Taipei's discount clothing mecca doesn't look like much from the outside: a row of ramshackle storefronts on Songshan Road hawking clothes so ugly it's hard to see how the vendors stay in business. But step through to the alleys inside and you'll find a glittering, air-conditioned maze of tiny shops selling a dizzying variety of casual clothes, shoes and other accessories.
There's something for nearly everyone at Wufenpu (五分埔), from Japanese-style T-shirts and stylishly ripped blue jeans to tropical sarongs and goth outfits. It's a well-known fact that retailers from Taiwan and abroad come here each week to stock up on the latest fashions, which they sell elsewhere for double the price or more. Take the time to explore Wufenpu and its more than 100 stores, and you might find yourself reluctant to shop anywhere else.
But be prepared for a visual assault of contrasting colors, packed alleys less than a few meters wide, and a barrage of pounding techno, hip-hop and rock music.
A good time to go is on a Monday, when retailers make their weekly visits to stock up on goods for their stores. On a recent visit, buyers were seen at several stores purchasing and stuffing clothes into pink plastic bags, while deliverymen hauled carts with packages that still bore inspection stickers from Chinese airports. Get there before 2pm, which is when most of the stores open, before the selection has been picked over.
Although tourist literature produced by the local district office plays up the notion that stores here sell trendy clothes from Japan, South Korea and Thailand, most vendors readily admit that most of their items are made in China. Others say they buy their clothes in Hong Kong, which means they were made in China.
This doesn't necessarily mean that the clothes are poorly made or don't look good. It means you have to spend time looking through each store before you find something worth spending money on.
At Jacky, located at 31, Alley 5, Lane 459, Yonji Road (永吉路459巷5弄31號), a few of the men's striped shirts on display (roughly NT$800) could easily be selling in New York under brand names like H&M or French Connection. Slightly lower in quality but on the sale rack for NT$100 were button-down shirts with twin dragons embroidered on the front.
Jacky sells anywhere from four to more than 100 items each day, said Peng Chi-wei (彭志偉), who works at the store. “Our owner goes to Hong Kong once a month to buy clothes, although some stores send people there once every two weeks,” he said. Visitors to Jacky would do well to check out Vanilla, located just up Alley 5. The store smelled like vanilla incense and looked like a tiny version of US retailer Urban Outfitters.
Both stores are located near the middle of Wufenpu and proved difficult for a repeat visitor to locate. Other quality shops were reluctant to provide name cards, perhaps because American lawyers have been known to pose as customers to catch stores selling fake designer labels. For the directionally challenged, the best way to tackle the market is to simply walk around until you see something you like. Many businesses run two, three or even four stores at different locations.
If you don't trust your own judgment, a good way of determining that what you buy will last and look good is the quality of the service. If a salesperson follows you around and asks unsolicited personal questions like, “You're really hairy. Is it uncomfortable during the summer?” it's probably an indication that you should take your business elsewhere.