What Elle’s Fondness For ‘North Korea Chic’ Tells Us About Fashion And Despotism


North Korea: not a go-to for anything but missteps. Credit: The Guardian

Elle, which normally is the most substantive and interesting of the mass-market women’s magazines, seems to have made an exceptionally odd choice in its most recent edition of A To Zee, a guide to fall fashion trends. For some reason, Creative Director Joe Zee has decided that N stands for “North Korea Chic,” because military-inspired fashion is on the rise, and good taste and an actual connection to the country be damned, and no one at the magazine saw fit to restrain his impulse.

The Washington Post’s Max Fisher gets straight to the point on the geopolitics of the decision:

Elle’s creative director, Joe Zee, writes that “North Korea Chic” is known for its “take no prisoners tailoring,” which is presumably not a play on North Korea’s practice of kidnapping foreign civilians and holding them captive for years or decades at a time. Zee compares it favorably to other military-themed fashion trends, adding that North Korea Chic is “edgier, even dangerous.”

Most Americans probably do not associate North Korea with upscale clothing, although they certainly do identify it with militarism. The country is best known in the United States for its military brinkmanship, which includes a rogue nuclear-weapons program, frequent (if empty) threats to turn the United States into a “sea of fire” and occasionally killing citizens and soldiers of South Korea, with which it is still technically at war.

But it’s also worth thinking about the choice in fashion terms, and what it says about the depth of the high fashion world’s engagement with geopolitics. Zee writes that “Some iteration of the military trend stomps the runways every few seasons,” which is an awfully reductive way to explain designers’ flirtations with the fashions adopted and imposed by dictatorial regimes.

Designers have often been drawn to the elegant simplicity of uniforms, official and otherwise, and to the artistic challenges posed by the extreme constraints of such assignments. Hugo Boss acknowledged in 1997 that the company, which began as a uniform manufacturer for police forces and postal workers, had designed and produced SA, SS, and Hitler Youth uniforms, before continuing on to become an international men’s retailer. Coco Chanel, whose carefully chosen personal uniform still influences the way women dress today, was registered as Abwehr Agent 7124, a legacy that didn’t keep her from moving back to France after World War II and continuing to build her fashion empire.

They’re not alone. Consumers certainly have a record of adopting clothes precisely because of their political implications, but allowing their admiration for design distract them to the full political realities with which they’ve associated themselves. “Yat-sen outfits”–more popularly known as “Mao jackets” outside of China for the dictator who made a modified version of them a state uniform, rather than after the first president of the Republic of China, who first popularized them–had a brief period of vogue outside of China as a burst of radical chic. And of course, the transformation of Che Guavera into an international style icon has eclipsed his actual political legacy for enormous numbers of people–I once had a professor in college begin a course by warning students not to wear Che t-shirts to class, because his family came to the United States as refugees from Cuba.

Retailers have tried to monetize plenty of articles of clothing that carry very specific political implications without considering the associations in question. Urban Outfitters came under fire for stocking keffiyehs in 2008.

And this is hardly the first time that a fashion magazine has mistaken design for moral goodness, or decided that elegance mattered more than the conditions that produced it. In 2011, Vogue ran a now-infamous profile of Asma al-Assad, which began by declaring that the First Lady of Syria “is glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment,” before acknowledging her husband’s surveillance and repression of his own people.” Because it’s the style, of course, that matters most.

Zee continues on to explain that “North Korea chic” is different from prior military aesthetics because “This time, it’s edgier, even dangerous, with sharp buckles and clasps and take-no-prisoners tailoring.” Tying these characteristics, which can certainly be achieved by talented designers without sending them across the DMZ and subjecting them to famine conditions and astonishing political repression, to North Korea, seems like a classic case of assigning goodness to a process that produces results you happen to admire–if it’s even that considered. It could be that Zee’s simply succumbing to the fashion industry’s periodic desire to be naughty and transgressive, and aligning himself with a pariah state that’s been isolated for good reasons was a quick route to an electric shock.

If that’s the case, Zee’s listing is evidence not just of geopolitical cluelessness, but of analytical laziness. The rise of military-cut clothing and embellishments could say any number of things about the mindset of designers and consumers. Maybe it’s a matter of a recession-inspired pivot away from business as an inspiration and towards a more sober regard for somber institutions. Maybe it’s a reflection of the emotional needs of a destabilized world. Maybe it’s a flirtation with authoritarianism.

But a fashion editor’s job should be to make sense of these impulses and to analyze them, not merely take the quickest route to edginess himself. Being shocking for the sake of being naughty, rather than because there’s an orthodoxy you genuinely want to challenge, is an awfully cheap way of trolling. And there’s no way to make that work.