Burberry’s Boy Bright

The British brand looks to Asia for their next ambassador and they found him in Thailand

Vachirawit ‘Bright’ Chivaaree, Burberry’s new brand ambassador. Photo: Burberry

Burberry has once again found a male face among the many willing Thais to peddle their wares. This time, as brand ambassador. After the unlikely Issan-born Manchester chap Zak Srakaew for their autumn/winter 2020 collection, they’ve now made a more conventional choice—the Bangkok-based actor Vachirawit ‘Bright’ Chivaaree (วชิรวิชญ์ ชีวอารี)—as the guy to front their campaigns and wear their clothes in public appearances. Unlike Mr Srakaew, Mr Chivaaree—known professionally as Bright—is not pure Thai, or as dark-skinned, or unknown. He is a (preferred) luk khreung (literally ‘half-child’) of Thai, Chinese and American decent, but still unmistakably Thai, a man of adequate fairness, and a radiant star of film and music.

Born Kunlatorn Chivaaree in 1997, in the province of Nakhon Pathom, central Thailand, to Thai-American father and Thai-Chinese mother, he was the only child from a family that has not been described as poor. His parents divorced when he was young and he grew up with his maternal relatives. Answering to the nickname Bright, he spent his growing-up years in a music school owned by his uncle. Although he loves to play music instruments and is able to with several, he has not been regarded as musically gifted. The soccer-loving actor told Harper’s Bazaar Thailand, “I’ve been playing instruments—guitar, bass, drums, keyboard and other Western instruments—since a very young age, as I grew up in a music school”.

Bright Vachirawit as Sarawat playing the guitar in the drama 2gether: The Series. Screen shot: GMM TV/YouTube

He did not, however, mention a broadcasted interview with Elle Thailand in which he spoke of a music competition that he and the mates of a band he formed participated during high school (he attended two, but did not mention which). During the audition that was judged by teachers and seniors, they were not selected. On the day of the finals, Mr Chivaaree and his band members “thought that (their) performance was much more interesting, and (their) friends would want to watch (them) play. (They) then prepared to go up on stage to perform, and asked those guys to leave the stage. Everyone was screaming and shouting. In the end, (they) were sent to the student affairs office.” As shocking as that revelation was, he did not seemed remorseful. Former schoolmates shared online their own take of what happened that day. Many thought that he still did not understand the impact of his actions, and was fervently glamourising it. As with the proverbial opening of a can of worms, more accusations emerged (even a teacher joined in the fray). He was accused of bullying, discrimination against LGBTQ classmates, sexual harassment, body shaming, and even colourism.

All this was little known (or not shared) when, at 22, Vachirawit Chivaaree became an overnight star playing the gay lead in the ’boys love’ (BL) TV rom-com 2gether: The Series, broadcast months before the Elle interview. Adapted from a 2019 eponymous Thai novel, the weekly drama would be so wildly popular that it is thought to have brought the BL genre to global attention, even when Japan was the first to introduce yayoi stories in the form of manga, anime, TV series, and other media. Mr Chivaaree took on the role of Sarawat, a musician and a footballer (nothing surprising in those two selves) in university, persuaded into a pretend relationship with Tine (a fellow student played by Metawin ‘Win’ Opasiamkajorn), who is the target of unwanted attention from another schoolmate. Too much noise (and the not-too-polite Gen-Z speak) and too much makeup characterised the unfolding narrative. Fake, as is often the case in Thai dramas, became real, the hard-to-get turned the unable-to-forget.

Bright Vachirawit as the smouldering Sarawat viewers are madly in love with. Photo: GMM TV

Gay characters are nothing new to Thai TV audiences, but 2gether brought sweet gay romance—not misfortune, repudiation, or indiscriminate sex—to a mass audience. Out of the dozen people we spoke to in Malaysia, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and on our island, all of them except one said it was “predictable”. One Malaysian K-drama fan said it’s very kiddy and is “targeted at teens”. In fact, university is one big social club of clubs. No one ever studies. Yet many fans were sucked into the pull of the simple plot and clichéd comedy (the two actors happily told the media that the drama is “light and easy to follow”). Viewers were talking about getting their “Sarawat X Tine fix”, even when some were saying that “the first half was great to watch but in the second, they were just like friends”. A month after it first aired in February 2020, the streaming platform Line TV reported 50 million views, prompting the online suggestion that it was the concomitant COVID-19 lockdown that was on the drama’s side. When production company GMMTV shared the drama on their YouTube page, the first episode alone garnered 29 million views to date. It was even picked up by Netflix, paving the way to American audiences.

The controversial high school reveal that emerged from the 2020 Elle Thailand interview was more or less confined to Thailand. Although he did apologise soon enough for what he said, he did not escape later, just-as-contentious tweets. Within months of the broadcast of 2gether, the show became a hit in the Philippines, and the massive market, China. In early April, Mr Chivaaree, a photography enthusiast, innocuously liked a post shared by a Thai photographer that featured four skylines referred to as “countries”, and Hong Kong, as fate would have it, was one of them. After a Chinese Weibo user shared a screen shot of that post, Chinese Netizens went quite mad about the actor’s seeming disrespect of China’s sovereignty and demanded an apology. He offered one on, but that wasn’t the end of it.

