North Korea might just about be the last place we would think to look for cutting-edge fashion. But it seems the secretive state is moving from the cult of personality to the cult of denim with the assistance of some madcap entrepreneurs from Sweden. In the summer of 2007, Jacob Åström, Tor Rauden Källstigen and Jakob Ohlsson started Noko Jeans with little more than an email and a fervent desire to contact North Korea directly. But after a year of official meetings, a trip beyond the DMZ, and a full drinking glass of Swedish vodka (always a good precursor to business negotiations), the biggest mining company in North Korea agreed to produce 1100 pairs of Noko's two styles of jeans. This first collection, named Maneuvers In the Dark, is straight-cut, dark-washed, and unadorned, in keeping with the austere nightscapes of Pyongyang. So if you're in the market for a really quirky Christmas gift, and have 150 euros to burn, be sure to drop by nokojeans.com, where the limited run will be available starting December 4th. Below, a video, some group photos, and Jacob helps field our questions about new North Korean friends, how to woo bureaucrats, and why there's a half naked tennis player in the press release.
Above: The gang chillin' (ha!) together in business casual. Photo taken by one of their favorite Pyongyang-based photographers.
First off, why North Korea?
The reason we chose North Korea was, and is, because we had had an interest in the country for quite some time. North Korea is one of the few blank spots on the map, both figuratively and literally—Noko Jeans was a way to gain access to an otherwise isolated country. A way to learn more about it. There's little to none infrastructure for producing JEANS since it's a product they've never done before, but they DO have up-to-date factories in the Pyongyang-vicinity (where our factory is!).
How did you manage to navigate the red tape and finally convince North Korea to let you manufacture there? Did you have to pull some crazy antics to win the bureaucrats over?
At first, it was via e-mail, which was pretty cool (we expected fax), and then through countless of face-to-face meetings in conference rooms, dimly lit bars, weird cellars, Chinese back-alleys and North Korean computer centres (to name but a few locations that this project has taken us. All of these encounters have resulted in a very loving relationship between us and some of the North Koreans that we've met.For example, once we had to help a diplomat to crack his Adobe Acrobat software so he could send a PDF.
Above: Jacob, Jakob, and Tor's portraits that make it look like they're Jacob, Jakob, and Tor ventriloquists holding Jacob, Jakob, and Tor puppets. Amazing.
Since the jeans run at 150 euros a pop, where does most of the revenue go? Does any of it make their way back to the workers themselves?
Of course! We have an insanely thick CSR-policy/code of conduct. And we spent 10 days at the factory this summer when they produced the jeans to make sure that they followed it. And some of the money we (hopefully) get from the first will be reinvested in the factory (buying hard-to-get machinery, etc). We hope that the Noko Jeans story won't end with us making 1100 jeans. And in order to gain more influence in North Korea, we need to get the project to grow, and we will do our best to make that happen.
Were there any insane trade laws you had to tackle?
The laws in NK are too complicated to explain. We're not even sure we fully understand them... yet. Sometimes they can stall you for weeks, and sometimes they're as smooth as silk. We usually deal with them by always asking the question "WHY". If someone has to look through our containers we ask "WHY", if our visas are stalled for a month, we ask "WHY". Usually we get an answer, sometimes we don't. Then we ask again.
What was your first reaction when you received your diplomatic invitation from North Korea?
Getting the visa took more than one year, so the reaction was something like: YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSS!
What surprised you most about the North Koreans?
That the people actually living there were people just like you and me. This seems like a quite trivial insight, but since all you read and hear is about missile launches and mass games this is easy to forget. We'd never thought we'd have real friends in North Korea. Now we do.
Above: A few images from their press release. A North Korean tennis player, and the trio outside a factory.
What's with the half naked Korean tennis player in your press release?
That is a guy that we met on the tennis court in Pyongyang one day. He was a fantastic tennis player, a Korean superstar in our eyes, and it was a hot day, thus: no clothes.
Apart from a very quirky backstory, what else does Noko Jeans have to offer its consumers?
The main thing that makes us unique is that every detail on a pair of Noko Jeans has a story, and a REAL story. That is sort of the raison d'être for the jeans; That they are good containers, and are more interesting than for example a book. This is the luxury that we offer. The story isn't just a quirky backstory but something that influences EVERYTHING that we do, show and tell.
Also our designer Julia Hederus has a unique sensibility of modern clothing. Progressive is her middle name (Nota bene: Actually true, her name is Julia Progressive Hederus). Combining that with North Korean aesthetics, plus the rich but halted history of denim, has generated pretty amazing results.