STOCKHOLM (Reuters Life!) - Designer jeans labeled "Made in North Korea" will go on sale this Friday at a trendy department store in the Swedish capital, marking a first foray into Western fashion for the reclusive communist state.
The jeans, marketed under the "Noko" brand, carry a price tag of 1,500 Swedish crowns ($215) and will share shelf space at Stockholm's PUB store with brands such as Guess and Levi's.
Noko's founders told Reuters they had spent over a year trying to gain access to factory operators in North Korea, and struggled with poor communications and an unfamiliar approach to doing business once inside the country.
"There is a political gap, there is a mental gap, and there is an economic gap," said Jacob Astrom, one of three Swedish advertising executives behind the project. "All contacts with the country are difficult and remain so to this day."
The idea for the project was born out of curiosity for North Korea, which has grown increasingly isolated in recent years under Western criticism of its human rights record and nuclear ambitions.
"The reason we did this was to come closer to a country that was very difficult to get into contact with," Astrom said.
North Korea, a country better known for its reclusive nature than fashionable clothes, rarely allows outsiders within its borders and has virtually no trade or diplomatic relations with most Western countries. Sweden, one of only seven countries to have an embassy in North Korea, is an exception.
But the process of agreeing a deal to produce just 1,100 pairs of jeans -- the first ever produced by the country, according to the founders -- often proved baffling. E-mails vanished into a void and communications were strained.
At one point they were asked to bring a zinc smelting oven into the country, and a trade representative once asked them to help him find a pirated version of the computer program Adobe Acrobat so he could read files they were sending him.
"Everyone is a manager. Even our chauffeur was some sort of manager," said founder Jakob Ohlsson, adding that North Korean titles were often confusing.
After being turned down by North Korea's largest textile company, the group managed to secure a manufacturing deal with its largest mining company, Trade 4, which also happens to run a small textile operations on its site.
"This is often the way it works in North Korea," said Ohlsson. "Companies seldom specialize and therefore often manage several operations that differ completely from one another."
During the summer, the trio travelled to the factory in North Korea to oversee the production process and ensure that workers there were treated according to Noko's guidelines.
"We were forced to operate by micro-management," Ohlsson said, referring to his experience on the factory floor.
Fashionable novelty seekers can order Noko jeans from the company's website www.nokojeans.com after December 4, but you are not likely to see a pair on the streets of Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, anytime soon.
Socialist dress code forbids them.
(Writing by Nick Vinocur, editing by Paul Casciato)