Following its world premiere at Tribeca last month, directors Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed’s delectable ALL MAN: The International Male Story plays the 40th Anniversary Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival on Saturday, July 16th. The feature documentary chronicles the history of the alluring men’s fashion catalogue, International Male, with insights from the insiders who were part of its story, contextualized by an array of entertaining commentators.
As a child of the 80s growing up in the UK, I can remember spending hours furtively poring over the men’s underwear section of Argos, and every other catalogue that happened to be delivered to my Italian grandmother’s house, over the summer vacation. Occasionally tearing out some of my favourites for later inspection. In fact, she’d even help me to snip out photos of shirtless Aussie soap stars from the tabloids and TV listing mags for my scrapbooks. In today’s world, where our social media feeds are bursting with thirst traps and everyone can be an Insta swimwear or underwear model, it’s probably hard for anyone who wasn’t around back then to imagine how thrilling it was in the pre-Internet age to catch a glimpse of these images. Even though they weren’t explicitly gay, and the models themselves were likely straight, there was something homoerotic and titillating about pages upon pages of photographs of men in underwear placed side-by-side, that—starved of any positive LGBTQ+ representation in the media, movies, television, politics, and certainly in the schoolyard—also felt reassuring. As if these images were saying, it gets better; there are men like this out there in the world, and perhaps one day you’ll get to meet one, or even be one.
Across the Atlantic, burgeoning gay kids and adults throughout the US—particularly those living far from the queer hubs of LA, New York, or San Francisco—were having the same response to International Male, as contributors such as Jake Shears, Drew Droege, and Parvesh Cheena fondly recall. In the 1970s and 80s, International Male had a cosmopolitan aesthetic and major gay appeal, with ab-popping, bulge-tastic photostories of hunks frequently clad in colourful and flamboyant fashions that pushed the boundaries of gendered fashion. As style expert Carson Kressley puts it, “International Male capitalized on putting masculine guys in pretty, not masculine outfits. It was that yin and yang that made it so alluring.” With ALL MAN, Darling, Reed, and Peabody and Emmy-winning writer and producer Peter Jones uncover the story behind this celebrated publication. Exploring along the way, how it intersected with and influenced mainstream men’s fashion; the emerging objectification and sexualization of men in the media, marked by Burt Reynolds’ nude centrefold in Cosmo in 1972, and the arrival of the first issue of Playgirl the following year; and the more adventurous looks of major pop acts like Wham! and lead characters in TV shows like Miami Vice in the 80s.
After serving in the Air Force—where he’d risked arrest and dishonorable discharge for going to queer bars like Chicago’s Windup Lounge—and a spell as a salesman in Europe, Gene Burkard returned to the US in the late 60s and headed for San Diego where he discovered more freedom to be himself as a gay man. He brought back a men’s medical garment, a suspensory, that he’d spotted in a shop window in London and was inspired to refashion it and market it as a ‘jock sock’. The item proved to be a hit with the mail order shoppers who spotted the ad that he’d placed in Playboy magazine in 1973. This gave Burkard the confidence to launch International Male in 1976, with a slogan declaring “freedom for the male”, before going on to open stores in San Diego and West Hollywood just one year later. International Male would continue to be distributed (though under different ownership from 1986) until 2007, becoming an influential cultural touchstone referenced in Zoolander and Seinfeld, with an enduring legacy seen in the marketing of the likes of Abercrombie and CK underwear, and even the red carpet looks of many of today’s hottest male stars. Some of RuPaul’s more outlandish All Stars 7 werkroom looks wouldn’t have looked out of place in International Male.
Burkard’s story is a fascinating one, and he makes for an intriguing, if not especially forthcoming, interview subject. But ALL MAN isn’t a biodoc. International Male was a collaborative effort by a chosen family of gay men and straight female allies, many of whom appear in the film to reflect back on their time at IM, including VP and Head Buyer Gloria Tomita and Senior Art Director Dennis Mori. Most of them were learning on the job and flying by the seats of their pants as the business began to boom. There are also engaging contributions—not to mention some serious hot daddy eye-candy—from notable models who appeared within the pages of IM, such as Tony Ward, John Watkins, Robert Goold, Steve Lyon, David Knight, and John Coulter. With some of them reflecting openly about their initial reluctance to appear in something that was so associated with gay men, as well as contemplating their own sense of self-image at the time, as the film touches on the negative impact that seeing all these beautiful men with ripped bodies might have had on the self-esteem of some who encountered it. The overwhelming lack of diversity among the models is also addressed, with those who worked at IM giving their take on why there were so few men of colour.
Many more who were integral to the success of International Male are no longer around to share their own memories, and there’s a poignant, powerfully moving sequence in ALL MAN, delicately handled, that’s an acknowledgment of and tribute to those who were lost to AIDS at the height of the crisis, including countless customers. It just goes to prove that there is always another aspect of the HIV/AIDS story to be told. In this context, the visions of fit and healthy bodies on display in IM, coupled with the mass commercialization of working out in the 1980s, took on a new layer of meaning as a devastating number of gay men were getting sick and dying.
There’s a nice flow to Darling and Carl Pfirman’s editing that keep things effervescent, and the contributor interviews pop, with succinct snippets from the likes of fashion commentator Simon Doonan. With a seductive and sexy synth-pop score by Bright Light Bright Light that immerses us in the era, and—equally pleasing to the ear—enticing narration by Hollywood heartthrob Matt Bomer, ALL MAN also delivers some gorgeous nostalgia-tinged visuals, incorporating archive footage, lingering shots of original photostories, as well as appealing recreation sequences that vibrate with IM‘s distinctive style. A highly pleasurable ride through late twentieth century fashion that’ll delight those who cherished their time with International Male as much as those discovering it for the first time.
By James Kleinmann
All Man: The International Male Story plays the 40th Anniversary Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival on Saturday, July 16th at 7:15pm at the Directors Guild of America, Theater 1. Also available to stream online fromJuly 17th at 8am until July 19th at 8am PT. Find out more about the film at the official website.