Seoul – An insider’s guide to the city trendiest places by local fashionistas

Words and photos by Vincent Sung

Seoul, a sprawling modern metropolis populated by over twenty-five million people, attracted world attention with major events such as the 2002 FIFA World Cup and World Design Capital in 2010. 

Ranking in the top ten of the great Asian cities along with Tokyo, Singapore, Bangkok, Shanghai, Jakarta, and Hong Kong; Seoul remains strangely relatively unknown to foreign visitors from the West. Many Westerners are simply passing through the futuristic Incheon airport on their way to the USA or Japan, without taking the time to stop by the capital and become swept up in its bustling streets.

Seoul is split in two distinctive sections divided by the Han River: the Northern Gangbuk, which was once the seat of the Chosun dynasty and the old capital until 1910, and the Southern Gangnam district, made famous by Korean pop singer ‘Psy,’ which has been the center of commerce and large conglomerates since the late eighties. 

Navigating between the two main districts is convenient and easy, either by riding the extended Seoul public transportation system or by hailing a cab or deluxe taxi. Make sure to have the exact location written in Korean, as the new address system can be confusing at times. 

With the internationally acclaimed Hera Seoul Fashion Week, a high caliber fashion event at DDP (Dongdaemun Design Plaza); which was well attended by over 200 local and international medias and over 80 overseas buyers, which came to an end until next season in October 2016; to the Conde Nast ‘Future Luxury’ international conference in April 2016, Seoul topped the coveted list of the most fashionable and trendy city in Asia. To feel the pulse of the city’s latest hip places or all time favorites, here is an introduction to Korean fashionistas and trendsetters and their top places to go.

Internationally recognized fashion icon and one of Korea’s pioneering fashion designers, Lie Sang Bong founded his eponymous brand, LIE SANG BONG, in 1985. This entrepreneur began his career by creating couture garments for private clients at his humble atelier in Seoul. In 1993, he presented his first ready-to-wear collection, “The Reincarnation,” during SFAA collections. Recognized for its distinctive style, blending traditional influences and innovative techniques, he became quickly internationally recognized for his architectural collections that celebrate and enhance the feminine body. “Fashion is where art and industry converge, it allows me to combine diverse influences and personal passions including Korean poetry, calligraphy and architecture, Cubism, Bauhaus design, 1930’s Film Noir heroines, and the natural world. My garment construction is approached from an architectural perspective; silhouettes are built out from Bauhaus-influenced geometric shapes,” says Mr. Lie. Aiming at expanding his brand worldwide, LIE SANG BONG began to show his Paris Prêt-a-Porter collections in 2002 and then has continued at Mercedes-Benz Fashion week in New York from 2014 to the present day. An influential artistic and cultural figure in South Korea, he currently is the president of CFDK (Council of Fashion Designers of Korea) and an international cultural Ambassador for the City of Seoul. Often nicknamed the “Korean McQueen”, Lie Sang Bong has dressed notable women such as Korea’s First Lady, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Rosario Dawson, Kelly Rowland, and Juliette Binoche.

“My favorite places for a drink are both located in Itaewon; Glam is where the internationally educated Koreans rub shoulders with well-dressed expats and clad dressed women showing their latest fashion accessories,” declares designer Lie Sang Bong.

This luxury lounge, located in the District behind Hamilton hotel, is adorned in black marble highlighted by golden accents and candles scattered around the main bar. Comfortable seating, exclusive private areas and a large bullet-shaped bar sets the scene for an intimate night of mingling with Seoul’s beautiful people. Accompanying the opulent interior of Glam, it offers guests VIP semi-private seating indoors & outdoors in their adjacent multi-level garden gallery. The chic lounge restaurant serves a contemporary menu expanding the definition of Japanese and Asian tapas and complementing their selection of specialty cocktails, wine, champagne and spirits. Also, it is important to note that this is one of the few places in Seoul where smoking indoors is permitted.

Another pick from Lie Sang Bong, My Sweet, is a dessert cafe and restaurant bar located in the recent adjunction of Itaewon, near Yongsan-gu office owned by Hong Seok-cheon. A famous Korean entertainer, comedian and entrepreneur, Hong Seok-cheon was the first gay man ‘to come out of the closet’ in conservative Korean society. My Sweet features three floors spread along a wide corner building. The roof opens up only for a special event or a party. The interior has unique touches with artwork and carefully selected furniture. Original artworks by celebrated pop artist Nancy Lang can be found on display throughout the space. The overall venue has a more casual atmosphere, especially on the second floor bar, where a ‘fun and even wild’ party can start spontaneously.

A famous and acclaimed Korean commercial photographer since the 90’s, Kim Yong-ho has become a household name for Korea’s fashion photography. He was awarded “Photographer of the Year” from Harper’s Bazaar Korea and served as head of Korea’s fashion photographer association for the past six years. He is still actively involved in commercial photography with brands ranging from Mercedes-Benz and Salvatore Ferragamo to Hyundai Motor and Hyundai Card. His exhibition / photo studio space 915 industry gallery, hosts edgy photography exhibitions and serves as an informal cultural incubator. Mr. Kim is also synonymous with the cultural era in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul – once the most fashion-oriented areas in the capital – to the minds of those in their 30’s and 40’s. Once a restaurateur himself, he founded and ran Cafe de Flore, a restaurant, wine bar and cafe that was the hottest spot among celebrities and locals. After several successful years, he sold it to Kim Young-hee, a famous restaurateur and mother of the famed singer Psy, in order to focus on his fine art photography.