In Singapore this month for Burberry’s TB Summer Monogram bash at Tanjong Beach Club, Sentosa. Photo: Burberry

Not long after, his supposed girlfriend at that time, the influencer Weeraya Sukaram—aka Nnevvy—shared a Thai tweet that questioned China’s motive in not wanting foreign investigators in the country to determine whether COVID-19 was leaked from a Wuhan lab (and concurrently saying foreigners imported the virus). As with Mr Chivaaree’s retweet, Chinese Netizens were enraged. That was not the final misstep of Ms Sukaram. In one old post that they managed to uncover, she had responded to a question about her clothes she wore in a photograph by saying that the style was “Taiwanese”, again apparently acknowledging another neighbouring island to the mainland as distinct and separate from China. Mr Chivaaree, not yet distanced from her, was also embroiled in the anger she once again aroused among the Chinese. He apologised on her behalf.

The uproarious reaction in China mattered little to the Thais. When, in a tit-for-tat move, the former criticised and insulted Thai politicians and even the king, the Thais were happy that there were others doing the work for them (this was, after all, during the student protest of 2020). It is not known if Burberry is aware that their choice of Vachirawit Chivaaree as their new ambassador may rile the Chinese (still), with implications in possibly the brand’s biggest market, but in Thailand, the appointment is considered a triumph for the kingdom. Some Thais, however, did not think Mr Chivaaree is the best pick, considering him too 2020 and reminiscent of the start of the pandemic. He is, they believe, not as popular as before, even if he is still very recognisable, and well loved among Thai advertisers. There are those who think the current favourites, PP and Billkin—either one of them should have been considered by Burberry.

In the latest Burberry campaign. Photos: Burberry

Although 2gether: The Series was given a second season Still 2gether and the film 2gether: The Movie, with Vachirawit Chivaaree and Metawin Opasiamkajorn in the lead roles, it would be another BL drama, the two-parter I Told Sunset About You and I Promised You the Moon, that found another group of fervid fans. The two male-leads-in-love this time are Krit ‘PP’ Amnuaydechkorn and Putthipong ‘Billkin’ Assaratanakul. Both actors are Bangkok-born and are singers (like Mr Chivaaree, Mr Assaratanakul sings the theme songs of the TV series that he stars in), and both have such on-and-off-screen chemistry that there was persistent “rumours that PP and Billkin were ‘together’ during their school years”, one Bangkok media professional told us. Is it true, we asked. “It’s hard to say,” she replied, “but people like to believe that they were. It’s great for the fandom. That’s why I think what they represent seems bigger than who they really are.”

Perhaps what the actors of extremely popular BL drama represent matters not to Burberry as much as the reach of the brand ambassador they pick. Despite I Told Sunset About You’s huge commercial success—in China, too, where they enjoyed a Douban score of 9.4 out of 10—and critical acclaim—A Bangkok Post review enthused: “At times sensual, at times heartbreaking, Sunset was a well-rounded, coming-of-age drama with good writing, and beautiful cinematography to match”, it would be Vachirawit ‘Bright’ Chivaaree’s shinning star that impressed Burberry’s casting director. In the brand’s images just released, Mr Chivaaree, with those beguiling locks and speaking eyes, looks adequately aloof and moodily romantic—an expression that seems to say, as he did when he, in 2gether, met Tine for the first time, “Keep looking at me like that and I will kiss you till you drop.” Totally “grumpy” Sarawat.

A Prime Minister in Burberry

Should the head of government wear expensive shirts to meet his people?

By Awang Sulung

Malaysian prime minister Ismail Sabri loves Burberry shirts, but his fellow Malaysians are not as enamoured with his baju. A photo shared on the PM’s Facebook page a few days ago showed him in a short-sleeved, buttoned-down, red/pink/white shirt—worn untucked—with a textual print that the British label describes as a “slogan”. As it appears to me: the phrase “UNIVERSAL PASSPORT” in two lines run from the shoulder to the hip, on both sides of the placket. That and the shirt itself are not controversial or offensive, or unflattering, but it did get people talking, including opposition members of parliament. The shirt Mr Sabri chose—in Italian silk organza, no less—costs S$2,190 or RM6,900, according to Burberry/MY. That amount, as the media reported, is “3.3 times median Malaysian salary”. With staggering inflation and rising cost of almost everything, it is understandable why people are so geram. This is this year’s quinoa-gate!

Burberry’s appeal to politicians is not new. I remember that back in the early 2000, Thailand’s then prime minister, the billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra (now in exile), loved Burberry shirts too, and was often seen in the light blue version of their house check before he was overthrown in a military coup in 2006. He even wore matching sunglasses with those shirts when he was out to meet the electorate. The Thais did not make a fuss of Mr Shinawatra’s sartorial choice, probably because his chemise was not thought to cost a bomb. Those check shirts were, after all, often seen for sale outside Burberry stores, from Patpong to Chatuchak. I do not remember how much that shirt cost back then, but Mr Shinawatra would not have bought a knock-off. Despite his wealth, out there among his constituents, he did look acceptably loong (uncle) and very much chun chan raeng ngan (working class)—one of them.

