Dedicated followers of the West
The fashion shops would not look out of place in London or New York: all are minimalist in design with those ubiquitous white walls and wooden floors that you see in boutiques in Covent Garden. But this is Seoul and the streets are packed with young women in their teens and twenties, all dressed in white or pastel shades of pink, grey and blue, with Western style tops, sleak trousers and high or wedge-heeled shoes.
It is not eastern clothes they are looking for, according to Jae-song Chun, editor of Farbe, a glossy magazine pitched at 20 to 23-year-olds. It sells more than Elle and Vogue combined in South Korea. "Even though the oriental look is the trend, young people prefer the Western look," she says.
School-age young people tend to go for the sporty style, with long shorts or T-shirts, tracksuit-style trousers, and trainers. But older students go for glamour.
Foreign women might prefer to wear comfortable clothes such as jeans when they go out, Ms Chun says, but Koreans feel they have to follow the latest fashion slavishly; the trend now is the romantic look, "like a princess - and it looks pretty expensive".
Whereas in Britain there has been a switch towards increasingly diverse styles of clothing, in Korea most people go for the same latest look, but it lasts for a shorter period and being up to date is all important. In 1998 the fashionable trousers length for women was seven-tenths of the leg; this year it is nine-tenths. It is a subtle difference but the old length won't do.
"They don't care about making use of last year's clothes, they will buy the new ones," says Ms Chun.
Make-up is minimal for the fashionable innocent look, perhaps just eyeliner and a pale lipstick, sometimes with a darker lipliner. Long, straight hair is in for girls, while boys go for a short crop with a long, floppy fringe sweeping across their forehead.
It is a trend set by the popstars. Whenever a singer buys clothes in Europe or the United States and wears them on stage, teenagers want to wear them too. Korean shops copy the styles to make them affordable.
One of the latest crazes is for long, pointed shoes, 30mm longer than your foot, in the style of hip hop singer Geun-mo Kim, who sold 2 million copies of his album Excuses.
It is normal for young Koreans to go out shopping twice a month, spending 30,000-40,000 wan (pound;15-pound;20), often in one of Seoul's huge fashion markets. For that, says Ms Chun, they can buy one or two T-shirts, a pair of trousers and a pair of shoes - shoes cost about pound;5 a pair. It has to be cheap, because Korean pupils have to spend so much time studying for exams that they rarely have part-time jobs. A few might deliver papers or work in a fast-food restaurant, but usually they rely on pocket money from their parents. Once they are working they are more likely to follow the lead of Korea's world class designers, such as Jinteok and Young-hee Lee. Both have boutiques in Paris.
Ms Lee places great emphasis on using natural materials, such as pineapple fibre, and uses what she calls "Korean lines", taken from the traditional high-waist dress, the hanbok.
Jinteok has a strong following among young fashion students and youths; they buy 90 per cent of the clothes in her collection, she says. The latest designs of tops in her Seoul boutique use sheer fabric to produce a look that is both futuristic and echoes the lines of ancient costumes, drawing on the Korean spirit in a simple minimalist way. "It uses traditional stitching but gives a modern sporty look," she says. "You could wear it with a peasant skirt."