By Alek Sigley, founder of Tongil Tours and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
This is a diary entry from the 5th of June, 2018.
Today one of the tongsuksaeng (Korean students who lives in the Foreign Student Dormitory with us) took Victor (a French foreign student) and I outside. Victor’s wife is a South Korean fashion designer, and she asked Victor to get a Chima jeogori (traditional Korean women’s dress) tailored for her in Pyongyang. So our tongsuksaeng friend brought us to a tailor he insisted was “the best in Pyongyang”, the Sonbong Exhibition Exhibition Hall (선봉전시장).
The three of us got into a car outside the dormitory. It seemed to be an unregistered taxi. The driver was friendly. He told us that he drives foreign language instructors to the classes they teach at the nearby Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, which includes Italian and French teachers. This was something he did with the car on the side to make some extra income, it appeared.
We got off in front of the tailor, which was in between the Arch of Triumph and Hyokshin (“innovation”) subway station. While the tongsuksaeng and Victor discussed tailoring a dress for Victor’s wife with the staff, I had a browse. I was told that suits range from $100-$300 USD, depending on the fabric. The price range for Korean dresses was similar. They also tailor more casual clothing, including North Korean-style attire such as the chamba (잠바– khaki jumpsuits favoured by Kim Jong Il which feature a zip on the jacket and an elastic wasit), and Mao suits.
Victor had brought his wife’s measurements but they were apparently insufficient. There were more details like sleeve width that were needed. So the shop staff wrote them down, and I took a picture so I could email them to Victor’s wife the next time I had internet access.
Victor showed the staff this photo from the internet of a North Korean woman wearing a pink Chima jeogori that he’d saved to his phone. His wife wanted one in a similar style. We looked through the different pink fabrics, and I took another photo to send to Victor’s wife.
Once I received a reply from Victor’s wife with more measurements, I would relay it to the tongsuksaeng who would call the shop (foreigners cannot call local numbers), and the dress would be ready in a week, they said.
After that we also had a look in another shop just around the corner opposite the Fatherland Liberation War Museum. It was a special shop for musicians, who could get coupons from work to purchase things in the shop (but others could pay in cash). They were no longer selling Korean dresses though.
On the way we passed a “Quit Smoking Research Dissemination Centre” (금연연구보급소). Boy they’re going to have their work cut out for them! I thought. The adjacent restaurant had no smoking signs plastered on the walls. This must have been the first time I had seen a restaurant that forbid smoking in North Korea.
Afterwards we went to the nearby Mirae (“future”) Shop (미래상점) for a browse. This was a store for scientists, and similar to the shop for musicians we had just seen this was a place where they could use coupons they had received from work to purchase goods. It had opened in 2012, and according to North Korean media was a place “permeated with the warm love of Marshal Kim Jong Un”. In 2016, it was visited by Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju on an “on-the-spot-guidance” trip.
The Mirae Shop had a wide selection of imported goods from electronics to perfume (I remember seeing Chanel Bleu, my Korean roommate’s favourite) to sunglasses, musical instruments and clothing and everything in between, as well as many domestically produced items, such a locally made make-up, all on display in an interior (and exterior) into which evidently much effort had been put into design-wise. See this atom-inspired chandelier design, for example.
And speaking of atoms, the shop’s logo has one in it too.
It was a weekday and business looked slow– a middle aged Korean couple were the only other visitors they had. On the ground floor I saw an imported keyboard that had a sticker on it in Korean saying “For Sale to Foreigners” (외국인판매용). This confused me as I can’t imagine that this store gets many foreign visitors– it’s not on tourist itineraries and doesn’t seem to be well-known to the foreign community like the Puksae Store, the Ryugyong Store, and others specialising in high end imported goods.
On one of the upper floors besides a product display case I saw a lightbox sign with a picture of the Unha ballistic missile on it. That’s sure to get people into the mood for spending!
On the next floor up, while Victor looked at the sunglasses, I saw this delightful egg/ atom display.
Leaving, I noted that nuclear physics was accorded great importance in this country. We then crossed over to the adjacent building, Mirae Hall (미래관), a part of the same complex as Mirae Shop, for lunch.
Mirae Hall also has a very well decorated interior.
There was a band rehearsing in the main dining hall, so they took us to a private room.
Which had this light featuring the Apple logo in the ceiling.
The food was very good. We had sandwiches (because we were starting to miss Western food), teppan iron-plate mutton, and baked salmon with mayonnaise.
This was washed down with some beers. But soon it reached 2pm, and I had to get into a taxi and rush back to the dormitory to prepare for class at 2:30.
Two weeks later, after I had emailed Victor’s wife about the measurements, received a response, and then told our tongsuksaeng, Victor showed me the final product. In the end they had opted not to get the pink dress and go with these black, and black-and-white ones.
The label had come marked as one for a “foreigner” (외국인). I’m not sure of how this label would have been different to the ones that local customers get. Perhaps it would be written in Korean instead of English as with the one Victor had received. Being South Korean, Victor’s wife should have maybe got one for a Korean though. But it was too late to argue.
And it came in the shop’s own carry bag:
All in all it seems that they did a good job. I hope Victor’s wife will be pleased. Either way, she can be proud to be one of the few South Koreans to own a tailored Chima jeogori from Pyongyang.