The Thais did not make a fuss of Mr Shinawatra’s sartorial choice, probably because his chemise was not thought to cost a bomb. Those check shirts were, after all, often seen for sale outside Burberry stores, from Patpong to Chatuchak

Perhaps the disapproval of Ismail Sabri’s shirt was not merely about the hefty price that went with it. What he donned was not quite walk-about wear. And, while he looked pakcik (uncle!) enough, he was not one of them; he appeared like one who would fork out more than six thousand ringgit for a shirt, which, I suspect, is rather far costlier than the rakyat-approved baju batiks that even younger politicians, such as the minister of health Khairy Jamaluddin, wears, and with considerable frequency, and, possibly, pride. And, for someone who reportedly prefers his colleagues to use mostly bahasa Malaysia, even abroad, Mr Sabri’s wearing of a shirt with blaring English words is, at the very least, hypocritical. This was not the first sighting of Mr Sabri in a shirt from Burberry. Last month in Tokyo, he wore an even bolder piece when he met with our PM Lee Hsien Loong. That shirt, with a symmetrical “abstract print” that looked like a silhouette of a Maori tekoteko (those carved human-like figures with tongues stuck out) and such, would have set Mr Sabri back by S$1,790. Possibly haram as it was small change?

I wonder, too, if there was ageism involved in the negative views that pervaded social media. Ismail Sabri is 62, and, while he is eight years younger than Mr Lee, is not considered to be of a vintage that should trifle with this thing called fesyen. Mr Sabri did not pick the less current, less ‘statement’ pieces, such as Burberry’s Simpson (or Somerton) shirt, with its familiar, non-threatening checks in “archive beige”. If he did, his choice of clothes would probably not be noticed. And if his pakaiyan is not registered, the empathy so many wishes to see could, perhaps, be discerned. Rather, Mr Sabri took a risk with fashion, and his followers were uncomfortable. As the New York Time’s Vanessa Friedman said to V magazine back in 2017, in a comment about politics and fashion, many people “think fashion is superficial and any association with it automatically denigrates the thing it is being associated with.” Politics! Some Malaysian Netizens even took issue with their PM choosing a “colonial” brand over one that is local. If only they have their own CYC in Kuala Lumpur.

Photo: Nik Nazmi/Twitter

Graceful Is The Giantess

Burberry plants itself right in the heart of Orchard Road with a massive Olympia

There aren’t many places on Orchard Road where a handbag, the height of the nutmeg tree that used to grow here in the 1800s, can sit obtrusively for the pleasure of gawkers and selfie-mad teenaged girls. The open space outside Ion Orchard (adjacent to Paterson Road) is possibly the only one and a spot luxury brands like to market themselves—visibly. Traditionally, this is where a Christmas tree (increasingly sponsored) would be erected during the Yuletide season, but Burberry has, instead, laid their Olympia bag “sculpture” here, following the footsteps of Louis Vuitton with their shipping container display last January. A handbag left in a very public place won’t be there for very long, but the Olympia is too massive to be removed unnoticed. The handbag, at 10m high, is taller than the Merlion (8.6m), and loftier than the ERP gantry it faces (6m). Which means that the Olympics 2020 pole vault gold medalist, Sweden’s Mondo Duplantis, who won by soaring over 6.02 metres, won’t be able to jump over its shoulder strap!

After its debut in London last month, floating on a barge along the River Thames, and then moving on to Dubai, where it sat on a sandy stretch on Palm West Beach of the famed Palm Jumeirah, with the city’s gleaming sky scrapper’s behind it, the Olympia is here, right where Orchard Road’s heart supposedly beats, standing proudly as “the first Asian stop” (we do not know where else on this continent it will land after this). The imposing bag is a crowd magnet, having enjoyed pre-unveiling publicity as an “IG moment”. It seems only women want to pose with the Olympia, with boyfriends/husbands serving as photographers, since it is likely that bag and subject(s) are unlikely able to be entirely framed by a smartphone’s front camera, held with hand stretched to the max. When a woman, standing alone, just below and to the right of the bag’s pentagon zip-puller, felt awkward and asked her male companion to go over and pose with her, he shouted from about three metres across her, “不要啦,很奇怪 (no, lah, it’s very strange)”.

Olympia the modern bag seems to allude to Olympia the ancient site/sanctuary dedicated to the worship of the Greek god Zeus, and home of the ancient Olympic Games. In Greek mythology, there are 12 Olympians of the pantheon, some are female goddesses, such as Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, but none known as Olympia. At the Burberry store window inside ION Orchard, a row of Olympia the bag is placed against what appears to be the delineation of some ancient Hellenic deity, which is not identified (the staff in the store do not know who she is either). Women’s role in ancient Greece is believed to be somewhat limited, but in their religion, there is a line-up of surprisingly strong female characters, such as the Muses, celebrated for their beauty, as well as their artistic skills, and to whom we owe today’s use of the word ‘muse’—she who inspires a creative genius. However, the actual usable Olympia, launched in May, is, according to Burberry, inspired by their “show venue, Olympia London”, a 134-year-old exhibition space in West Kensington!

Designed by Riccardo Tisci, the Olympia is described by the brand in its publicity material as a “runway shoulder bag” (not handbag) that’s an “embodiment of modern classicism”. Shaped like a wedge of watermelon, the Burberry Olympia is a smart-looking bag. Somewhat unusual is the rigid shoulder strap (yes, it can stand when you sit the bag on a table), which is adjustable to suit the length you desire. The bag is striking in its simplicity of form: fold-over flap with a zip pocket and a zip-puller (on the rear is a a slip pocket—unfortunately not gusseted, so you can’t fit a Trace Together token) that is secured by magnetic closure. What’s interesting about the Olympia is that, while the bag was launched by the publicity visuals featuring Kendall Jenner, FKA twigs, and the British rapper Blaine Muise, better known as Shygirl, it is marketed unabashedly as unisex. For this shoulder bag, men are included (Kohei Takabatake models with it). To our friend above, it’s not strange, lah.

