Two Of A Kind: Fred Vs Juergen

Who does it better?

Left: Fred with Tyres (1984) by Herb Ritts. Photo: Herb Ritts Foundation. Right: Juergen with Tyres (2021) by Juergen Teller for Loewe. Photo: Loewe

Juergen Teller is considered a fine-art photographer, in addition to the work he does for fashion, but sometimes one wonders if his output, often described as “unfiltered” and predates TikTok, is destined for that social media. In his latest shoot for Loewe’s spring/summer 2022 collection, Mr Teller places six shots of near-naked him—some in provocative poses—in the brand’s lookbook. One that stood out is he standing with legs shoulder-width apart, holding a tyre in each hand. So that you won’t mistake him for a desperate auto-mechanic, a camera is worn round his neck. He is bare-footed even when the seamless paper backdrop on which he stands has the marks of footwear trampling all of it. Not digitally making it pristine is possibly deliberate—perhaps to better project the blue-collar sex bomb that the subject thinks he is. Still, the studio set up is no match in tyre-yard tip that is seen in the Loewe photographs.

But what struck us immediately as familiar is the pose and the prop. Back in 1984, a photo of a muscular guy similarly holding tires (but with more clothes on) appeared in the Italian magazine Per Lui. It was shot by the American photographer Herb Ritts, and is often considered one of the great images of the 20th century that changed fashion photography forever. The monochromatic photo would come to be known as Fred with Tires. According to Mr Ritts, the commissioning editor Franca Sozzani (when she was with Lei and brother title Per Lui, before heading Vogue Italia) had sent some “hideous rain coats” for the shoot. He “hated” them. With the British stylist Michael Roberts (also photographer and illustrator), they picked jeans and overalls as replacement. The model who posed in full muscular glory was a UCLA undergrad, named Fred Harding. Not much is known about the guy or what happened to him after that.

Franca Sozzani reportedly did not like the photo, but ran it in the magazine anyway

The photo became a massive hit after appearing in the Per Lui spread, not inaccurately titled The Boys of The Body Shop. The compositional effect of that rule-breaking shot is a salute to ancient Greek sculptures and, at the same time, is evocative of the auto-garages and their macho mechanics of the US. The aesthetic is, therefore rather American too, one that is another planet from the glamour of the popular TV series of the time, Dynasty. Ms Sozzani reportedly did not like the photo, but ran it in the magazine anyway. And this was a year before the unprecedented 120-consecutive-page spread for the Per Lui issue called USA by Bruce Weber!

Mr Teller’s photo, in its tell-it-like-it-is naturalism, is the total contrast to Mr Ritts’s formal aestheticism and sexy athleticism. In the body-inclusive world that we presently live in, it is ill-advised to say that the self-shots of Mr Teller, spared grooming, do not appeal to one sense of beauty, which now must be all-encompassing, including the setting in which the subject places himself. In Fred with Tires, Herb Ritts was, by his own account, not availed the best conditions for the shoot, yet he was able to turn those circumstances that should not be so noteworthy into an image that is unforgettable. Rare, indeed, is the photographer who can, through a commercial shoot, immortalise he who was just a college kid, insouciantly coming in for a paid editorial.

Photo illustration: Just So

A “Buffalo Boy” Passes

Obituary | Popular model of the ’80s and Madonna’s protégé, Nick Kamen was pop culture’s definitive pretty boy of that era

Nick Kamen: The career-making photo that made it to the January 1984 cover of The Face. Photo: Jamie Morgan/The Face

One of the most striking faces associated with UK fashion and pop music of the ’80s Nick Kamen has passed away, according to reports in the British media. Mr Kamen succumbed to bone marrow cancer at home in his flat in Notting Hill, West London. A family friend confirmed to the BBC that he died on Tuesday evening after a long battle with the illness. He was reportedly diagnosed four years ago, and had largely kept quiet about his ailment. Despite the fame of his younger days, Mr Kamen led a relatively low-key live in the past 10 years or so, almost entirely away from the spotlight. He was 59.