His favorite place of all times is also located in Cheongdam-dong and has been at the same location since December 1999. Palais de Gaumont is a French classic haute cuisine restaurant with décor inspired by French palaces and libraries from the Victorian era. The owner, Seo Hyun-min, majored in film and named the restaurant after Leon Gaumont, a pioneer of motion picture technology, and the Gaumont Palace. The entrance is magnificent yet elegant, and the interior design is classic with subdued lights and an overall French retro feel. The classy restaurant serves elaborately presented French-themed set menus made with quality ingredients changed seasonally (six courses set menu fixed price at 135,000 won). Along with a legendary selection of wines, this is the perfect place to take a date or to bring your future business partners.

Opened since 2007, Tutto Bene is the second restaurant by the talented Mr. Seo. Unlike the recent trend of creating open and light-filled spaces in restaurants, Tutto Bene is more reminiscent of a mansion of an eccentric collector from the 80s. A narrow space featuring old train booths is often fully booked, and its strength lies in the in-house reinterpretations of Italian cooking. Fresh handmade fettuccine cooked al dente and served with grated Parmesan, egg yolk, sage and butter is among the top favorites. With the know-how inherited from Palais de Gaumont, the wine selection is as impressive as its sister restaurant.

You Ji-young, a multi-talented artist and fashion designer, reopened ‘Grandmother’, her famous staple wine bar in March 2016. Previously located on Garosugil Road in Sinsa-dong, which has become an overpriced trendy neighborhood over the last ten years, her place finally found its perfect location in the Cheongdam area. In her new ‘home’, she created a multifunctional space where fashion, party, concert and culture blend together in harmony. Just as its name implies, Grandmother is a homey restaurant and wine bar where the fusion cuisine focuses on sharing rather than eating individual dishes. The interior is a reflection of her personality and great taste. The elegant, sensual venue is decorated with her paintings; blue and purple fabrics that she personally dyed are draped at strategic locations, while some of her haute-couture dresses hang nonchalantly next to antique wooden doors. Subdued lighting, grand chandeliers and mismatched chairs create a distinct atmosphere, matching her unique personality.

One of the nation’s foremost experts in the makeup field, Lee Kyung-min, recently renovated the first floor of her prestigious building Forêt and opened a curated multi-brand shop named Shop in Forêt’, which displays her personally selected limited edition items. From Korean traditional brass kitchenware that was reinterpreted with a modern twist, to cute gift objects, unique wallpaper, or digitized artsy LCD displays, these items are sourced locally as well as from Denmark, Italy, Canada and the USA. Lee Kyung-min, however, made sure that her prices are below the current offerings in other similar shops in this affluent Cheongdam-dong district. Included in this store, there is a top-quality florist Helena Flowers and a small café with a terrace to enjoy a cup of tea or coffee while browsing the artwork displayed in the mini art gallery or while shopping for a tasteful gift.

Jennifer’s model academy director, Bae Young-min, (or Peter Bae) recommends a small, cozy bar located in Hannam-dong. Gwibuin or ‘Femme Distinguée’ (elegant lady) just opened at the beginning of March 2016. The owner, Shin Gui-ran, who is very much involved in fashion as the manager of several Korean top models, wanted a convivial and intimate place to drink with fashion industry colleagues and friends. She made it happen with Gwibuin. The food menu leans toward Asian fusion and Korean favorites while tasty side dishes go well with the carefully chosen wine list (two reds and two whites) or the best seller: Lady of Spain cava (60,000 won / bottle), a sexy-looking bottle of Spanish sparkling. They also carry the best gins and two types of champagne along with high quality Korean spirits.

Kukso Koo, a Korean-born haute couture designer who studied and worked in Italy with prestigious brands such as Roberto Cavalli, recently came back to Seoul to take the city by ‘storm’ and show his talent and feminine creations during the next fashion collections in October 2016. One of his favorite place is the recently opened Pizza Muzzo sitting at the former ‘Between’ location, in the heart of Itaewon.

Pizza Muzzo celebrates contemporary, ingredient-focused cooking with executive Chef, Cristian Gallarello, hailing from Torino Italy, who has reimagined Italian classics by adding new flavors to traditional Italian recipes and family secrets. The sleek industrial-style restaurant, reminiscent of a London train station, serves rustic pizzas made from traditional, seasonal ingredients with homemade dough, made in-house everyday. Cooked in a specially made wood-brick oven, the signature dish Romeo pizza is a favorite amongst hip Koreans who flock to the place every night. The expansive menu also offers fresh antipasti, handmade pastas and seasonally changing specials.

 Up on the second floor in the same building, another world lies at the upscale bar Satto. Much more private and offering an immediate sense of occasion and glamour, the venue is split into three distinct sections, all with their own feeling and individual design. As you enter through the sliding door, there is a large central bar and a marble-tiled hall; opposite of it, is a covered terrace that resembles a Mediterranean balcony. Next to the DJ table, up a short flight of stairs, there is a more intimate yet exquisite setting; Satto ‘Orient Express’. Shaped and decorated as the modern version of the famed train, the chic atmosphere guarantees enjoyment in the most luxurious fashion. About twenty different kinds of signature cocktails are on offer and are made using the freshest ingredients available. The talented female bartenders can recommend or tailor a cocktail to your specific taste. They say the cocktail Smoked Gin is a must! This contemporary speakeasy lounge is the perfect place for enjoying comfortable yet refined selections of premium alcohol with Seoul’s premier crowd.

The local fashionistas and trendsetters of Seoul have spoken. Visitors to this grand city have now been introduced to these little-known gems that only true locals would know (for now)! Drink a cocktail, have a fusion dinner, rub shoulders with the rich and glamorous and discover the insider’s city secret of ‘Grand Dame’ Seoul by trendy locals.

This feature was first published in World Travel magazine in 2016