The Burberry Olympia sculpture is open to view until 29 August 2021. The bag itself, from SGD2090, is now available at Burberry, Ion Orchard. Photos: Jim Sim

Thick And Clunky

Is this spectacle lanyard made from a leftover handbag strap or someone’s bicycle security cable?

By Mao Shan Wang

Burberry has just released images of their resort 2022 collection. Among the pieces sporting graphic prints, monograms and camo-on-tartan is this striking spectacle cord. At first, I thought I was looking at a strap of one of their bags, hung upside down. Then I noticed it was attached to the red-lensed wrap-shades. They have to be an eyewear accessory. Besides, Burberry handbags come with far much wider straps—the Olympia and Grace do. I have never seen such thick spectacle cords. Sure, thanks to Virgil Abloh, they are those that mimick his chains for the Louis Vuitton Keepall Bandouliere, but these are, like bicycle cables, really clunky and conspicuous. That is, perhaps, the whole idea?

I can see that to use one, you simply slip the arms of the glasses through the rubber ring on each end of the smooth leather cord. There is a cube of a charm hanging from the other ends of the rings, cinched in the middle like the numeral 8. Looked to me that even arms of eyewear need danglies. Odd to call them earrings. Arm rings perhaps? I wondered if they are heavy, and if they can be easily put away for storage, say, in a bag. I could see other uses for this luxury accessory. Could they be attached to surgical masks so that when one is not in use, they can hang down the chest like a plate-pendant? Or, might they be given the function of defensive—even offensive—weapons? You are, as it’s often said, only limited by your imagination.

Photo: Burberry

Two Of A Kind: Breastplates

Now that the chest rig is so 2018, perhaps its time for something else to protect the torso?

It’s rather curious to us that warm-weather (or cruise) dressing would require additional gear to trap air to the torso, while arms are totally uncovered. Isn’t it true that with the heat (year after year not letting up), many prefer not to layer? So the suddenly popularity of the breastplate is rather curious. Okay, so far it’s just from two labels: first Dior for cruise 2022 and Burberry for spring/summer 2022, but would these armour-like extras be prelude to a wider trend? Sure, these are not really an outer layer. Do you even consider them clothes? Surely not accessories! But since they are worn and would likely remain on the body throughout the duration of their stay (unlike a bag, which are frequently parted with the body), they might be considered garments?

Breastplates, sometimes also known as chestplates have, in fact, been around for a long time. Often associated with battle wear, they can be traced to antiquity, as seen on Greek warriors, such as the Athenian hoplites. As the elite hoplites had to provide their own panoply or full suit of armour, they had theirs custom-made. This included the breastplate—mostly made of leather and bronze. Only wealthy Greeks, therefore, could be a hoplite. Breastplates slowly fell out of fashion until their resurgence in the Middle Ages. By the 14th and 15th centuries, they were basically very much part of the standard battle order, and remained so all through the Napoleonic wars in the 19th century. In Asia, breastplates were worn too. There were the Chinese xiongjia (胸甲) Japanese do, although both were more like a cuirass—it covers the back as well. Closer to our shore, there was the Majapahit Empire’s karambalangan, sometimes reported to be lavishly gold-embossed! Today, the bullet-proof vests that the police use are believed to be directly descended from the breastplate.

Do Dior’s and Burberry’s breastplates have any protective quality? Frankly, we do not know. Dior’s bib-like versions—although shown in Athens—aren’t quite like those worn by the hoplites or even the goddess Athena (often depicted wearing one over her peplos). Their version looks like chestplates Amazons of Themyscira (later known by the more familiar Paradise Island) might wear—more Queen Hippolyta than Princess Diana. The abstractly-shaped and loose version at Burberry appears more like a shrunken apron with a rather shapely hem that recalls the bottom edge of the bodices worn by Italian women of the 16th and 17th Century. Whichever you’re drawn to, wear these equivalent of a face-mask-for-the-torso with something sleeveless underneath. And breathe.

Photos: Dior and Burberry respectively

Sleeveless At Burberry

It’s a season to hack parts of clothes off. Why not sleeves?

If legs of trousers and bottom halves of bodices are superfluous for spring/summer 2022, sleeves are too. You can be quite sure of that when Burberry shows much of their collection sans sleeves. Of the 45 looks (excluding those shown with just pants), 38 feature sleeveless tops or outers. We are not referring to tank tops—those are there or overalls—they are there too; we are pointing to those traditionally made to cover arms, but now not: trench coats, top coats, car coats, bombers, and the list goes on. Riccardo Tisci have decided to do away with the extra fabrics needed to shape the tubular protuberances, retaining not even half of it nor a little capped sleeve. The opening look perhaps sums it up: a traditional Burberry trench coat worn with arms exposes. As the trench coat has raglan sleeves, removing them along the seams means the result is an upper that’s rather halter. To butch it up, the trench is worn with a white sleeveless muscle tee underneath, which makes the getup look like a butcher’s. Is Burberry proposing a new work wear, while others are promoting play wear?

