Retail notes from Seoul: [Store Profile] Agarbatti DIY

I discovered this store purely by accident: I was actually walking to Gwangjang Market when I saw the sign “Coffee & Cosmetic” on the other side of the street. These are two of my favourite things; so I obviously had to go and check this out. Turns out that Agarbatti is a really cool DIY cosmetics store / garden café.

The store is located very close to the junction of Dongho-ro and Eulji-ro (if you google “Agarbatti Seoul” you get a different street address). I think there must be more than one Agarbatti store in Seoul since the store sign of the Dongho-ro outlet says “The main shop”. The website (via Google Translate) also lists a store in Hong Kong.

The Dongho-ro store is more  or less in between three subway stations, Dongdaemun History & Culture Park (lines 2,4 and 5), Euljiro 4(sa)-ga (line 2, 5) and Jongno 5(o)-ga station (line 1) – it’s about 10 minutes on foot from either station. The street address of the Agarbatti store is 374-2 Dongho-ro [in Korean: 서울시 중구 동호로 374-2 – copy and paste this into Google Maps and you get the correct location]. The company behind Agarbatti is Dongbang Life & Beauty; from what I could find out they are a wholesale supplier of cosmetic ingredients and packaging.

The Dongho-ro store was opened last year. It is much bigger than it looks from the outside, by the way. As you come in you have some café tables on your left hand side; on the right side there are shelves with cosmetic ingredients, plastic bottles, jars and mixing tools. Then comes the café counter on the right hand side (they serve an excellent espresso!) – see picture below.

And directly opposite the café counter is the cosmetics counter (see picture above) which displays ready-mixed creams and lotions, the Cos-Chef cosmetics maker (more on this in a bit!) and refrigerated cabinets with, presumably, more cosmetics ingredients. Notice how much it looks like a food/beverage counter, what with the bar stools and all? Nice touch!!

Then you stand inside a beautiful café area with plenty of tables (pictures above); I also saw a staircase go up so there is probably extra seating/additional rooms upstairs; walk straight ahead and you’ll come to a lecture/seminar room (pictures below) and, to the right, a kitchen area which, I think, is also for workshops and so on.

The ingredients!

Agarbatti sells essential oils, cosmetic base ingredients, plant oil, plant and herbal powders, liquid herbal extracts and liquid actives as well as various DIY beauty sets. What I found particularly interesting were the TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine)/Hanbang (Korean traditional medicine) ingredients!

The liquid actives are packaged in little bottles with droppers, presumably because they are highly concentrated. I counted 20 different actives, including various peptides such as palmitoyl pentapeptide, whitening peptide and silk peptide, d-panthenol, hyaluronic acid, marine collagen, snail extract, arbutin, astaxanthin and EGF (Epidermal Growth Factor). See pics below.

Agarbatti also sells powder ingredients. I counted some 45 different plant and root powders, including mulberry, dandelion, apricot seed, apple, kelp, bamboo charcoal, mung bean, green tea, houttuynia, glasswort, licorice, cocoa, spinach, oat meal, moringa and chlorella powders plus some animal-derived powders like cochineal and silk worm powder. See pics below.

There were over 30 cosmetic base ingredients such as 1,2-hexanediol, sodium phytate, anisic acid, glyceryl olivate, olive oil PEG-7 esters, coco betaine and so on, most of them were sold in large plastic canisters, the solid ingredients are available in plastic bags or blocks. You can buy these ingredients in different sizes which range from 100ml to 5 litre canisters.

Then there are the liquid herbal extracts which are sold in much larger quantities than the liquid actives, presumably because they are more diluted.  There were some 40 (!) different liquids (see pictures above), including galactomyces ferment filtrate, persimmon leaf, angelica root, black bean extract, okyongsan extract, gingko leaf, red ginseng, lotus, bifida and snow fungus; also hyaluronic acid, marine collagen, silk amino acid, d-panthenol and, of course, snail extract. The quantities available are 100ml, 500ml, 1 litre and 5 litres.

Abargatti also sells plant oils such as neem oil, camellia oil cotton seed oil and hemp seed oil plus the more usual oils like jojoba, almond and so on. I counted 26 oils in total including a few variants marked as “organic”. Finally, there are some ten floral waters – lavender, rose and the like – as well as essential oils (ylang ylang, rose geranium, lavender, peppermint etc.).

I was very tempted by the bottles of licorice extract and snow fungus and believe me, if my suitcase hadn’t already been so heavy (after all, I am still going to Tokyo and Shanghai!) I would have completely lost my head and purchased half litre bottles of everything. In the end reason prevailed and I settled for three 50gr jars of the powders: kelp, seaweed and licorice . See picture below; in the background you can admire the fabulous 20th floor city view from my hotel room (Ibis Ambassador Dongdaemun; highly recommended).  I will use the powders as additions to my medicinal clay powder masks.

Dongbang Life & Beauty is also the manufacturer behind the Cos-Chef (see pictures below), a small and elegant mixer which you can use for blending the cosmetics. It is also available as a kit complete with a small cosmetic fridge so you can store the cosmetics properly – an excellent idea; temperatures in Korea can be sweltering indeed.

Of course Agarbatti also offers workshops and seminars on how to make your own cosmetics. I wonder how popular DIY beauty is in Korea, considering how advanced the domestic C&T industry is with its high-performance/high-tech cosmetic formulations. Also, Korean beauty brands are perceived as trustworthy amongst domestic consumers. And the high density of health & beauty retail stores you have here in Korea!

Or perhaps this is a kind of counter trend or counter development; rather than purchase sophisticated creams with complicated ingredients you make your own? Simplifying things; back to the basics, taking control over what you put on your face (and therefore into your body)? Or perhaps just the urge to not purchase the same trendy cosmetics that everyone else buys but instead do your own thing? A variant of the customisation trend?  Feedback on this issue is welcome, by the way; if anyone has any insights on this, please share them!

In Germany there was a big DIY trend in the – I think it started in the 1970s? The whole “make your own cosmetics” thing then tapered off but it is now witnessing a bit of a renaissance. And the organic and natural beauty industry has definitely seen a trend towards simpler formulations recently – balms, plant oils, butters: as few ingredients as possible, unrefined, cold-pressed. Which doesn’t really apply to Agarbatti’s product selection though, the base ingredients that were sold in the store were not organic, as far as I could tell.  “Kitchen beauty”, however,  is trending strongly in Europe and the US – perhaps Asia is next? I’ll keep an eye out for this when I’m in Tokyo next week.

The store is open six days a week; they are closed on Sundays. Store opening hours are from (I think) 10am to 6pm.

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Filed under Asia, Industry News, Retail, Store Profiles, Travel, Trends

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