Tailors in North Korea are producing knockoff designer clothing to cater to Pyonygyang elites inspired by the fashions of First Lady Ri Sol Ju, who has displayed a penchant for luxury brands and been photographed in chic outfits, sources in the country said.
Ri has become a style setter for young women in Pyongyang since she made her media debut as Kim Jong Un’s wife a year ago, wearing an elegant green blouse that is now copied and sold in the city's markets.
Known for sporting high heels, sparkly broaches, and foreign designer wear, the celebrity wife has blazed a new fashion trail in an impoverished country where most are relegated to a Spartan communist dress code of sharp haircuts and patriotic pins.
Imitating her lead, young women in Pyongyang—and some young men—are buying up fake designer clothing made by tailors within North Korea in an industry so sophisticated it has its own flagship district.
Tailors copy designs of luxury clothes brought in from China or Japan, and the fakes are sold openly in Pyongyang’s markets and department stores, according to residents and merchants in the city.
“North Korea’s local markets are flooded with imitations of luxury fashion brands,” a Pyongyang resident speaking on condition of anonymity told RFA’s Korean Service while visiting China recently.
Both men’s and women’s knockoff designer clothes are available, complete with fake Burberry and Chanel labels sewn into them.
Among them is the blouse Ri wore on the amusement park visit when North Korean TV first announced her as Kim Jong Un’s wife last July, the resident said.
“The Chanel-style blouse which Ri Sol Ju wore at the completion ceremony of the Rungna People’s Theme Park is on sale for 250 [Chinese] yuan [U.S. $40].”
Copies of Ri Sol Ju’s outfits and other luxury knockoffs are made in the Gangsun area of North Korea’s Nampo city on the west coast, where tailors churn out the fakes by copying out clothes obtained from China or Japan.
“The Gangsun area in Nampo City has become known as the best place for producing the highest quality fake goods nationally,” one Pyongyang resident familiar with the clothing business said.
“Since the tailors there can make exquisite counterfeits, it is almost impossible to tell them from the real thing.”
Retailers from China—where much of the world’s imitation designer goods come from—make trips to Gangsun to see the master copiers at work and are impressed with their level of skill, the source said.
Tailors there base their sewing patterns on items brought from abroad and remake the designs on fabric brought from China, he said.
“When tailors manage to get their hands on clothes from China or Japan, they take them apart and make samples size by size in order to use them to make fake goods later.”
“They order fabrics directly from China,” he added.
The clothes are sold at markets throughout Pyongyang, often for Chinese currency commonly used on the black market.
One Pyongyang merchant said the imitation designer fashions are popular among university students, who pay top dollar for trendy items.
“There were long coats that were a trend among students at Kim Il Sung University last year,” he said.
“They were imitations of coats from the British fashion brand Burberry and sold for U.S. $300.”
North Korean men are getting in on the fake designer wear trend alongside the women, with male college students in Pyongyang paying 100,000 North Korean won (about U.S. $10) for tailored-fit dress shirts, he said.
“Imitation clothes like men’s pants are sold for 100 Chinese yuan [about U.S. $16] at local markets,” he said.
Aside from Ri Sol Ju’s fashions, North Koreans are also inspired by South Korean trends, sources said.
Tailors recreate the styles by buying South Korean films in bulk and copying the actors’ and actresses’ clothes, using them as a substitute for the international fashion magazines they cannot subscribe to, according to the merchant.
“In North Korea, people copy what South Koreans wear. At one department store in Pyongyang, a pair of shoes were displayed and sold for as much as U.S. $120 since they were a copy of top South Korean TV star Tae Hee Kim’s,” he said.
Reported by Young Jung for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hyosun Kim. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.