12 October 2023
Seoul, Korea is a vibrant bustling capital that is famous for many things- its history, cuisine, and cafe scene to name a few. Seoul is also known as the hub for all things K-beauty among beauty and skincare enthusiasts. From innovative skincare products to unique makeup brands, Seoul offers a diverse range of stores and experiences for everyone. I was recently in Seoul to experience all of these; and here are my top must visit beauty stores and experiences in Korea.
Olive Young is the biggest retailer of beauty products in Korea; with more than 1000 stores in the country.This chain of stores is a treasure trove of skincare, makeup, hair, beauty technology devices and health supplements. It is often referred to as the “Sephora of Korea” worldwide for its wide range of affordable skin care products.
The Olive Young flagship store in Myeongdong is arguably the most popular Olive Young store in Seoul. The flagship in Myeongdong is a sprawling two storey building with a very wide selection of products beyond skincare and makeup. That said, I would recommend giving the Olive Young flagship store in Myeongdong a miss. Olive Young Myeongdong’s overwhelming popularity among locals and tourists make shopping a disappointing experience. Majority of the popular products were sold out and the shelves were not replenished; and some of the tester products were empty. At the skincare, makeup and beauty tools sections; there were queues to test out and pick up these products.
Thankfully, Olive Young has a ubiquitous presence throughout Seoul; and the different stores differ in their shopping experiences and product selection. I recommend shopping at other Olive Young stores instead. I visited the newly opened Olive Young in Garuso-gil- it is a 3 storey building with a good range of beauty products; and is well stocked. The place is spacious; and provides for a calmer shopping experience. Another Olive Young store that I discovered incidentally to have greater selection of sunscreens compared to most other Olive Young stores was in Insadong. The store assistants in Insadong were also very kind and patient in sharing with me the store’s top selling products.
Here’s a protip for me- to get greater savings, skip buying products from AmorePacific brands at Olive Young. Continue reading for where to get it from the source at slightly lower prices
Personal colour analysis sessions are immensely popular in Korea; and its popularity has spread to many countries including Singapore. In a typical personal colour analysis, the consultants run through a process of visual assessments and tools that assess the colour of the individual’s skin, hair, and eyes to profile them as a particular season- summer, spring, autumn or winter. Profiling of the individual’s best colours and dressing styles are also determined by colour drapings and algorithms.
These personal colour analysis can be regarded as a form of colour profiling and personal styling for individuals. Individuals are also brought through complimentary dressing, hair and jewellery styles. I tried a personal colour analysis when I was in Seoul; and found my session to be immensely useful in enhancing my personal style. I’ve shared my review, and contact for my personal colour analysis in Review: Personal Colour Analysis in Seoul, Korea.
The idea of customised skincare or bespoke makeup products has gained significant traction in recent years in Korea. This trend has proven to be so popular that the Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety passed new rules in 2020 for customised beauty products. Under the new rules, retailers of personalised beauty products have to meet stricter rules under the Cosmetics Act.
Customising your skincare, makeup and fragrance products is easy in Seoul, and many brands offer this service. The turnaround time can be as quick as one hour. However, you have to make your appointments at least one month in advance for popular brands such as Laneige’s customised cushion foundation service in Myeongdong; and AmorePacific flagship’s personalised foundation and lip service in Seongsu.
*note the Colour Factory service by Etude House for customised lipsticks has been discontinued.
When in Seoul, visiting the flagships of beauty brands is an absolute must. For brands, flagship stores are often considered the most prestigious stores among all its retail outlets. More than an ordinary retail store, flagship stores provide an immersive experience for their customers. Flagships often serve as a showcase for the brand, with multisensory experiences, a showcase of the latest innovations, and exclusive or products that can only be purchased at that location. Many skincare and makeup brands in Korea have flagship stores in Seoul. This is a wonderful opportunity for you to discover these experiences from your favourite brands.
I visited a number of flagship stores (and ended up buying more than I expected to); and standouts for me were the newly opened Sulwhasoo flagship store in Bukchon; and the Amore Pacific flagship in Seongsu. I visited both Sulwhasoo flagships in Bukchon and Gangnam; and I preferred the Sulwhasoo flagship in Bukchon. Located in a restored hanok in the historic neighbourhood of Bukchon, the Sulwhasoo flagship houses a boutique, exhibition gallery on the history of the brand, cafe and garden. I felt that this flagship in Bukchon encapsulated the traditional, hanbang brand identity of Sulwhasoo and its vision for a modern, holistic, and elegant brand image. Next to the Sulwhasoo flagship store is also the flagship store of the Korean tea company, Osulloc. It’s another lovely place to stop by tea in the midst of sightseeing in Seoul.
This three storey building is a showcase of all the brands under AmorePacific’s umbrella (eg.Aestura, IOPE, Illiyoon..etc) ; including premium, exclusive brands that are not widely available, like the AmorePacific brand. When I visited, only the first storey that houses the Beauty Library was open to the public. The upper two floors which house the cafe and AmorePacific Museum were closed.
