Sunday, 22 March 2009
Last summer I visited South Korea. Aside from the many amazing sights and sounds in Seoul, Busan, Andong and on the road between, one of the things I found most intriguing was the beauty culture.
In the centre of Seoul is a shopping district called Myeongdong - something akin to Japan's Harajuku or London's Covent Garden or Brick Lane - a handful of downtown blocks brimming with youth, fashion, crowds, energy and style. It's not the only place of note for beauty locations, but it has everything that characterises the Korean beauty scene, and has it in spades. It's here I went to explore inside the storefronts that had been tempting me ever since I stepped out of the airport.
There are several large beauty chains in Korea, and they are clearly big business, with stores in all major malls and high streets. They're frequented by women of all ages, clustering like happy bees around the amazing variety of shades and finishes available for eyes, lips, face and nails. A good example is Etude House. It's a beauty brand that unreservedly embraces the Asian trend of CUTE.
Packaging that's baby pink and adorned with sparkle and curlicued styling, store fittings to match. Their locations are more like scaled-up Barbie houses than shops, each a garish profusion of pink, sugary cuteness. And most remarkably of all to my English eyes, used to comparatively staid and traditional Boots and Superdrug, are the staff, dressed in pink frills with candy-striped stockings, cheeks lurid with blusher. They stand at the door holding out baskets lined with sample sachets and freebies to tempt you in. You have to make a minimum spend to keep the treats, of course.
There's also Skin Food, something like Lush or the Body Shop but with the usual Korean rainbow of nail polish and eyeshadow shades. On buying a few things to bring home, I received an amazing fistful of samples from the sales assistant who maybe took pity on my lack of Korean language skills. My windfall included a baffling array of "natural" unguents - broccoli sun cream with SPF 42? Peach Saké Pore Serum? Mmm.
Another big player is The Face Shop, which has a slightly more clinical, grown-up aura to it but still puts on an impressive show of cosmetics, face and body care, nail polish, masks and treatments. Going by the folks I visited, there seem to be few women in Korea without a few Face Shop products on their bathroom or bedroom counters.
The best thing about Korean beauty shopping, apart from the amazing variety of new brands, colours and trends, was the price. It's no wonder Korean women are so gorgeously groomed, with big chains providing quality cosmetics at pocket-money prices. A high-quality, well pigmented eyeshadow costs just a few thousand won (1000W= about 50p), with nail polish from as little as 2000W.
It's part of a bigger theme I sensed during my visit - a strong interest in looking good and making a statement through that. Women can often be seen unselfconsciously checking their appearance in the full-length mirrors near the ticket barriers in the underground. Men too, seem to be part of this climate of aesthetics, and are happy to join their female contemporaries in the Sephora-like beauty emporiums found throughout the capital. My Korean friend and host, a 24 year old guy, was able to direct me to the makeup shops and even browse with me, advising on shades and trying the testers on his hand.
I left Korea with a lot of new ideas, memories, and additions to my makeup bag. There's infinitely more to the place than makeup, but if you do visit, be sure to give at least an afternoon over to some serious cosmetic browsing.