Atypical Asian Pick At Burberry

He’s too dusky, he’s over-tattooed, and he is half-Laotian, half-Issan. In Bangkok, he wouldn’t normally be cast in any major advertising campaign, but newcomer Zak Sakraew is in Manchester. And luck came a-calling

When Burberry shared two photos of its autumn/winter 2020 campaign in mid-November, the fashion world of Bangkok went wild. Newcomer Zak (pronounced ‘Sak’ in Thai) Srakaew, who doesn’t live anywhere in Thailand, is suddenly the son of the soil, hero of the heartland. Mr Srakaew has not only starred in a fashion ad, “he is a Burberry model”, as one Bangkok-based stylist proudly told us. And he appeared in the same campaign as the Manchester United football star Marcus Rashford. The 25-year-old is the only second Thai (but the first male) model, after the more established Wilhelmina lass Jan Baiboon, to come this far, or to the house of Burberry. Suddenly it was as if the nation’s Loy Krathong collective wishes amid a fierce pandemic have come true.

The thing is, if Zak Srakaew were to be doing his go-see in Bangkok, he may still be looking for a job. But Mr Srakaew lives in Manchester, a two-hour train ride to London. And inclusiveness is presently a major theme among the advertising and branding professionals there. In Bangkok, where most of the casting of local campaigns are conducted, Mr Srakaew’s Northern Thai look would be considered not outstanding enough, even common, and would not have excited those with control over large advertising budgets. One former marketing head told us that “You hardly ever see anyone dark-skinned in major campaigns. Local brands prefer the fairer models—both the men and the women. That’s why Nadech Kugimiya (Lieutenant Commander Dawin Samuthyakorn in The Crown Princess) is still hot and Cindy Bishop (host of Asia’s Next Top Model) still does shows.”

Thai model Zak Srakaew, first from left (and forth), in Burberry’s autumn/winter campaign. Photo: Burberry

That would generally mean the luk khreung (literally, ‘half-child’ in Thai, or mixed race, usually Thai-Western unions), such as model/actor Mario Maurer (half-Thai-Chinese, half-German)—in the just-concluded-on-Channel-U Thong Ake, The Pharmacist of Chaloang—and compatriot model/actress Urassaya Sperbund (half-Thai, half-Norwegian), popularly dubbed as “the first ever Thai celebrity featured in American Vogue”. Or the luk chin, those who are Chinese-looking but don’t have to be half-Thai. For the males, they would be boyish and would ideally look like they come from a wealthy merchant or property development family. Prime example in the Bangkok male modelling scene is the singer (and actor) from K-pop band 2pm Nichkhun Horawetchakun (mostly known by his first name): his parents are Chinese, and his family is wealthy, which, in South Korea, got him the nickname “the Prince.”

Zak Srakaew is/has none of the above. Burberry choosing him would be considered, in Thailand, casting against type. He does not come from a moneyed family and has virtually no presence in the entertainment industry. Mr Srakaew was born in Thailand, in the northeastern province of Roi Et, in an area known as Issan, which shares a border with Laos. Issan is considered to be Thailand’s poorest region, and most Issan folks who move to big cities, such as Bangkok, normally go for work, and usually as manual industrial or construction workers. Or, muay Thai boxer. In fact, we are not aware of any Issan individual who has made a name for himself (or herself) in the modelling industry.

Zak Srakaew, first from left. Photo: Burberry

Mr Srakaew did not make it to Bangkok to seek a better life. At a young age, his Laotian father and his Issan mother were divorced, and he lived with father. His mother remarried and moved to the UK. But before he knew anything or understood what being brought up by a single parent really meant, his father died of a heart attack, leaving young Zak at the cusp of puberty without adult care or supervision. At age eleven, he was sent to be with his mother, who had settled down in the northern city of Manchester, home of The Stone Roses. As he told the curious members of the Thai media, his early years in the UK were hard, primarily because he “didn’t look like the other kids in school” and, more unfavourably, he could not speak English.

In fact, Mr Srakaew was illiterate. He told Vogue Thailand, “I have never been educated. I didn’t study; I couldn’t even read and write in Thai.” It is not revealed if his eventual education in the UK bore results. He did only say that he worked in an unnamed fast food restaurant. Modelling was not on the cards, but a photo he took with a model-pal caught the attention of an agent. Although he told GQ Thailand that he didn’t believe there was a model in him, “fate was determined that I had to go by this route.” Early assignments were mostly for sports brands, such as Fila; outdoor labels such as The North Face and Stone Island, as well as the e-tailer Asos. When the quintessential British brand Burberry called, he said, “At first I thought it was not true. (At the shoot) I felt like I was in a room we didn’t own.”

He now speaks with what could be a Northern English accent faintly lilted by an Asian twang of indeterminate origin. While home is in Manchester, Mr Sakraew has been looking towards Thailand. The income from modelling means he could fly his mother home frequently, and also to build a house for her in their Roi Et hometown. As he told, Vogue Thailand, “I lived in a small flat with my mother, struggling to pay the rent. But when I started my modeling career, I was able to pay for a room.” This Asian sense of place and piety, coupled by his Issan bad-boy look do set him apart from the pale and pretty perfection that is the Bangkok modelling scene, so much so that GQ Thailand swooned—Mr Srakaew “proves that the Thai style is outstanding internationally.” Did they take “Thai style” to mean upcountry or baan nork?

He is tall: 1.83m, according to his London men’s-only agency Supa Model Management. And he has those sprawling tattoos, which spread across half his upper body and down both arms. A yakuza would be duly impressed. In many of the photos shared on social media, Mr Sakraew has a pai kia intensity about him and is often dressed in what he calls “sporty look”, but to posh Londoners might be considered a tad chav. Even if not quite major among Bangkok fashion folks, his appeal is gaining traction among those in the gay community who “like them blue-collar looking or na hia hia (natural ‘rough-looking face’, with no makeup)”, as a graphic designer told us, and those who consider Mr Sakraew as aroi (delectable) as som tum (papaya salad), a dish with origins that can be traced to Issan and Laos. Newfound fans find his red-blooded provincial vibe charming as it contrasts with another trait: the guy loves cats!

Photos: Zak Srakaew

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