Burbbery’s video presentation was shot in London even when they show during the current Paris Fashion Week. This time, the location is a desert-looking part of a once-derelict Millennium Mills in Royal Victoria Docks, East of the capital. This could be a barren set for a Mad Max movie, and the tough looking lads could be members of a fashion-forward biker gang, navigating post-apocalyptic times. To augment the rawness, the thumping soundtrack (UK duo Shpongle’s oddly fitting Strange Planet) is provided to seem like the viewer is watching the proceedings with headphones that have no noise cancellation. The music drifts in and out, all the while you can hear the shuffling of feet against the sandy ground (regrettably, you can’t really see the footwear). The ambient sounds are so deliberate that you can even hear dogs barking in the distance. Again, unlike others, this is not some conduit to joy. This is like moving from lockdown to desolation.

Despite the arid setting, this could possibly be Riccardo Tisci’s most spirited (fertile is somehow not quite the right word here) men’s collection for Burbbery yet. Netizens are already calling this a return to form—as seen during his time at Givenchy. The face jewellery is certainly evocative (those bridge clips and lip rings are going to find their way to Zara!) and those graphics on shirts and tees. But perhaps most missed is Mr Tisci’s hard-edge treatment of traditional menswear pieces, imbued with a distinctive street wear spirit. This season, there is a sizeable selection of outerwear and they manifest Mr Tisci’s flair for deconstructing/reconstructing military wear (the trench coat was first created for British troops fighting in World War I) and work wear into modern clothes with an edgy undertone. We are conflicted if sleeveless anything makes a good central idea. Not since the sleeveless plaid shirts and denim truckers of the grunge era in the mid-’80s have we seen this much biceps. But this isn’t a nostalgic step back into the past, not a nod to Raf Simons’s sleeveless blazers of his early years (okay, perhaps a tad). This is Mr Tisci exhaling and articulating. Burberry is humming again.

In the past three years of his tenure, the most recognisable British brand had been in a strange place: somewhere between intriguing but not quite embraceable. Oftentimes, when we visit their stores here, they are ghostly quiet. We do not know if its the merchandise or the buying. The menswear frequently appear avuncular desperately trying to be cool (graffiti on checks?!) With spring/summer 2022 collection, we would be happy to have a close-up of the hunky and structured shapes: bodice-and-collar-only trench coats; boatneck outers that could be the trench coat’s hipper cousin; the raglan tank tops with irregular cut-outs (which reminds us of a Louis Vuitton X Comme des Garçons tote from 2014); the breastplates; and those tops printed with a monotone, flat image of them; and the pants with the horizontal straps (what could they secure?). In short, there would be a lot more to see.

Screen grab (top) and photos: Burberry

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. The language and culture here is quite unlike the rest of Thailand. Issan is considered to be the Thai nation’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, for the guys, muay Thai boxers. 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

Dress Watch: The Hydra Shirt

How many collars, or necks, does a chemise need?

Combining more than one outfit (or parts of) in a single garment is, of course, nothing new these days. We’ve seen it forever at Comme des Garçons and more recently at Y-Project and Balenciaga. Joining (pun, for sure) the rest is Burberry, the British house now still being remade by the Italian designer Ricccardo Tisci. This isn’t a simple one plus one, or one on one. Mr Tisci has made a simple shirt dress, conjoined with two halves-and-full-collars. This is the work of a Victor Frankenstein with an eye for symmetry.

The Burberry chemise-dress is interesting at first encounter. Pull back and it might be less fetching. The stand out parts are the two extra collars that, when worn, frame both ends of the shoulder, which, as a styling effect, is known as the “cold shoulder”. Think: summer of 2016. But the dress has less the sex appeal of those from four years ago. In fact, with the sleeve dangling by the side, it gives the dress a sack-like silhouette that may not be flattering for those not on the side of svelte.

What may, perhaps, be more appealing is to treat the two side collars as armholes. Yes, put your arms through them. It’s a twofer! Bring the sleeves to the middle, knot at the waist. In this manner, the dress would be unusual enough to intrigue even the keenest fashion observer. Is an extra shirt tied over the bodice?

What, to us, is a let down is the fabric used: The winter standard cotton flannel. And in WFH-friendly buffalo check and plaid! Fashion hack: do the same look by picking three flannel shirts from Uniqlo, and getting an able tailor to piece them together. Because that would cost you a total of S$89.70 (minus sewing charge) instead of the eye-watering S$3,950 you’d otherwise have to fork out.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Burberry Contrast Check Cotton Reconstructed Shirt Dress, SGD3,950, and a similar version for men, SGD1,880, are available at Burberry stores and online. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Two Of A Kind: Rose By Any Other Name

A Burberry rose or a Vogue rose? As a bloom of un-gloom, both are shown to look—or smell?—as sweet, during a time when the whiff of adversity is ever present, even where the roses grow

 

Burberry rose vs Vogue rose

Valentine’s Day is over, yet the rose is still visible as a heart-tugging communicator. A single stalk, shy of a full bloom, spiky leaves not stripped, centrally placed—the rose is now fashion’s pick to symbolise optimism at a time not many in the industry are optimistic about. Or, is it perhaps spotlighting the troubles of flower growers everywhere or what Bloomberg in a headline two weeks ago called “the crash of the $8.5 billion global flower trade”?