Nick Kamen started modelling in the early eighties, appearing on Vivienne Westwood’s runway shows, but he was a relative unknown until he was discovered by the legendary British stylist Ray Petri in late 1983. Born Ivor Neville Kamen in 1962 in the town Harlow of the county of Essex, a “working class” area in Southeast England, his good looks were attributed to his highly mixed ethnicity: Burmese, Irish, Dutch, and English. The Asian connection might have accounted for his “cafe latte skin”, as teen mags of the time liked to describe him. Mr Kamen went to a Roman Catholic secondary school in Harlow, where his formal education ended. In his late teens, he and his brother Barry, who was, later, also a model and (with another brother Chester) a musician, worked in a clothing shop in Covent Garden. It was here that the lads met Mr Petri.

Nick Kamen and Madonna in a recording studio. Photo: Sire Records

According to the lore of the ’80s, Mr Petri had gone to the shop to borrow clothes for a shoot. It was that fateful meeting that led to Mr Kamen’s first magazine cover for The Face, an ’80s British title that went into hiatus in 2004. Although it returned as a quarterly and an online edition two years ago, many of today’s readers of e-mags are unlikely to know of The Face and its influence to readers, such as SOTD contributor Raiment Young. “I bought every issue back then,” he told us. “It was a magazine to read, which was not always what mags of the era, way before the World-Wide Web, offered. They covered music raves (which I could only read about) like political rallies! And the covers, always different from the last, were just unlike anything I had seen.” The Face was one of the few that covered emerging sub-cultures and underground scene of that time, putting out covers that were not considered cover material, typical of the Margaret Tatcher years: a visual identity that is exceedingly cool, but not necessarily swinging along with what was fashionable.

Mr Petri had a thing for using unknowns. The images he created was almost entirely his own making, save pressing the shutter button of the camera. His trend-setting photographic partner-in-crime was Jamie Morgan. Together they created an unmistakable aesthetic that The New York times called a “supermarket of styles”. Nick Kamen on The Face issue of 1984 (top) that kicked off the New Year exemplified that mish-mash. Now, we won’t bat an eyelid on styling that appear to imagine a spiffy manager of a ski shop creating his own #OOTD, with a bandaged gash on the right brow, but back then, when designer mania was emerging and Italian, especially, considered the height of chic, the young model looking the way he did was seen as anti-establishment: beanie, military insignia, aviators, and—untypical of magazine covers (Anna Wintour, then creative director at US Vogue before her editorship of the British edition a year later, would have puked)—Band-Aid (like an open inverted comma) and roughly-applied lip balm! This was not the American Gigolo look, made famous by the 1980 film, with costume designed by Giorgio Armani. This was “Buffalo.”

Publicity still during the launch of Every Time You Break My Heart. Photo: Sire Records

Mr Kamen’s ability to embrace realness and defiance so stylishly and, to many, sexily, was his greatest appeal. As soon as he was launched, he became associated with the totally DIY Buffalo style that Ray Petri dreamed up at the time, and with which the stylist (a self-created title, his friends declared) would go on to define British menswear of the ’80s, first at The Face and later at sibling Arena. Buffalo, a word used in the Caribbean to mean boys that were rude and rebellious, was appropriated to be synonymous with fearless self-expression. It became a personal trademark of Mr Petri, and it involved a British clique of mainly guys: fellow stylist Mitzi Lorenz, the photographers Roger Charity, Jamie Morgan, and Cameron McVey (he dated Neneh Cherry, one of the few Buffalo girls, who sang the 1988 hit Buffalo Stance, which sampled from Malcom McClaren’s 1983 track Buffalo Gals), and the crucial models who could express the Buffalo attitude: Wade Tolera; Tony Felix; the 13-year-old Felix Howard (The Face‘s youngest cover model); and, of course, Nick Kamen and his brother Barry.

With Buffalo’s influence stretching across the world, it was Nick Kamen who came to represent the much-touted Buffalo stance, culminating in a career-defining 1985 Levi’s TV commercial that showed him stripped—in a busy launderette—to his white boxers (a now-not-shocking reveal that may have been copped from a Jamie Morgan-lensed fashion spread that appeared earlier—in the March 1985 issue of The Face—when Mr Kamen wore similar white boxers and a black T-shirt under a trench coat). Ringing success embraced the American jeans brand and the British model. It is understandable why Mr Morgan called him “our muse”. Comedian Matt Lucas told the media recently, “If you didn’t have a crush on Nick Kamen in the ’80s, you probably weren’t there.”

