I was met with another scene I wasn’t expecting when, in the evening, I went into one of the many malls in the area—Migliore. It wasn’t like the malls I'm used to from back home: it was a wide open floor, with multiple clothing stalls, side by side (similar to the stands outside), filling the space. I was excited by the great variety; there were 18 floors of this. There are no dressing rooms to try clothes on, and most of the pieces are one size, but the store attendants are experts at what they do and help in this regard. I was looking at a dress in one stall, and the attendant walked up to me, shaking her head, and said, in English, “Size is not okay.” She pointed me to a rack of dresses that would fit me better.



So, while at first Dongdaemun markets can be disorienting if you’re not used to them, once you grasp the culture of shopping in Dongdaemun it is very enjoyable. You can explore endlessly and talk with shop-owners and make findings among the sea of options.


I had a particularly pleasant experience at a clothing stall outside of HelloAPM. The lady working there was very warm-hearted: she helped me find what I was looking for, and let me try on different pieces, offering me various colors and sizes. I know very little Korean, but she encouraged me and made friendly conversation, asking me where I’m from, what I’m doing in Seoul, and making nice comments about the clothes I was trying on. I’ve learned by now that in Dongdaemun you negotiate prices, but at that moment she lowered the price for me without me even asking. After shopping in Dongdaemun, you will go home not only with good purchases, but with the nice memories attached to them as well. 




Dongdaemun also made me appreciate South Korean craftsmanship. When reviewing everything I bought, I saw that every piece had a tag that reads “Made in Korea.”


Much of the clothing sold in Dongdaemun is made in the nearby neighborhood of Changsin-dong. Along the steep, narrow streets and alleys of Changsin-dong are houses that within them contain the small sewing factories that were one of the first steps in Seoul’s industrial development after the Korean War. The women laboring within are experts at what they do, having been making clothes the same way for decades. Motorcycles carry boxes and bags of clothes from Changsin-dong to the Dongdaemun markets. Some people consider this the origin of fast fashion.




With everything Dongdaemun has to offer, and the bulk of clothes and wholesale markets and attendants focused on selling as much as they can and the fast pace of it all, it can be an overwhelming environment to enter at first. You may wonder too—out of the vast ocean of clothing and sellers—how can one place stand out? How can any one seller have a competitive advantage over another? But actually, many South Korean designers get started here. Walking through the floors of shopping malls, you’ll find beautiful outfits displayed on mannequins, and the artist that created them sitting somewhere behind it—head down, focused, working tediously on checking receipts and inventory, or on last minute adjustments on a sewing machine on the floor. Dongdaemun is an entire world to explore—its own intricate system—with so much to be discovered.


In Seoul, people are hard-working, efficient, and great at what they do—they can take a task, become experts at it, and figure out how to do it faster than anyone else. In Dongdaemun, this task is to make and sell clothes. 


By Caroline Ketelhohn, Summer Intern


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