Slip into Noko jeans: North Korean fashion in Sweden

HELLO IT’S Noko Jeans! from Noko Jeans on Vimeo.

Capitalism fever has crossed the DMZ and wandered into North Korea. The reclusive communist state has launched a line of designer jeans, which are set to go on sale at a fashionable Stockholm department store on Friday. Drop $215 a pop to sport “Noko” brand jeans and show that you can get your hands on an unusual and hard-to-find brand. Make sure everyone sees the label: “Made in North Korea.” So, when you’re cruising a PUB store in Sweden, saunter past Guess and Levi’s, and drop your ass into North Korea.

Noko is actually a Swedish company, and the founders spent more than a year trying to work out some arrangements with factory operators in North Korea. Communications were obviously an issue, as was trying to figure out how to do capitalist business in a communist place. Jacob Astrom, one of the founders, told Reuters, “There is a political gap, there is a mental gap, and there is an economic gap,” continuing, “all contacts with the country are difficult and remain so to this day.”

The founders of Noko got the idea to launch a project in North Korea out of curiosity, and Astrom said that the “reason we did this was to come closer to a country that was very difficult to get into contact with.” Hell, the country certainly isn’t known as a fashion center.

Sweden was a natural fit for pushing into the country that does its best to keep outsiders outside. It is only one of seven countries with an embassy in North Korea. So, this would seem like a great starting point for building relationships … but would overlook the countless challenges that exist even after you get a foot in the door.

The first company, the largest textile manufacturer in the country, turned Noko down, but the Swedes found some luck with Trade 4, the largest mining company in North Korea (mining: file this one under “only in North Korea”). Trade 4 also runs a small textile operation.

The effort was complicated that the folks at Noko wanted a North Korean factory to make 1,100 pairs of something it had never produced before. The first pair of jeans to roll off the line was the first ever for the country. Yet, this was just the start. Yet, the North Korean team was nothing if not helpful: a trade representative offered to find Astrom a pirated version of free software Adobe Acrobat to help him read files.

A trip to North Korea this past summer drove home the need for micromanagement at the factory. But, that didn’t stop the jeans from shipping. They hit shelves in Sweden on December 4, 2009, though you can order them from Noko’s website. Just don’t look for them in Pyongyang: it seems jeans are counterrevolutionary.

Pizza and Beer: North Korean health food

If you visit Pyongyang, you can make a discovery that has been known in bowling alleys across the United States for decades: beer and pizza go together. This year, new approaches to both the food and the drink have been developed, and the only thing missing is the crash of pins in the background.

Back in March, North Korea celebrated its first pizzeria. It took nearly a decade, but the country was able to import the necessary cooking equipment to set up its first “authentic” shop. To keep it going, Kim Jong Il will need to source and import high-quality ingredients regularly. With many of the 24 million people in his country starving, this doesn’t strike me as the best use of national resources.

But, it’s easy for me to judge. I live in New York, a town with 1,520 pizza establishments, according to a search conducted by Reason. That’s one pizza place for every 5,921 people. Meanwhile, North Korea has a person-to-pizza ratio of 24 million to one. Unpleasant, really.

Now, what is pizza without a cold beer?

Beer has been available in North Korea – at least to the extent that anything is over there. A new brand, though, could fortify the members of the working party, as this new brew is purported to have health benefits. The beer is being touted in a commercial on state television. This is strange, in that commercials in general are extremely rare in North Korea, and this seems to be the first for any food or beverage product.

Look for the commercial after the jump.

Of course, the question remains: how many people could actually see the commercial? Let’s not forget, North Korea is famous for its regular power shortages, which affect even the showplace capital city. So, the secret to happiness and longevity may be missed, because nobody could see the ad.