North Korean first lady’s fashion evolution: is Kate Middleton her model?

Ri Sol-ju, wife of Kim Jong-un, has replaced her frumpy wardrobe with voguish and colourful dresses that have started a trend among the hermit nation’s tiny elite and whose refinement echoes that of first ladies and royalty worldwide

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 December, 2017, 7:18am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 December, 2017, 11:25am

When Kim Jong-un, the totalitarian leader of North Korea, visited a cosmetics factory recently, observers noted that it was perhaps an attempt to show his softer side, shifting the conversation “from missiles to moisturisers”.

That he toured the facility with his demure wife, Ri Sol-ju, certainly helped, and also drew attention to an elusive figure in one of the most secretive countries in the world.

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Although the first lady of North Korea is often in the limelight, she is enigmatic. Ri was reportedly born to an elite family in 1989, married Kim Jong-un in 2009, and is now the mother of three children. Her first media appearance as Comrade Ri was in 2012 at a musical performance. Since then, she has occasionally showed up at special events next to Kim, and her fashion choices have often been a point of discussion.

Ri’s appearance attracted a lot of attention in and out of the country. Her fresh look and previous career as a singer were unusual enough to arouse interest. North Korea’s previous first ladies were something of a closed book, so the introduction of Ri to the public was an unconventional move.

Some say that announcing her presence was a strategy to show Kim as a mature father figure. If that is the case, her style seems in accord with the plan, as she has been acting mainly as an adornment to Kim.

She wears voguish and colourful dresses instead of the hanbok or traditional monochromatic outfits.

When Ri was spotted for the first time, she wore a fitted black two-piece suit with white piping detail, and later on, she wore a white dotted mustard yellow dress and a red polka-dot jacket over a black dress while visiting a kindergarten and an amusement park.

At the opening ceremony of the Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground, she made quite a daring choice, pinning a dazzling brooch on her dress instead of the conventional Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il portrait lapel badge. Since then, her predilection for sparkly accessories has become evident and she has eschewed the portrait pin on more than one occasion.

After Ri’s numerous public appearances in 2012, North Korean women began to open their eyes to a new world of glamour. A new fashion leader was born, and Ri’s Western style, which was formerly considered the guise of “the corrupted capitalist bourgeoisie”, soon turned into a new trend. Fake designer clothing inspired by her style is commonly sold in markets in North Korea.

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In North Korea, where neither Instagram nor Vogue exists, she became an important reference for fashion, and suddenly colourful dresses, miniskirts and high heels emerged in Pyongyang.

While Kim promotes patriotism, exhorting his people to consume domestic goods, in fact, he and Ri favour foreign-made luxury goods. Ri is known to have expensive tastes, and her affection for labels such as Red Valentino, Dior, Tiffany, and Movado has been documented on camera.

Some reports say that she feeds her children Aptamil, a baby-food brand from Germany, and bought a cradle from the United States.

Ri recently attended a banquet to celebrate the success of a hydrogen bomb test.

For the banquet, she was clad in a check navy blue dress with a skinny belt to accentuate her slim waist, and for the factory visit she opted for a floral pattern coat dress. She tends to favour a half-updo hairstyle and natural make-up.

Her latest looks are considerably more sophisticated and refined, recalling outfits worn by actresses inKorean dramas, and a far cry from her frumpy wardrobe of a few years ago.

According to a recent study from the KDB Research Centre, North Korea is slowly moving from a monolithic controlled society to one that accepts expressions of individuality. At the moment, Ri’s style may be nothing more than a matter of personal taste, but it is slowly affecting the public sphere. Even so, because of North Korea’s harsh economic climate, “fashion” is only enjoyed by the party elite and the wealthy.

Seoul-based stylist Kim Myonghee says: “Ri seems to assure her presence and status through fashion, which is comparable with first ladies and royals across the globe. It appears that she wants to send the message to the outside world of a Kate Middleton-like style, showing only a moderate interest in prestige high-end brands.”

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Whether her fashion choices are an extravagant indulgence or meant to be seen as a driver of economic and cultural change, her departure from tradition and her high-profile appearances, which stand in contrast to the behaviour of her predecessors, are definitely worth watching.