Man in skirt, not a shocker now, but back then, scandal-rousing. Styled by Ray Petri. Photo: Jamie Morgan/The Face

The model was one of the earliest of that time to cross successfully over to pop. Mr Kamen’s big break arrived when Madonna came admiring, and handed him the song, Each Time You Break My Heart, one that was omitted from her third album, 1986’s True Blue. The accompanying video, shot by the French fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino, featured many of Mr Petri’s coterie of friends/models, including the boy-star Felix Howard (who later appeared in Madonna’s Open Your Heart and Sinitta’s Toy Boy MVs) and Mr Kamen’s girlfriend at that time, American model and 1989 Licenced to Kill’s Bond girl Talisa Soto (later, he also dated another ’80s model, the German Tatjana Patitz). So sure of his singing potential she was that Madonna even did the backing vocals of Each Time You Break My Heart, but Nick Kamen did not have a voice that you’d remember; he wasn’t a Sam Smith. He did, however, have a presence that worked well on stage and, with the emergence of music television (MTV), winsome close-ups. Although some haters of that time referred to his songs as “himbo pop”, he would continue to release another four albums, all with varying degrees of success, but none to equal those by the likes of Rick Astley or Nik Kershaw.

As the telling of most who knew him goes, Mr Kamen was an extremely nice individual, so uncommon a trait in the business of fashion and pop music that stars still remember him by his niceness. Boy George, the first to break the news of his death, posted on Instagram, “RIP to the most beautiful and sweetest man”. Duran Duran’s John Taylor wrote on Twitter, “One of the loveliest and gentlest men I ever met.” Madonna was just as effusive on IG, “You were always such a kind sweet human.” Could Neneh Cherry, three decades earlier, too, have referred to Nick Kamen when she sang in Buffalo Stance, “No money man could win my love. It’s sweetness I’m thinking of”?

Who Is Duan Mei Yue?

The model who was unhappy with the delineation of her by a local artist had dreams to land on the cover of Vogue Italia

Our own illustrated likeness of Duan Mei Yue, done, we admit, without her permission. This serves as illustration to this post only, and will not not be used commercially

Warning: this post contains language that some readers might find offensive

Full-time model Duan Mei Yue (段美玥) is trending, but not for a breakthrough runway show or an outstanding magazine cover we usually associate with models who receive ardent media attention. Rather, she’s been making the news for being deeply unhappy with some graphite and acrylic drawings by local artist Allison M Low called Weight of Longing that were discernibly based on a photograph posted on Instagram in February 2018. This photo, shot by professional lensman Li Wanjie, was allegedly used to create a “likeness” without Ms Duan’s expressed approval. (Just because images on social media are posted for all, does it mean they are free for all?) When she discovered that the drawings appeared as a chipped cut-out on the floor of the Love, Bonito store in Funan and, later, on the cover of author Amanda Lee Koe’s award-winning Ministry of Moral Panic, she was livid and so affected that she felt “very violated knowing that someone has profited off my likeness without my knowing or consent,” according to a post on Instagram Stories nine weeks ago. The distress, as she told it (too aggrieved to punctuate properly), wrecked her life—“how can i sleep at night”, “how do i function as per usual”, “how do i not let this affect me”.

Ms Duan’s anguish is understandable. Although she is a model, she did not model for Ms Low. Nor, was she paid by the artist as a model in abstentia. To see photos of her lopped-off face crowned by a head tie and positioned on the floor of Love, Bonito, also a community centre of sort, even under the guise of art, must have been too hard to stomach. It is not difficult to see why she was upset to be placed on that level. But, at Love, Bonito, it seemed to her that the artist was remunerated for the work that was used not only as art-prop, but also as visual for pendants and on tote bags. This could have been a revenue stream for her too, rather than just the artist’s. It isn’t known how much Love, Bonito paid Ms Low for the work (or Empigram Books, publisher of Ministry of Moral Panic), but it was reported that the artist, a Temasek Polytechnic School of Design graduate, made €1,875 (about S$3,000) from a sale of another art piece with Ms Duan’s likeness through an identified gallery. For one who professed that she has “a spending problem”, and “don’t have millions of dollars behind (her) name”, this lost income was, unsurprisingly, maddening. On IG Stories, she proclaimed “i’d be ok with this if it was done after i leave this existence but when i’m still alive and broke? no thank u”. In addition, she declared: “i have no money for a fucking lawyer”.