Fashion and flowers are often intertwined, the former often inspired by the latter, especially during the spring/summer season. Unless you’re Miranda Priestly—“Florals? For spring? Groundbreaking”. Announcing their support for medical staff on social media, Burberry used a white-pink rose that looks to be of English provenance as floral mascot. “Burberry Supports…” series of communication material puts the spotlight on what the company is doing for the community and hospitals. The rose it chose, suggestive of purity, innocence, and youth in its colour, is for now bleached of its bridal associations.

As stated in its corporate message, Burberry is “repurposing our trench coat factory in Castleford, Yorkshire, to make non-surgical gowns and masks for patients in UK hospitals”. In addition, the company is tapping into its global reach and resources “to fast track the delivery of 100,000 surgical masks to the UK National Health Service for use by medical staff”, as well as funding research into the development of a vaccine, and donating to charities with the main mission of addressing food poverty throughout the UK. How this is best represented by the rose isn’t clear, nor is an explanation offered. Can the rose, with all its romantic associations, negate Britain’s beleaguered start at mitigating the spread of COVID-19?

Across the pond at American Vogue, a red rose is the cover subject, an inanimate—although living—object not usually associated with Anna Wintour’s beloved title (curiously, under the masthead on the right, the text reads Jun/Jul—two issues in one?). The red rose is considered a universal, although cliched, symbol of love. If Andre Leon Talley, in his publicity rounds to promote his new autobiography The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir, is to be believed, love and the editor of American Vogue are not quite a twosome—Ms Wintour, he writes, is “not capable” of “human kindness.” That might sound like the reaction of a person scorned, but the charge clearly equals not a flower that evokes deep affection.

According to Condé Nast’s head creative director Raul Martine, Vogue’s cover bloom symbolises “beauty, hope, and reawakening”— no love there, and, according to the magazine, “a conduit between Vogue’s past and its present”. This flower-as-channel between eras allows the revisit of one of publication’s most compelling still-life photographers: Irving Penn. The cover photo was originally shot by Mr Penn in 1970 in London, and now makes a posthumous cover art. The rose, Vanda Miss Joaquim of England, is, as they say in fashion, having a moment. Around us we hear Elvis Costello singing, “As the door behind you closes/The only thing I have to say/It’s been a good year for the roses”.

Photos: Burberry and Vogue respectively

For You And You And You… And You

Is catering to as many as possible helping Burberry’s image?

 

Burberry SS 2020 P1

Two days before the Burberry show in London, we were in the ION Orchard store, looking at the AW 2019 pieces when a tall, Chinese, hipster-looking man walked in. He was dressed in an oversized shirt that sported the recognisable Burberry Nova check (once known pejoratively as the “chav check”—chav is just about the British answer to our beng/lian). His pants were possibly divorced from a track suit and his shoes, a designer hunk of kicks. He took a quick spin and left the store in less than three minutes from the time he strolled in. It is not immoderate to assume that he is a super fan of Burberry (he seemed to know the space like his living room), but later, outside Gucci, we heard him telling his female companion, when asked about his visit to the English label’s swanky store, “没什么” (there was nothing).

It is, of course, not possible to say that the man spoke for all who walked into Burberry, but we were there at the same time as he was, and we saw what he saw, and to some extent, we concurred. We didn’t know what he was looking for or wishing to buy (perhaps more of the check—this season, in different shades and then colour-blocked, but may not outdo the T-B logo designed by Peter Saville), but we did know what we did not receive/feel: a thrill, not even a tinge of a tingle that might have made us put our hands out to perform a shopping ritual such as touch.

Burberry SS 2020 G1Burberry SS 2020 G2

It is quite hard, even after three seasons, to determine if Riccardo Tisci has revved up the strength and thrust left behind by predecessor Christopher Bailey—a momentum that The Guardian noted early last year as Mr Bailey was to leave the company he spent 17 years with, “had a halo effect on the rest of British fashion”. Even just a year on, times are different, and London Fashion Week continues to see strong showing by J W Anderson, Richard Quinn, and Craig Green. It is, therefore, hard to imagine that these designers would need to stand on the strength of Burberry to build or project theirs.

This season, as in the past three, there is a lot to see and unpack, but the 109 looks (not the most, compared to Mr Tisci’s first of a staggering 135) don’t encourage repeat viewing. But we did look again: to see if, perhaps, there is now a perceptible Britishness to the styling that we had come to associate with the Burberry before Mr Tisci’s tenure. Trench coats aside, it was hard to place what was sent out on the runway as anything that might suggest Britannia, cool or not. In fact, the designer seems to have crawled back into his Italian shell, reminding us that he once designed for Givenchy, while throwing in some Hermès (-like scarves) for good measure.

Burberry SS 2020 G3

The tailoring is sharp and on point (the trousers and pencil skirts will be winners in the store and the men’s suit will attract the likes of entertainment lawyer Samuel Seow). The statement sleeves make a strong come-back. The rugby shirt (for both sexes) get star billing. The gingham check takes the place of the Nova. The white Victorian lace (and some in dove grey), with one dress saying “B, I am a unicorn” will not appeal to the straitlaced. On the other hand, the permutations of the T-shirt, with some sporting a blunt, pointed bottom similar to a bodysuit’s, will no doubt win over street-style devotees. Not to be outdone are the hijab and the sparkly-mesh face veil for men, both with firm places in a world of fashion now characterised by diversity and inclusiveness. In all, they suggest that Mr Tisci is having a field day bringing together a bit of everything for everyone. Does Burberry need to be so crowd-pleasing?

