- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
Elle magazine’s creative director, Joe Zee, has been getting a lot of flack for characterizing a military-inspired runway trend as "North Korea Chic" in their August issue. The spread, which featured an assortment of olive drab menswear, a single gold stiletto, and a photo of a man in an approximation of a North Korean military uniform, read: "Some iteration of the military trend stomps the runways every few seasons. This time, it’s edgier, even dangerous, with sharp buckles and clasps and take-no-prisoners tailoring."
The Washington Post and ThinkProgress (among many others) were quick to attack Zee for invoking North Korea so casually and exploiting the country’s notoriety to sell luxury goods. North Korea does, after all, have a horrendous human rights record and a reputation for military brinkmanship. The criticisms are certainly valid, but they miss another important point: Elle, a fashion magazine, got North Korean fashion totally wrong — and no one even noticed! (Admittedly, that could be due to the fact that there is no internet in North Korea.)
In addition to tacitly glorifying North Korea’s military regime, Elle’s "North Korea Chic" reduces the country’s many, fashion-conscious citizens to a dull, monochromatic stereotype. As the Instagram feed of AP photographer and frequent visitor to North Korea David Guttenfelder will attest, Pyongyang style isn’t so predictable. It’s true that in years past women were forbidden from wearing trousers, and fashion police roved the streets arresting violators of the country’s dress codes on sight. But clothing restrictions have eased since Kim Jong Un took the reins in 2011. Seven months before Kim took power, media reports claimed that upper class women in Pyongyang were daringly walking the streets in skinny jeans and hoop earrings. This may be due in part to the influence of his wife, Ri Sol Ju, who seems to favor flashy brooches and brightly colored blouses over the patriotic pins and mid-calf hemlines of yesteryear. She’s become such a style icon in Pyongyang, that demand for similar looks is fueling a cottage industry of knock-off designer clothing.
That said, North Korean fashion was diversifying even before Ri Sol-Ju stepped, high-heeled, into the spotlight. In 2010, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) aired a program called "Spring Fashion for Women’s Formal Wear" featuring garments in "daring colors appropriate for the overall mood of spring." It’s a style reflected in this dressmaker’s window display in Pyongyang.
And let’s not forget North Korea’s love affair with shoes. Modest heels have been in vogue for quite some time, but only in the past couple of years has the demand for platforms and stilettos picked up. In 2011, platforms were one of the country’s top ten most popular products, according to analysis by the Samsung Economic Research Institute. Pumps in all shapes and sizes are popular too.
Despite being closed off from much of the rest of the world, young people in North Korea are following in the stylish wakes of their South Korean counterparts — apparently donning such fashion-forward items as hooded sweatshirts, one-piece dresses and even, on occasion, shorts.
So how does Elle get away with reducing the whole of North Korean culture to an olive drab trope? Doesn’t it care about the rich, rapidly evolving landscape of North Korean style? Probably not. As culture critic Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu argues in her 2010 book, The Beautiful Generation, the Western fashion world tends to regard the East as, firstly, a manufacturing site and, secondly, a free-for-all grabbag of exotic motifs and dated stereotypes that can be conveniently recycled season after season.
Elle‘s spread wasn’t just tone-deaf; it was cliché. Can there be a worse sin for a fashion editor?