Interestingly, Ms Duan, who deprecatingly calls herself “just an awkward noodle” and has no problem identifying as “this dumb hoe”, loves to draw, and had often posted her amusing output on social media (on IG alone, she has, to-date, 55.1k followers) when she was still doing her A levels and not modelling full-time yet. Most of them, similar to her likeness in question, were of faces. Whether they were a figment of her imagination or based on photographs, she did not say. But they were expressed, including the self-portraits, in a sometimes quirky manner, not unlike the Arien herself. She said on IG, “im really relatable and im very honest with my vulnerability n flaws”. It is the honesty, perhaps, that led her to confess in her earliest post, that she “fucking love cats”. Ms Duan has a weakness for the F-word: “best fucking strawberry marshmallows” or “dramafest and photography camp made me so fucking happy” (just two of the many examples), but unlike, say, influencer Wendy Cheng (aka Xia Xue), who uses the four letters as cuss word, Ms Duan tends to employ them as adverb and adjective, and possibly also as indicator that she has crossed into adulthood. One expresses irritation, the other, delight.

The works of art that “violated” Duan Mei Yue: (clockwise from left) cover of book by Amanda Lee Koe, the drawing by Allison M Low, and the chipped piece on the floor of Love, Bonito (also by Ms Low). Photos: Epigram Books, Retrospect Galleries, and Allison M Low/Instagram respectively

She is candid and tells it like it is, which for her followers, is her charm and her pull. Accompanying a photo she posted in November 2017 to be used as a profile picture, Ms Duan wrote, with, again, scant regard to punctuation—and, now, propriety, “i’ll let you guys in on a secret; i photoshopped my armpits bc it’s so wrinkly it looks like a vagina”. Her “vagpit” reference prompted 1,862 likes and 54 comments, of which 24 were variations of “the most beautiful”, with one, calling her “仙女本人” (xian nu ben ren or the fairy herself). Her fans rave about her looks, but she is not considered conventional beauty, a point Ms Duan acknowledges. In 2019, she told the Shanghai media, “我从外貌来看就很少归类为传统模特” (wo cong wai mao lai kan jiu hen shao gui lei wei chuan tong mo te or “from my appearance, I am rarely classified as a traditional model”). But this non-traditional look is possibly why the casting agents in the West have been interested in her—she fits the Western perception of eastern beauty and exotica.

On her face, she has what the Chinese would call “丹凤眼” (dan feng yan or red phoenix eyes, referring to almond-shaped peepers with outer corners inclined upwards). Her eyes are set rather apart, creating a wide glabella that make-up artists don’t necessarily know what to do with. “You can’t shade that area,” one seasoned pro told us. “She also has a lot of space between the upper eyelid and the brow, which may require a lot of colour”. In a commentary on China’s Sohu (搜狐), Ms Duan was described to have “塌鼻梁圆鼻头” (ta bi liang yuan bi tou or collapsed bridge, round nose), which the writer acknowledged to be “颠覆了国际超模的直挺范儿” (dian fu le guo ji chao mo de zhi ting fan er or subverting the straightforward styles of international supermodels). And those full lips, not seen since Ethel Fong. In sum, her facial features may post a challenge to her creative partners, but most fashion stylists generally say she is fun to work with, as “she has character”. There’s a campy side to her too. In one IG post, she lip-synced delightfully to Olivia Newton-John’s Hopelessly Devoted to You!

Duan Mei Yue, now 22, started modelling full-time in 2017 after completing her A-Levels (if modelling didn’t work out, she would have considered psychology in university), but had earlier already wanted to be a model after discounting the possibility of being a fashion designer. She told Female magazine in 2018 that “K-pop and anime were part of my motivation to become a model. I saw how the K-pop idols I obsessed over at that time walked Seoul Fashion Week and they were invited to various fashion shows during the fashion week circuit in Europe and New York so I thought maybe I should become a model to meet them lol”. And ultimately, to be on the cover of Vogue Italia. She also told Cleo in 2019, “I started when I realised that I needed to express my love for aesthetics and fashion”. She has, so far, walked the runways of Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, New York, and Paris, but was conspicuously absent at the biggest fashion show of the year on our island: last week’s Louis Vuitton presentation, when the “bigger” star at the moment, Yong Kai Gin, had her SG moment in the klieg lights—and the rain.