Since the discontinuation of the Prorsum collection in 2015 so that Burberry is one unified brand rather than separate sub-lines (London and Brit are the other two), the name once associated with trench coats has veered towards catering to the just-affluent, not only the ultra-affluent—including those not quite (or yet) wealthy, but wish to appear so; which, to us, sounds suspiciously like Louis Vuitton territory. This constitutes a large part of today’s luxury consumption: fashion for the multitude. If nothing, it would be fascinating to see how Burberry can reach one and all, and far and wide, including, as inclusivity requires, the chavs—Cara Delevingne and Harry Styles already counted.

Photos: Burberry

Oh, Another One!

The mainland Chinese are annoyed; they are complaining that the new Burberry Chinese New Year ads are mirthless and rather ominous. They obviously have not seen the British brand’s creepy Christmas campaign

 

burberry cny 2019 p1Why so glum? Even 小燕子 (xiao yanzi, little swallow) Vicky Zhao (right) can’t lift the Burberry CNY 2019 ads from gloominess. Photo: Burberry/Weibo

Burberry ended last year with a weird ad; they started this year with another just as weird. Or, eerie, as some Netizens felt.

In China, Burberry’s yet-to-be-fully-launched Chinese New Year campaign is eliciting remarkable dismay and disapproval. The advertising stills that were first posted in Weibo last Thursday surprised many when it was revealed by Burberry to be for CNY. As fashion ads go, they’re frankly unremarkable, but as those targeted at a very specific occasion, one considered to be the most important on the lunar calendar, they stood out for their stupendous gloominess.

The Burberry ads suggest a family coming together for a portrait, or possibly some wefies. They appear to be unwilling participants, photographed against their better judgment, surrounded by people they are unhappy to be near: a tableau of the inauspicious. Two Chinese stars are enlisted to give the pictures the glamour factor that luxury brands typically require of their visual presentations, but even Vicky Zhao (赵微) and Zhou Dongyu (周冬雨) are not able to bring a mood of 喜气洋洋 (xi qi yang yang or full of joy) to the set with a backdrop that, for most Chinese families, should have been tossed out with the spring cleaning.

burberry cny 2019 p2Unhappy family? Or is this how CNY has become these days? Photo: Burberry/Weiboburberry ad @ ion orchardThe same ad, as seen suspended from the ceiling and perpendicular to the Burberry store at ION Orchard. Photo: Zhao Xiangji 

Or, is Burberry smarter than what they have led us to believe? Could this be Burberry saying something about how the young luxury consumers of today are reacting to Chinese New Year? Are we looking at a typical of Chinese family celebrating CNY now?

In the close-crop photo of Vicky Zhao and Chou Dongyu, the women look like distant cousins confronting other relatives that have come with danger (or dagger?!) rather than good tidings (aka ang pows), with the older holding the hands of the younger protectively before they run for the safety of the panic room (aka the toilet). Ms Chou wears an expression that, when brought to any CNY visit, would be considered ku (苦 or bitter)—best left at the door.

Yet, increasingly, this is what many families, especially the older folks, see during Chinese New Year, when they open their front door. So unhappy and unwilling are the young to go CNY visiting these days that many of these reluctant folks have opted to go abroad during this season, a trend that encourages those who are staying put to not answer knocks on the door or the ringing of the phone so as to pretend they are away.

burberry cny 2019 p3Evil intent? The creepy photo that prompted one Weibo user to suggest that there was a plot here to kill the grandmother for her riches! Photo: Burberry/Weibo

Could this then be Burberry reflecting the sign of the times (that’s why the ad campaign is named “摩登新禧” or Modern New Year)? Or the other sign—that western luxury brands will continue to market to Asia with little or no understanding of the market?

We resist comparing this to the Dolce and Gabbana fiasco of two months ago. To be fair, both incidences are very different, but 新浪财经 (Sina Finanical News) may be on to something when they headlined this poser: “Dolce & Gabbana 之后 Burberry 或也将‘败’在广告”. Or, “after Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry may be defeated by advertising”. It sounds like the Chinese media (and Sina isn’t alone) is saying that Chinese consumers, perhaps more than their Western counterparts, pay attention to adverts, and that brands should be mindful of what they communicate to the Chinese.

Or, have the mainland Chinese for too long projected themselves to be a rather uncultured lot when overseas that there are brands who think that, back in the motherland, culture is inconsequential to the world’s most populous nation? Or have the Chinese become, as some say, unduly sensitive when they themselves have been culturally unaware when on foreign soil? Insensitivity begets insensitivity?

burberry cny 2019 p4Something’s going on? The evil and the snubbed! Photos: Burberry/Weibo

It is rather puzzling that following the Dolce & Gabbana uproar, brands are still not taking into consideration the textual and visual implications of the messages they deliver in markets not their own. We wonder if it can be narrowed to one thing: an Italian failing. Like Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, Burberry’s Riccardo Tisci is Italian, so is the company’s CEO Marco Gobetti. To be sure, we are not playing the nationality card here, but it did have us wondering if this is a possibility: that there is scant understanding of China and much of Asia among present-day Italians.

