A Gift Shop That Sells Korean Beauty
If you’re looking for a souvenir that embodies both the beauty and culture of Korea, head over to Havebeenseoul.
It may sound like an exaggeration, but finding a gift that suits me perfectly is like finding a needle on a sandy beach. Every year, there’re articles that promise to help people with gift shopping. Titles like “List of perfect Christmas presents” and “Top 10 Valentine’s Day gifts” prove that a lot of people struggle to buy good presents. Shopping for gifts is already hard enough, but what about Korean-style gifts? Shopping for a souvenir before returning home from a visit to Korea can be challenging. There are less choices, but that doesn’t mean it’s easier. As a lot of tourists aren’t necessarily familiar with the common souvenir items, they have to be attractively designed to the extent that people are going to want to buy it even if the concept is new to them. Not to mention, it also needs to say “I’m from Korea,” but without being too obvious. A souvenir that ticks all those boxes is going to make a trip to Korea memorable, but where can you buy such a thing? Havebeenseoul’s CEO Yang Jung-hyun, who previously worked as a visual merchandiser, was among the many people that used to be asked the same question. After a year of preparation, Yang opened Havebeenseoul, initially online, in 2014. Today, Havebeenseoul may just have become that souvenir shop that everybody has been waiting for.

Inside Havebeenseoul's showroom

Q. How did you start Havebeenseoul?
A. Since I worked in visual merchandising, I naturally thought of creating a platform that sells designer products. At the time, Northern European designs were trendy and there were a lot of products with pretty designs. Since the design market was already saturated, I thought I wouldn’t be able to be competitive enough. One day, a friend asked me if I could make a pretty souvenir. It was difficult and I struggled, so I started looking into it. Then, I thought of creating a pop-up store that sells products with a Korean flavor that could be a crossing point between the design market and craft market.

Q. When I looked at the website, it feels more like a craft shop. What do you think?
A. Well, souvenirs are products that have a traditionally Korean image. Since I deal with those kinds of products, I tend to handle a lot of crafted goods. But it’s not a craft shop. I sell a variety of products that have a Korean identity, made by young designers and made by artists that are designated as intangible cultural assets. For this reason, I use the title that says “a store that sells cultural gifts.”

Q. Is there a standard that determines how you select the products that you would like to sell at your store?
A. Of course. The materials have to be traditional while the design needs to be modern. But if the design is traditional, the material has to be modern. If the product has some sort of Korean aspect, whether it’s the designer’s intention, material or design, I tend to introduce it. For example, we have a checkered mother-of-pearl box. Mother-of-pearl is a vintage material for us, but the pattern and design is very modern.

Pottery drawing fabric in hanging scrolls

“It’s a pop-up store that introduces products that incorporate Korean style. We started [Havebeenseoul] in the hope that it could become the intersecting point between the design market and hand-craft market.”
Havebeenseoul CEO, Yang Jung-hyun

Stackable 4-piece side-dish box


Plate in the shape of chrysanthemum petals

Q. How do you discover new artists or products?
A. Through hard work! For rising artists or designers, we find them at fairs. Thankfully these days, we often get contacted by them as our store is now well established. But for great artists that have been designated as intangible cultural assets, we still have to visit them ourselves as they’re hiding in the countryside.

Q. I’m sure you have great memories of that process. What are some products that you have a special attachment to?
A. The mother-of-pearl box is my favorite product and also one that I feel the most proud of. This is something that I’ve introduced since I started running Havebeenseoul. Seriously, when we first started, we didn’t have anything, so who would want to give us their products? Artist Kim Young-joon made the mother-of-pearl box and I coincidently found him when I was looking for something else. Just knowing his name, our operating manager and I visited him. We showed him our sample images on our website and explained the same things that I just told you. Starting from designed products, we are going to create a space that sells artists’ products and products that embody a traditional image of Korea. Tourists visiting Insa-dong are disappointed and people ask where they can buy souvenirs. We didn’t get a deal straight away, but we just kept on talking. Then, all of a sudden, he just gave us his product. When we opened our website, that mother-of-pearl box was the first product to be sold. I was so happy at the time that I couldn’t express it in words.

Q. Is there a reason why you started online instead of offline?
A. Realistically, it made financial sense, but honestly, the bigger reason was that we couldn’t find our target audience. We asked ourselves; “What kind of customers will buy our products? Would it be students studying abroad, travelers or corporations?” Since we didn’t have confidence in our target customer, we started online. To point out something that we’ve done differently, we considered B2B. When companies look for certain information, they surf the internet at their desk rather than going around the street to buy gifts for their foreign buyers. We thought that it could work if we started online.

