Frequent Flyer: Buying Clothing In Asia


Being frugal is something that hardly happens when you’re traveling. While travel, boarding and food will make up the bulk of your expenses, it’s equally likely that shopping — for clothes, souvenirs, gifts, etc. — will also make a sizable dent in your wallet or credit card. As Dapper Guide readers will already know, I do quite a bit of traveling during the year. Whether it’s across country or to Asia, I go wherever work takes me.

Today, we’re going to talk about shopping when you’re abroad, particularly in Asia. In the last two years, I’ve gone to Shanghai and Seoul. Both are beautiful modern cityscapes to behold with vibrant local businesses and shopping centers that open from the crack of dawn into the late twilight.

One of the most commonly brought up topics in conversation with my pals is what is shopping like in Asia. While I can’t speak for every Asian city, my experience in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Seoul (I have yet to visit Japan!) has given me some small insight.

Not All Clothes Are Cheaper

First, let’s bust the whole “clothing is so much cheaper” myth. It’s only partly true. Clothing in Asia is only one-third to one-fourth the price in the U.S., if you’re buying from a no-name brand. These are usually boutiques owned by small local designers just starting out in the fashion industry. The clothing you’ll find in these shops lure customers in with “off” or “asymmetrical” designs that shoppers usually consider “edgy” or “unique.”

Second, these “cheap” apparel also come at a cost to quality. In Hong Kong and Seoul, humidity is a huge issue. Thus, designers create shirts that are noticeably thinner and made from materials and textiles that are less likely to make you sweat. Like the clothing you’d find at a discount shop in the U.S., most of the clothing from these small boutiques won’t last more than a year or two with daily wear.

Same Brand, Different Sizes and Cuts

Having said all of that, clothing from brand-names don’t really offer much in terms of savings compared to their U.S. counterparts, despite sporting the same style design. One of the things that I learned while working in retail during my college years (full disclosure: I used to work at MUJI in New York as a sales associate) was that companies have multiple SKUs (stock keeping unit) for different regions, even though the design is exactly the same. For instance, to fit larger U.S. customers, we ordered clothing sizes and cuts from what would normally be sold in Europeans MUJI stores, as opposed to ones from Japan, since the Euro sizes were a little larger and wider.

Naturally, people from different regions have different tastes and attributes, including different kinds of hair, height, body size/shape, etc. You may think “Oh, I can shop at Uniqlo or MUJI back in the U.S. so I’ll just skip taking a look at them in Asia,” but you’d be missing a lot. While the brand is international, the products offered can often be completely different, especially in size and fit.

I first discovered this with the classic oxford button-down shirt in Uniqlo. When I first started buying them in Uniqlo New York, the fit was spot-on; slim-fit and tapered just right. As Uniqlo became more popular in the U.S., the company quickly changed gears and started selling clothing in larger and wider sizes. An S-size shirt suddenly became an XS in the U.S. (and those always get bought up really fast). Shopping at Uniqlo suddenly felt like shopping at Old Navy or Gap. Even with an XS, the oxford shirts no longer fit me since they were too wide and the sleeves too long.

But while shopping at Uniqlo in Shanghai and Seoul, I found the same exact oxford shirts in S-size with the slim-fit, smaller collars and shorter sleeves that Uniqlo originally imported to the U.S. Needless to say, I bought a dozen or so shirts while in Asia from Uniqlo. The pricing is about the same too; on average about $2-$3 cheaper than in the U.S. for a piece of clothing. The quality of the fabric is also a lot better, too.

The same applies for pants, socks, belts, hats, etc. It’d be foolish to dismiss a store that has global retails on account of the brand alone. And sometimes, you may find clothing specific to a region that isn’t sold in other countries.

Great for Short Guys

Clothing in Asia isn’t for everyone, though. While there are certainly tall Asian guys out there, the percentage of shorter guys is greater. As a guy who is 5-foot 5.5-inches tall with a skinny body build, finding clothes in Asia is a godsend. Everything just fits so much better. And that’s the thing, if you’re short or have smaller feet, buying apparel in Asia is going to be a gold mine.

If you’re short, it might be worth going to Asia to visit and hauling home a year (or even year’s) worth of clothing and shoes home. Is it worth the extra check-in baggage? Absolutely. Not only will your clothes fit better, which means you’ll feel better, but people will probably ask you where you got your clothes from.

My only regret for always going to Asia during the summer is this: I can’t ever find a well-made winter coat to bring back. Short guys will know finding a coat that fits proportionally to your body is pretty tough in the U.S.

Lastly, if you’ve got the time, see about getting a suit or three made in Asia, but do your homework. Any custom suit with a turnover rate of less than a week is probably going to be complete sh*t in terms of stitching, fabric quality and attention to details.