This is glaringly ironic considering that compatriot Marco Polo, the 13th century merchant, is known to be a serious Sinophile and had written much about zhongguo. But he isn’t the only one who held the Chinese in high regard. Later, in the 18th century, the Jesuit priest Giuseppe Castiglione served as court painter to three, not one (!), Qing emperors: Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong. In fact, Italy’s bilateral relations is believed to date back to the times of ancient Rome.

For some, to make sense of all this, we have to take into consideration that we live in a confused—and confusing—world. These are times when we can do and say anything we want just as we can wear whatever we desire, even if it’s an affront to the decency or culture of the person in front of us. Fashion has become less about design than the need for the wearer to be intrusively, even inappropriately, expressive. Blare without care.

burberry christjmas 2018 p1Burberry’s earlier gloom. A dining hall and Kirsten Scott Thomas divorced from joy in Burberry’s Christmas 2018 video commercial. Photos: Burberry/Weibo

Since Riccardo Tisci’s appointment at Burberry, there is a certain gloom when it comes to the brand’s big, holiday advertising. Just last month, their Christmas ad, specifically the “fashion film” format, showed stars of the movie, music, and modelling worlds in their Burberry festive finery. But no one seemed happy, not even the dog under the table, on which a most un-festive meal was laid, in a hall with as much Yuletide cheer as a funeral parlour.

Even with big names, such as actors Kirsten Scott Thomas (looking spectacularly despondent) and Matt Smith (looking disconcertingly evil), and hip-hop artiste MIA (looking positively bored), the advert has such a lack of merriment that this could easily be a trailer for some slasher-in-a-sanctuary movie. Or, has Westerners’ attitude towards Christmas turned to the unrecognisable just as Chinese people now look at Chinese New Year so rather differently?

None of the cast members of the Burberry Christmas ad looked more sinister than Naomi Campbell, who sat on the ground like a broken doll, with her head on her mother Valerie Morris-Campbell’s lap, both looking blankly at a TV screen in front on them, in a chillingly blank room. With an eldritch half-smile on both faces, the Campbells appear no different from the Hewitts—Leatherface’s crazy family in 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That, we think, is pretty creepy.

Burberry’s New Jumble

Riccardo Tisci told The Guardian that he wanted his version of Burberry to “celebrate eclecticism”. Does that mean anything goes?

 

Burberry SS 2019 P1.jpg

The show was basically split into two parts, or maybe three, for both the men’s and the women’s collections, suggesting that designer Riccardo Tisci wishes to cater to more than one group of customers: those moneyed individuals who see Burberry as a traditional brand and still desire to buy traditional styles, those indefatigable influencers who hope to acquire ‘statement’ pieces, and those who have red carpets to walk on. That means catering to a broad base, which is already there, as evidenced by the reportedly close to USD3 billion annual sales, as well as creating a Burberry that is less tied to its English roots. Or, at least the Englishness that Christopher Bailey had once so seductively evinced.

In fact, to us, the new Burberry emanates a rather Italian aesthetic, Roman even—sunray skirts (or trench coat if inclement weather) for prancing at the Piazza Navona and vaguely street style for the rest, hanging out in Piazza Trilussa. To be sure, we weren’t hoping at that late hour of the live stream for anything that would bring back Mr Bailey’s Bloomsbury brio (or sorcery since many women were under its spell for quite a while) and we’re glad there was no return, but there was something lacking in its glorification of a British house.

Burberry SS 2019 G1

Sure, the Burberry check was there (as well as the stripes); the unmissable trenchcoats too, but these seemed like products taken from the shop floor to supplement otherwise incomplete merchandising rather than design-led garments destined for a direction-setting runway. Otherwise it would be hard to explain the pussy-bow blouses, even in the house tartan; pencil and bubble shirts; a baby-doll dress that looked oddly drab; blazer-skirt combos that wouldn’t be out of place in the confines of Marks & Spencer. Perhaps, Riccardo Tisci was doing Brit style after all.

Some people are thrilled that Mr Tisci is “bringing back elegance”. It’s a strange elegance, if you can call it that. Proper, too, especially in the first half. It was, as if Mr Tisci was deliberately going against the grain of the surge of street style, like so many designers are now doing, rejecting, as a matter of course, the ‘ugly’ too. That this should be the track he chose to take is not surprising, but that he should put out such kosher designs that’s reminiscent of one-time office wear is. Perhaps Mr Tisci is tired of dressing the likes of the Kardashian/Jenner clan, conspicuously missing in the front row of the show?

Burberry SS 2019 G2

Burberry SS 2019 G3

Just as we thought the now-uncommon prim will dominate, Mr Tisci ditched the Town and Country look for something more in keeping with what he was known for at Givenchy: clothes, although not “darkly romantic”—the favourite description among the media and KOLs, that his followers would definitely wear. These had a whiff of the sporty, the military, and the punk, all calculated to appeal to a generation that grew up through Mr Tisci’s Givenchy years (2005—2017). So, if you want accent sleeves, you got accent sleeves; even cold shoulder, yes, those cold shoulders you see around you that won’t go away. There was even a Virgil Abloh moment, three letters on a T-shirt that read COW, in case you did not know that the top was paired with a skirt of bovine print.

It may be a little severe to say that the most anticipated show of London Fashion Week turned out to be disappointing, but a let down it was even if the failure to fulfill our expectations was partly of our own making. We had hoped that Riccardo Tisci would go to London to place Burberry in a leadership role, the way Christopher Bailey had during the brand’s heydays. It would not, at present, be that.

Photos: Burberry