North Korea: Inside Pyongyang's annual fashion show

Some designers are pushing the boundaries in the rigid state

North Korea has one of the most tightly-controlled regimes in the world and a widely condemned human rights record.

On the basis of the above, it may come as a surprise to learn the isolated state also holds an annual fashion show, which one foreign photographer decided to attend.

Singapore-based Aram Pan has been granted unprecedented access to the notoriously secretive state four times since August 2013.

For his project DPRK 360, Mr Pan, 38, has filmed 360-degree panoramic views of North Korea, taken images of flights on the North Korean civil carrier, eaten traditional street-food cuisine, interacted with locals and recently attended a fashion show in the capital.

His project aims to “demystify” North Korea by creating a small window into the world of one of the few countries still existing under communist rule.

Mr Pan's last trip involved attending the 12th Pyongyang Fashion Exhibition held in September, where models could be seen walking down catwalks and showcasing the latest trends.

Mr Pan said he was surprised at the boundary-pushing Western-style clothing appearing alongside traditional North Korean dress.

He told The Independent: “Men’s fashion seems to remain much the same, sticking mostly to monochromatic attire.

“However, women’s fashion seems to be evolving - and it isn’t isolated just to Pyongyang.

"Based on the reports I’ve read over the years about laws banning women from wearing trousers or restrictions on bright colors, this fashion show came as an absolute surprise. But even on the streets, I've noticed that women were getting bolder and more fancy in the way they dress."

The exhibition is attended by local shop keepers who use numbers pinned on clothes to order with. “There were easily over 1,000 people in the hall that day - it was packed," said Mr Pan.

An underpass entrance in Pyongyang

Women and men have long been restricted on what they can wear in North Korea. So-called fashion police are known to patrol Pyongyang and scrutinise clothing worn by residents, particularly items which appear “foreign”. Blue jeans, for example, are associated with America and have long been considered taboo.

However, women can now wear trousers inside the city – providing the style is state approved.

Rare photos show a glimpse of life inside the hermit kingdom

Mr Pan said this trend has spread past Pyongyang and into rural towns scattered throughout the country, where he noticed women are beginning to favour more “fashionable" garb.

His images have captured women in trousers and heeled shoes – not aspects of clothing typically associated with the regime.

A woman in the rural town of Kuwollim with a child

Perhaps one the biggest questions surrounding fashion in North Korea is quite simply how those living under Kim Jong-un would be able to afford splashing out on the latest designs.

Mr Pan believes a kind-of “prototype free-market economy” is being encouraged in some areas.

“There appears to be lots of ‘cooperative’ projects where locals are now able to increase their spending power through the incentive of over-production,” he explained. "I’m told this motivates them to produce above and beyond the state required output. "

He claimed this incentive extends past farming to industries and local business. “Locals now apparently have the ability to use whatever ‘over production’ as their profit. This in turn is creating a kind of consumer driven market within North Korea that I’ve never even known existed."

However, as with many questions hanging over the state, it is unlikely we will be given a definitive answer. “We still know so little of what’s going on and this really just raises more questions,” he admitted.

You can view more images from Mr Pan's project on his Facebook page.