I like the AmorePacific flagship in Seong-su in particular because visitors were allowed as much space and time as they desired to try on all products offered. Step into the flagship and you’ll immediately be brought to private cubicles to clean your skin; before you wander into the Beauty Library to try on all the makeup and skincare to your heart’s content. Clean makeup brushes, and Dyson hairdryers are also provided. Also exclusive to AmorePacific flagship in Seong-su is the opportunity to customise your own lipstick and foundation. Called Tonework, AmorePacific designed a smart system for customising makeup powered by artificial intelligence (AI). Robotic arms create these customised lip products and foundations based on evaluation of the consumer’s skin colour, consultation with a makeup artist and AI algorithms. For this Tonework innovation, AmorePacific received the CES 2023 Innovation Award. The entire process of customising your makeup takes about an hour; and you’ll need to book an appointment at least 1 month in advance.
Lastly, I found the prices of some AmorePacific products to be 10-25% lower compared to the drugstores like Olive Young. Popular Korean brands such as Aestura and Illyoon were on discount. All customers are also given a discount voucher for their purchases; and free gifts for purchases that depend on the amount spent. I received Aestura and Sulwhasoo samples for my purchases.
For the ultimate K-beauty experience, I highly recommend that you get a makeover and portraits taken an I’ve shared my experience here. In the era of AI generated headshots, getting your photos done the old school way keeps things authentic and a great opportunity for you to live your K-drama or K-pop dreams. I’ve seen portfolios of photographers that replicate the editorial style of magazines and posters, but I chose a simpler, professional photography style.
If you’re looking for something more spontaneous and cost friendly, taking your photos in a photobooth is another fun experience. Photo booths are abundant in Seoul, with just about any theme and aesthetic you can think of- Seoul is that amazing. This army here found BTS themed photobooths in Garuso-gil and spent a small fortune there. The prices range from approximately 4000- 9000 KRW (approximately SGD $4-9) for photos.
Seoul’s most famous fragrance and perfume shop is arguably Tamburins, the sister company of avant garde sunglasses brand, Gentle Monsters. Tamburins’ global presence skyrocketed after Jennie from Blackpink fronted a few of their campaigns. This surge in popularity has made the Tamburins stores in Seoul more crowded than it used to be (compared to my last visit in 2019).
Seoul has a number of Korean fragrance boutiques that offer a range of niche and bespoke scents. Some of these local brands such as Non-fiction, Granhand and Pesade may not have the variety of products; or multi sensorial experience of Tamburins’ stores, but still provide unique signature scents and shopping experiences. My favourite was Non-fiction in Garuso-gil; a beautifully designed space that was evocative of a summer afternoon in a scent library. In the same neighbourhood, and also worth a visit, is Parisian fragrance brand, Diptyque’s flagship. This two storey store is Diptyque’s largest flagship in the world. This store is reminiscent of an 18th century Parisian apartment, but with elements of Korean design.
Seoul is well known as a hub for plastic surgeries and cosmetic treatments. But did you also know that Seoul has a thriving facial and spa scene? With Korea’s rich history and culture of self care, Seoul has a range of traditional and modern facial services.
Since I was in Seoul, I decided to try a facial at Korea’s most well known luxury brand, Sulwhasoo. It was a traditional facial with hanbang skincare and massages; and I enjoyed it; although I can understand why some may feel disappointed. My full review in Review: Sulwhasoo Spa in Gangnam, Seoul. Another luxury spa that I was also considering is Shangpree Spa in Gangnam; perhaps I’ll leave this for my next trip to Seoul.
Pop up stores are retail spaces that open for a limited period of time, unlike permanent retail stores. Pop up stores usually offer collaboration, new concepts, exclusive launches and experiences that their other retail stores may not offer.
For example, Korean makeup brand, Too Cool for School, has a pop-up gelato shop. Named after its popular makeup palettes, Mr Rodin’s Gelato Shop offers gelatos and interactive games at this pop-up store in Seongsu. One pop-up I found by happenstance is called Yellow Basket in Garusogil.
Yellow basket is a pop up store in Gangnam that serves as an exhibition space and retail space for lesser known, eclectic beauty brands. I liked the curated selection of skincare products and makeup brands that I did not see in the larger cosmetic stores like Olive Young. When I was there, I discovered Alternative Stereo, a cosmetics brand with retro-inspired and bold aesthetics; Jeju cleansing balls from Ongredients; and lip tints from Black Rouge.
To keep abreast of these limited time pop-ups in Seoul, I recommend downloading an app called POPS (available on Android and iPhone). This app lists the ongoing and upcoming pop-ups in Seoul, as well as information such as opening hours and address. To download this app, head to the Instagram page of Pops and click on the link that’s in the Highlights.
I hope you enjoyed my review of my recommendations of beauty and skincare experiences in Seoul. Stay tuned for my reviews of my skincare buys in Seoul 🙂