Seoul, mecca for bargain hunters

``Pssst. Hey, mister, how about a fine pin-stripe suit -- custom-made, very high quality, inexpensive. Ready tomorrow.'' ``No, thanks. I just bought three.''

Yes, it's true. I bought three finely tailored suits of first-rate materials and workmanship for about $120 each in this shopping mecca known as Itaewon, near downtown Seoul.

But fine suits are only one of many items you can have custom tailored here in 24 hours for unspeakably low prices. Eelskin shoes are another (about $35), and so are silk dresses, blouses, and all kinds of leather.

Add to the list luggage, furs, amethysts, smoky topazes, jeans, and running shoes, and you have some of the items that are putting South Korea ahead of Hong Kong with some of the best buys in the world.

The reason may be complicated in origin, but Zohng Chill Kim, head of South Korea's National Tourism Corporation, explained it quite simply: ``Favorable exchange rate, cheap Korean labor.''

South Korea, one of the Asian miracle economies still in its ``newly industrializing country'' phase, badly needs foreign exchange, particularly dollars -- since the United States is its largest foreign market. Prices on some items, such as eelskin, amethysts, and smoky topazes reflect their great natural abundance in Korea. Other manufactured items reflect cheap labor as well.

Labor unions present one of the largest challenges facing both the ruling and opposition parties as they work on constitutional reform, which some hope will ensure more equal distribution of the country's new wealth. Some 150 unions have recently been formed, but they do not represent workers' concerns in the same way as in the US.

Some of this ongoing struggle is not apparent to Americans and other visitors, who see nothing but polite and willing store owners and craftsmen.

With my guide's help, I picked a reputable-looking shop from among about 60 on this half-mile-long strip. I had one suit made, choosing my own fabric from dozens of first-rate materials.

As I was being measured, I was figuring that for $115 the suit would be acceptable, perhaps crudely stitched in unseen areas, with cheap linings, etc. I gave the tailor added incentive by saying if I liked the suit, I'd buy another.

Returning the next day, I was pleasantly surprised to find a finely tailored suit with tapered cut, hand-stitched lapels, and an inside label with my name embroidered on it.

Since I can't find a 42 extra-long at any price, even in some ``tall man'' shops, I ordered a tuxedo for $140, including a custom-tailored ruffled shirt, tie, cummerbund, and striped trousers. (A rationalizer without peer, I remembered that the ushers at my own wedding shelled out $60 for one day's rental.)

Then I ordered another three-piece suit and an extra jacket. The total price for all these threads was still below a quote I was once given for one suit in Los Angeles.

My wife passed up opportunities for custom dresses and instead opted for the allure of smoky topazes and amethysts in a nearby booth at the same arcade. Stunning multicarat stones, more the size of rocks than jewels, ran for $8 to $30.

Upstairs were the famous fox, mink, and raccoon fur showrooms of Jindo Inc., where a full-length black mink coat costs $1,300 -- half the price of the firm's other outlets in Japan, Paris, and New York.

The furs are offered here, duty-free, to foreigners only. One couple we saw trying on furs said they paid for their entire Korean trip with the savings on two fur coats.

Walking up and down the streets, alleys, and arcades of Itaewon is probably the most international experience in Seoul. In addition to the ever-present American servicemen (40,000 are stationed in South Korea), Europeans, Japanese, Filipinos, Indians, and Indonesians cram the sidewalks, purchasing duty-free goods and inexpensive luggage to carry it in.

I bought a sturdy black canvas shoulder bag for $4 and a carry-on suit bag with a dozen large pockets for $8.

One of the fastest-selling items here is running shoes. Puma, Brooks, and Nike all have outlets here, with midrange models running $7 to $12. Reeboks run about $13 to $20, compared with $35 to $50 in the US. But let the buyer beware.

Since trademark laws are virtually nonexistent, there is much counterfeiting of every conceivable name brand, from shoes to watches. Of course, you may want to purchase such a counterfeit knowingly. I bought a copy of an $1,800 ``Cartier'' watch for $50.

Also, be careful to negotiate fittings carefully, discussing every detail of the purchase, from size to quantity and color, over and over again.

Get promises of satisfaction, and don't pay in advance. Having ordered custom-made eelskin shoes, I returned to find that part of one was discolored. Not having paid full price in advance, I was in a strong position to demand that a new pair be made.

We also went to visit Myong Dong, the downtown area of department stores and fine clothing outlets. Everything from shoes to suits was far more expensive, more comparable to shopping in the US. On a detour from the southern resort town of Kyongju, we found no center of shopping to compare.

Instead there were communities offering cheap souvenirs. Nor did we find such bargains in stores of Ulsan, the port city that is home to Hyundai Motors and shipping.

Electronics are not worth buying here. Japanese brands are astronomical in price, and Korean-made brands do not compare in quality.

In Seoul, there are other shops famous for specific items. Chonsu-gongbang is the abbreviated title for the Korean Traditional Folk Arts Training and Education Association, located south of the city and reached by the Seoul-Pusan expressway. It opened in 1973 as a center for the preservation and transmission of traditional handicrafts.

In 13 studios, visitors can watch weavers, glass blowers, bamboo craftsmen, and arrowmakers and buy some of their handiwork.

Changan-dong on the eastern outskirts of Seoul, and Insa-dong near Pagoda Park are the districts for antiques shoppers. Here also are many art galleries and stores that specialize in lacquerware, ceramics, calligraphy, and furniture.

Your local travel agent can fill you in on special low-cost shopping trip offerings. Anywhere you go in Korea, the dollar goes a long, long way.

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