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.