A North Korean textile worker in a factory.

All North Korean clothes are made out of this bizarre fabric

If you're the kind of person who takes fashion seriously, who considers themselves to be the absolute height of sartorial elegance, then there are some locations that are famous for the high quality of their garments and fabrics. These are the places where everyone is dressed to impress, where some of the top designers and expensive labels operate to create the world's most impressive haute couture. Certain spots always spring to mind: Paris, Milan, Vienna. But unfortunately for the denizens of the communist totalitarian state, North Korea is never a nation which comes to mind when people are talking clothes.

Yes, when you picture the impoverished, isolationist country, you're more likely to envision starved workers wearing drab overalls, or severe military uniforms in every shade of grey, brown and brownish-grey. Hardly surprising when every conceivable resource has been heavily taxed or strictly rationed and the North Koreans have been horrifically oppressed by the ruling Kim Jong-un regime. However, there is one reason why North Korea's clothing is more noteworthy than its immediate neighbours, and to be quite honest, it's more than a little surprising. We've written numerous articles in the past documenting the often-cruel eccentricities of North Korea's culture; but what you probably don't know is that almost all North Korean clothes are made out of an exclusive material: a signature fabric known as vinylon.

A North Korean military officer. Credit: Getty

Vinylon is also known by the colloquial moniker "Junche fibre" (in reference to North Korea's official state policy of "Junche" or "self-reliance") and employed by weavers in place of more conventional materials such as cotton or nylon. Because nylon is expensive to produce and cotton has to be imported from overseas, only relatively small amounts of these fabrics are created in native North Korea, whereas vinylon is used for everything else, even shoes, ropes, quilts and towels.

The ironic thing is that vinylon isn't even a Korean invention. It was first developed way back in 1939 in Japan by chemists Ichiro Sakurada, Ri Sung Gi, and H. Kawakam from Kyoto University. Following Korea's liberation from Japan in 1945, Ri Sung Gi was working as a professor at Seoul National University and was dissatisfied by the scarcity of research opportunities. During the Korean war, when the then-Korean capital of Seoul was occupied by the Democratic People’s Army, Ri defected to the communist North and brought his new and futuristic compound along with him. Today he is honoured as a hero for his role in the creation of North Korea's de facto apparel.

In the early 1960s however, the Soviet Union elected to withdraw its economic support of North Korea, which had played a vital role in preserving its ailing economy and infrastructure. In response, North Korea launched a seven-year-long plan of economic development, which prioritised North Korean technological innovations, cultural revolution, and modernisation of the economy. Because trade with the capitalist Western powers was not an option, the North Korean regime decided to better and harness the vinylon industry, since it would be relatively self-sufficient. Thus, in 1961 the government built a sprawling factory compound, named "Vinylon City", with the intention of producing vast quantities of vinylon from the city of Hungnam in the northeast of the country.

A large crowd of North Korean people. Credit: Getty

Vinylon City had a total floor space of 130,00 square meters, 15,000 production machines, 1,700 container tanks, and 500 kilometres of piping, and was soon a source of great pride to the North Korean people, since it was constructed and operated without the help of foreigners. The factory compound was closed in the 1990s at the height of a severe economic depression, but reopened in 2010 and has been churning out vinylon in large supplies ever since. However, vinylon, which is composed of chemicals which stem from limestone and anthracite coal, is not exactly a versatile material. In fact, although it's a hardy fibre, it's been described by various commentators as stiff, shiny, uncomfortable, and very difficult to dye. This is one of the reasons that North Korean clothes tend to be fairly dull and monochrome.

In her book, Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, writer and journalist Barbara Demick observed that: "New clothes were dispensed by your work unit or school, often on Kim Il-sung’s birthday, reinforcing his image as the source of all good things. Everything was pretty much standard issue. Only vinyl or canvas shoes were provided, as leather ones were a tremendous luxury and only people with some outside source of income could afford them. The clothes came out of garment factories like Mrs Song’s."

She added: "Vinalon ... didn’t hold dye very well, so there was a limited palette: drab indigo for factory workers uniforms, black or grey for office workers. Red was reserved for the scarves that children wore around their necks until the age of thirteen as part of their obligatory membership in the Young Pioneers."

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Credit: Getty

However, there is a chance that vinylon isn't as North Korea exclusive as once thought. According to a recent report by Reuters, a number of clothing retailers who have factories in China have lately been shocked to discover that these Chinese producers have been outsourcing production to North Korean factories where the labour is far cheaper. Last year an Australian brand known as Rip Curl was forced to issue a public apology when it was discovered that a factory near Pyongyang was making their clothing, despite the fact that labels boasted the clothes were "Made in China."

So who knows? You might even be wearing vinylon right now without even knowing it. I guess the North Korean fashion industry is actually more popular than we ever imagined, and frankly, that cannot be a good thing.