Inside Havebeenseoul's showroom

Q. Do companies also look for hand-crafted products?
A. There’s a folding fan made by artist Kim Dong-si, who is a Korean intangible cultural asset. The fan has red lines on a white background with no other images or decorations. Since it has a minimalist design, it is well suited with modern tastes. Folding fans have been traded as gifts since the Joseon Dynasty. Also, folding fans are a great gift anywhere in the world as there are no cultural differences in terms of usage. I recommend this product to companies as one of my favorite gift items.

Q. Since it’s a souvenir and a gift, do you pay closer attention to packaging?
A. Yes. Along with packaging, we spend a lot of time on details like writing manuals in English, Japanese, French and Chinese, or in other languages around the world. We also have products that come with a warranty signed by the artist.

Organic tableware

Q. You guys have an interesting gift curation service. How did you come up with it?
A. Honestly, more than 80 percent of our customers are B2B. We have a lot of foreign VIPs or domestic VIPs purchasing our products. When companies request gift packaging, they don’t always specify the products and this is how we started a curation service. Based on the country, gender, age and price offering of our customers, we suggest gift items.

Q. What kind of individual customers visit Havebeenseoul?
A. Since we sell products that are different from other pop-up stores, the majority of customers look for unique product for themselves, instead of as gifts.

Striped porcelain silver cup


Hand-made ceramic cups with different inner patterns

Q. When we say souvenirs, Insa-dong is the place that we think of first. But Havebeenseoul’s showroom is in Gangnam. Is there any specific reason why you chose Gangnam.
A. Our first showroom was in Gahoe-dong and of course we thought that we should also be moving to the northern part [of Seoul]. It was in an isolated place in the northern region and we really didn’t have any customers. Seeing that, we started to think that we should really decorate our space well so it becomes a place that people want to visit, regardless of the location. And since our main customers are corporations, we thought that it would be better to move to Gangnam.

Q. When remaking the showroom, what did you focus on?
A. Even Koreans find Korean crafts difficult to buy, although the products like vases and folding fans are all things that can easily be used at home. Since those are products that can easily be used in our daily lives, we wanted a showroom that was comfortable. So we decided to show 'room'. To do that, we looked for a space that is just like a house, a space that wouldn’t look awkward with furniture in it. We created our showroom by remodeling a house and allowing handcrafted products to blend into the setting naturally. We wanted to show that looking Korean isn’t old fashioned and that crafted items aren’t difficult to use.

Ceramic candle inspired by traditional Korean ceramics


Small moon jar and tableware in jade green

Q. Havebeenseoul sells a variety of products. Is there anything more that you would like to add to your assortment?
A. We want to expand in various areas but we would like to try food and books. We believe one of the best ways to represent Korea is through its food. We tried to cover food before but stepped back a little because it was difficult. We also want to try adding books that explains [Korean] traditions. We want to expand those categories.

Q. What kind of place do you hope Havebeenseoul will become?
A. We want the share of B2B customers and B2C customers to be about 50:50. Right now, 80 percent of our customers are B2B while only 20 percent of the customers are B2C. We hope to be able to approach individual customers more comfortably. Since I have an interest in crafted products, I started buying them as gifts and naturally, I started getting them for myself as well. We hope that this will become a place where people visit to buy a present for someone and later return to get something for themselves. To do so, I guess we need to keep on trying to differentiate ourselves from others.
Havebeenseoul’s top 4 Seoul souvenirs


1. Checkered mother-of-pearl box
Designed by artist Kim Young-joon, the sky blue checkered traditional pearl box has been transformed into a modern beauty. Raden is a traditional technique of woodwork using inlays of shell. As the texture of the shell changes depending on the light, it makes it more beautiful.

2. Mir Turtle Ship box
Designed by Lee Jung-hoon, Mir is a series of product that is made under the theme of historical relics. The turtle ship shape has been used as the motive behind the design. The dragon-shaped head at the top of the ship has been repurposed in the handicraft and it can be used as multi-purpose storage box.


3. Hemp cloth lacquered small dining table
This is a small dining table designed by &Baum, who design and study lacquer products that can be used in daily life. By making it a little smaller than the traditional small dining table, it is more practical. The top surface is lacquered with hemp cloth and natural colors. As it’s light and has great durability, it can be used as a one-person snack or coffee table or to display an object.

4. Lacquered brassware teacup
Brassware has outstanding thermal and sterilization functions and was even used for the king’s tableware. This teacup was created by Lee Hyeok, who has continued his family’s hand-crafted organometallic business for four generations since 1924. As it was designed after the surface of the cup has been lacquered, it is aesthetically pleasing and easy to take care of.

Outside Havebeenseoul's showroom


Inside Havebeenseoul's showroom

Address 17 Bongeunsa-ro 18-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Phone +82-70-4415-1508
June 2019 Editor:Kim Hyewon
Photographer:Park Sungyoung

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  • June 2019
  • Editor: Kim Hyewon
  • Photographer: Park Sungyoung
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