Ms Duan gives the impression that there were many artists, professionals or amateurs, who desired to draw her face. On IG Stories, she wrote, “every other artists (sic) has either properly compensated me or has agreed to stop the selling and apologised sincerely”. Perhaps, it is true: Her unusual features are more interesting to artists than standard symmetry or placid perfection. That Allison M Low, herself considered a “looker”, chose that fated picture, one that would have been a weak shot for casting agents, is telling of the appeal of Ms Duan’s off-kilter looks. In her response to the controversy, Ms Low told The Sunday Times that “the artworks… were about the strength and grace in women…” but while there seems to be tremendous strength on both sides (and among their respective supporters), there has not been a palpable sense of grace, as the war wages online. As one marketing manager said to us, “Duan Mei Yue has grown-up. The modelling around the world has opened her eyes.” When that photo was shared on the model’s IG page on 18 Feb 2018, this was her comment (and we’re quoting verbatim): “grey eyes from @ttd_eye queen grey go spend some of dat angpao moneys and get yoself some cool grey eyes with a cool discount by using my code “dmeiyue” ✨ portrait by @uuanjie as usual hehe makeup done by moi :*” That girl is no more.

Illustration and collage: Just So

Wild West Wang

Alexander Wang has defended himself against some serious allegations that are sexual in nature. Will his brand survive these personal charges?

Alexander Wang in a publicity shot to promote his collaboration with Uniqlo. Photo: Uniqlo

Note: this post contains potentially offensive language and descriptions

Alexander Wang’s autumn winter 2020/21 collection was not presented on a runway. In fact, he announced a year earlier that he was giving the live show a miss, in favour of a massive party that he’s known to throw to celebrate the brand’s 15th anniversary. Last September, photographs of the thirty-nine-look collection were sent to the media. The clothes, as styled, were as party-ready as ever. Amid the still-raging pandemic, they were a dispensable reminder of a time when clubland was very much alive and throbbing. These would, no doubt, have delighted the ever-loyal party animals of the high-profile Wang Squad.

But now, chatter among the gang has been, “did he or did he not do it?” For the past weeks, Mr Wang, 37, was accused by at least eight male models—and, curiously, trans—for non-consensual, sexually aggressive behaviour, and, following that, passing straight vodka for water and offering the alcohol as a “party trick”, according to the singer Florence Welch and the writer Derek Blasberg, YouTube’s head of fashion and beauty partnerships. Although there has been talk much earlier of Mr Wang’s supposed indiscretions that the media noted went largely under the radar (accusers unidentified), one explosive allegation did emerge two weeks ago.

According to a British model/graphic designer/fashion stylist, Owen Mooney, 26, Mr Wang had groped him in a night club, back in early 2017. The indecent sexual advances allegedly took place during the monthly gay rave, Holy Mountain, hosted by the Canadian DJ/events producer Ladyfag, at Slake, a mid-town Manhattan (predominantly) gay dance club known for its hip-hop and EDM playlist. Slake was operated by the legendary New York club Webster Hall; it closed permanently at the end of 2017. During its heydays, Slake welcomed revellers to, as one review stated, “explore the twisting labyrinth with three floors of mystery and debauchery.” It’s in such a setting that the alleged violation occurred.

The alleged victim of Alexander Wang’s unwelcome advances, Owen Mooney. Photo: Owen Mooney/Instagram

Mr Mooney, who has 5,666 followers on Instagram (vs Mr Wang’s 5.5 million) and, in one post in 2015, called himself a “cuntry boy”, revealed the details via TikTok in a form of a (Q&)A: “I was by myself at one point and this guy next to me obviously took advantage of the fact that no one could fucking move. And he just started touching me up. Fully up my leg, in my crotch. It made me freeze completely because I was in so much shock.” Mr Mooney did not immediately extricate himself from the invading hand; he wanted to identify the perpetrator. “Then I look to my left to see who it was and it was this really famous fashion designer and I just couldn’t believe that he was doing that to me. It just made me go into even more shock. I just had to slowly move myself away.”

