From Hyon Song-wol to Ri Sol-ju,
the North Korean Fashion Icons
Editor | Inhae Yeo
Monday 29th January 2018
North Korea is a country where in general the term ‘trade’ is something of a different notion. International trade is restricted and the domestic market is not the modern standard of worldwide, or so we perceive. But even in this remote country where little of the residents’ everyday lifestyle is exposed, it would not be surprising to learn that there is an active trade of all goods and especially fashion, as nothing can really stop fashion in its progression to journey and influence every corner of the world.
Ri Sol-ju, the dictator’s wife and Hyon Song-wol, the leader of the North Korean girl group Moranbong Band are two North Korean fashion icons grasping the attention of the outside world. Hyon impressed the South Korean and global press during her recent visit to South Korea in preparation for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics 2018 opening next month. She stood out from the crowd with her simple and understated style. She was dressed in an elegant black coat styled with a dark grey fox fur and a pair of black ankle boots. The understated all black look was sophisticated and spot on. Photos from the past reveals Hyon dressed in a military uniform carrying a clutch, which is surely a fashion forward statement in North Korea. Ri on the other hand has been photographed in bright coloured dresses and ensembles. Little is known of the country’s young first lady, but her fashion sense is all yet to develop. What is the North Korean fashion and who are the younger generation inspired by and where do they get access to these fashion items?
Jangmadang Market Economy
North Korea is not a country that many have first-hand knowledge of. The country has had its borders tightly closed since the split from the South and has been disconnected from the outside world for nearly 70 years. It is however not difficult to find people who are originally from areas in the North part of Korea and it’s generally understood that they have an excellent advantage in trade – given that it borders China, hence the many years of trading history in the region. The north part of Korea has always been famous for good food as well. They are full of rich heritage and know-how, particularly in trade. According to a source who has numerous first hand encounters of the real scenes, Jangmadang is a very important scene for the North Korean economy. Many including this source believes that the reason the country is not suffering from ongoing starvation of deaths despite the famine situation being no better than that of the 90s – famed by the term the ‘Arduous March’- is thanks to the Jangmadang market economy. The younger generation who have experienced this market have had a taste of capitalism and would no doubt influence the future North Korean society. The markets can not be stopped and will impact the younger generation’s perception of capitalism as well as their desire for more – in many forms.
The strategic geographical location of Korea, being a peninsula bordered by land to China and across the ocean from Japan puts Korea in a unique place, naturally influencing and being influenced by neighboring Asian countries which are the two big giants of Asia. Cultural exchanges have been rapidly accelerating recently, despite political issues based on the raise of Korean pop culture that has hugely affected Asian countries, especially Japan and China. Korean celebrities have risen as a powerful force thanks to successful hit dramas. Fashion and beauty are the two industries that have seen the results of the great success and specific brands or products associated to these celebrities have seen great impacts. North Korea is the closest country to South Korea, so it’s not surprising that the pop culture has found its way into the country. What essentially influences the women are the products that Chinese traders bring into the country. The Chinese merchants are heavily influenced by Hallyu, so as a result Korean dramas and pop culture has a big impact. The late dictator, Kim Jong-il was renowned for having been a big fan of Korean films during his regime and so was his father Kim Il-sung. International press has reported about Kim Jong-un being ambitious and passionate about modernizing the image of the country.
Dazed & Confused published photos a few years back showing North Korean women carrying what looked like designer bags in the style of Dior and Prada. As someone who has visited the ‘International Trade Exhibition’ in North Korea, a source says that the Chinese stalls selling handbags are often overcrowded with North Korean women. Aspiring and desiring beautiful objects is a universal and common thread amongst women all over the world and North Korea is no different. At luxury hotels and restaurants in Pyeong Yang, women carrying branded handbags can be spotted, so the photos from Dazed & Confused are likely to be true. Although it is difficult to tell from far away and by glancing, whether these bags are real. Another source says that wealthy Chinese businessmen are given access to build resorts and luxury getaway spots in North Korea and they would bring along with them their luxury cars like Mercedes Benz. The privileged would have encountered and have been exposed to today’s fashion taste and brands. Ri Sol-ju, the wife of the current leader, Kim Jong Un is often spotted dressed in a very modern style. She has been photographed wearing colorful ensembles and has also appeared in an all-black skirt suit and carries luxury handbags like Dior. Simple dresses in the style worn by Kate Middleton or a Chanel tweed jacket look would suit Ri very well.
According to a source, many in the nation are very proud of the Moranbong Band. The band is the regime’s proud answer to please Kim Jong-un with an up to date band to turn the attention of the nation’s interests from the South Korean pop stars to its local stars. All members of the band are female, which is very unusual in North Korea, have been hand-picked by Kim Jong-un himself. It is no secret that the audition standards are very high and all members are known for their beauty and outstanding musical talents. The band’s influence over the people of North Korea is phenomenal in the same way K-Pop or Western pop stars would be to its worldwide fans. The band’s short hair style and skinny figure exposed by the tight military uniform worn with skirts is a huge step forward in fashion for the country. The band debuted in 2012 when Kim Jong-un took over the regime and is understood to be closely linked with Ri Sol-ju, who herself was a singer and graduated from the top Geumsung Special Arts School in North Korea. The singers of the band are known to be 10 in total and the band is known to have instrumentalists who form the orchestra. Hyon Song-wol and the band is scheduled to perform on the 8th and 11th of February this year to celebrate the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics 2018.