Mr Mooney did not, in that TikTok post, reveal who the molester was. One of his followers offered a name, and Mr Mooney continued with another post, in which he said, “…and turns out, Alexander Wang is a massive sexual predator. And there has been loads of people he’s done this to… he just needs to be cancelled.” Although he had posted before the big reveal, “Craving those sweaty nights out. Can’t wait to dance again”, the incident affected him massively. “Now, anytime I see his name mentioned, or I see him with celebrities and, like best friends, and whatever, like… it just reminds me of what he did, and it’s just a fucked-up memory to have.” Not long after, Shit Model Agency, an IG account that is touted as a “safe space 4 models”, shared Mr Mooney’s post, as well as other anonymous allegations that recounted supposed spiking of drinks with MDMA (a psychoactive drug) and sexual assaults. Just as quickly, Diet_Prada, with a following of 2.4 million, including industry leaders, too, shared, six days ago, a compilation of the charges, titled “The Internet is exposing Alexander Wang’s history of sexual harassments.” It was the holiday news to digest.

In response, after a brief silence, Mr Wang and his lawyers provided The New York Times a statement. “Over the last few days, I have been on the receiving end of baseless and grotesquely false accusations,” it stated indignantly. “These claims have been wrongfully amplified by social media accounts infamous for posting defamatory material from undisclosed and/or anonymous sources with zero evidence or any fact-checking whatsoever.” There was no addressing of Mr Mooney’s TikTok self-disclosed posts.

Probably off to or emerging from a party. Photo: Getty Images

Alexander Wang was born in the Bay Area city of San José, California. His parents were Taiwanese. According to what he once said to Suzy Menkes, he does not speak Mandarin or the minnan dialect (闽南语), and speculation that he does “is a false background”. Mr Wang’s early education took place in San José. Although some reports claimed he was interested in fashion since young, it was not until a summer design course in London’s Central Saint Martins when he was 15 that marked his formal foray into fashion. He continued his studies stateside at New York’s Parsons School of Design, but famously did not graduate. In 2005, half-way through school, he started his eponymous label. Just three years later, he won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, which came with a USD20,000 prize to grow his business. With continued support from Anna Wintour, Mr Wang soon found himself, in 2012, with a job offer from the Kering group: to succeed Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga.

Mr Wang’s debut Balenciaga collection was met with some enthusiasm. But many felt he did not quite live up to the pre-tenure hype. While he did make Balenciaga more commercial, his designs took no one’s breath away. More exciting was how, according to one social media post, Mr Wang and his posse behaved in Paris: ah lians caught in the dazzle of the City of Lights. In 2015, his contract with Balenciaga came to an end. Kering did not renew it. His one-term stint, like a one-term US presidency, did not appear to dent his by-then burgeoning name. When he left Balenciaga, Alexander Wang’s “models-off-duty look”—an amalgamation of athletic styles and nightclub staples—was the downtown aesthetic adopted by many women already abandoning the no-longer-necessary “office wear.”

Mr Wang is known to party hard, just as he has a reputation for throwing hard-core, packed-out parties, where his shindig togs are routinely worn by attendees, proudly. Whatever allegedly happened at the Holy Mountain rave, inspired by indie film maker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 art house movie, The Holy Mountain, it seems to suggest that Mr Wang is not alien to the gay party circuit, during which men often take off their shirts as they dance through what Owen Mooney called “sweaty nights”. Last year, before Mr Mooney’s accusations, the favourite rapper of the fashion world, Azealia Banks, Mr Wang’s “former muse”, who had also performed at his after-parties (as well as appearing in a T by Alexander Wang ad), shared on IG Stories different anonymous messages claiming Mr Wang’s sexual abuse (they’ve since been deleted). In the beginning, it seemed that these charges will be circumscribed within the walls of dance clubs, left to go off-track in the beat. However loud the music, it’s hard to drown out the din of the anger felt and expressed online by the abused. Hitherto, the accusers are not known to have filed police reports against Mr Wang, but that is not certainty that there won’t be repercussions on the brand, however he Wangs it. His famous “Wangover” could turn out to be Wang over.

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