For countless gay men of a slightly earlier era, the International Male catalogue provided a portal to fashion… and fantasy. Handsome men with chiseled jaws and muscled bods filled the pages of IM, often clad in no more than a skimpy pair of underwear. Straight dudes could ogle the Victoria’s Secret catalogue bursting with “angels” in lingerie; for gay guys there was International Male.
“It was loosely based on my experience going into the bedroom and locking the door” to enjoy IM, Reed joked during a Q&A after the weekend screening. “I came to Bryan, I said, ‘You know what? Let’s make a funny little like 3- to 5-minute film about what this meant to young gay men of a certain generation. And as we began unpacking the story, it became so much more.”
Producer-writer Peter Jones went into the project with his own relationship to International Male.
“I was a customer,” Jones told Deadline at an after-party at the Chateau Marmont. “I bought a black fishnet tank top and jaguar print, uh, lycra-kind of a gym outfit that I wore for many years.”
International Male launched in the mid-1970s, the brainchild of Gene Burkard, a formerly closeted military vet, singer and songwriter. For his first successful product, he took inspiration from a bandage-like medical garment that he reimagined as a colorful “jock sock.” Out with the boring utilitarian jock strap and in with something daring and sexy. He scored another hit with a garment he discovered in the U.K, originally designed “for the [dock] workers who would shovel coal,” as Darling explained. They dubbed it the stoker.
“That really was British surplus that they found down on the dock, all musty in a big pile, and they were like, ‘We want to buy these,’” Reed added. “They bought them out. And it sold so crazy.”
“They were one of the pioneers of using military surplus and turning it into fashion,” Darling said. “How many jumpsuits did you see? Purple and blue… They would have trench coats from Germany during the war and all different things. And then when they would run out of it, they would take it somewhere and have it copied… it would just sell so well.”
Burkard wrote the catalogue copy—imagine J. Peterman from Seinfeld. Of a “Bombay” pant, IM extolled, “A roguish slack with irresistibly sophisticated high style.” Or of a blue cotton work shirt: “We discovered it in Greece… It’s become an exciting fashion find.” A Fall 1993 catalogue cover punned, “Go vest young man.”
The clothes were meant for men of every stripe- gay and straight. Stripes, bold Versace-inspired prints, khakis rugged enough for Indiana Jones, and – arrr, matey-outfits to hoist your pirate flag: thick doublets and frilly shirts worthy of Blackbeard. In fact, the film suggests some of IM’s pirate-like gear inspired the famous Seinfeld “puffy shirt” episode.
“International Male really capitalized on putting masculine guys in pretty not masculine outfits,” notes fashion maven Carson Kressley, who appears in All Man. “The very start of the metrosexual movement—where you can wear clothes just to have fun.”
Gay men were by no means the sole or even primary target of the catalogue. The film says 75-percent of buyers were women shopping for guys, trying to get their beaux to swap Dockers and Hanes for something more adventurous.
“The girlfriend saying, ‘Honey, please, would you try it on?’” Jones said. “The thing about having the clothes sent to them at home, the guys would try them on in the bedroom and if they didn’t like it they would send it back… As a business, it was very savvy marketing to women for their men.”
The buff, white-bread models came off as conventionally masculine and thus inoffensive to straight male consumers, even if gay men thumbing through the catalogue might have been mentally undressing the pictured hunks.
“Straight guys were big customers, but it just had a huge impact in the LGBT world because of what it was able to do,” Jones observed, “bringing these great pictures of guys scantily clad to all 50 states.”
“We never said we were a gay catalog, but gays ‘got it,’” Burkard notes on the film’s website. “I mean, gays looked at it and said, ‘My God, that’s me, and I can get this in the mail because it’s not saying gay anywhere.”
The filmmakers interviewed Burkard before his passing in December 2020. They also interviewed fellow nonagenarian Gloria Tomita, International Male’s vice president and chief buyer, as well as former models, photographers, groomers, and other staff at every level of the company. Darling, Reed and Jones came away impressed with the warm atmosphere Burkard and Tomita fostered at their San Diego headquarters.
“There’s like a former employees Facebook page. They visit each other, they stay in touch,” Reed said. “Everyone we spoke to is like, ‘This is the best job I ever had.’”
“But it was more than that,” Darling added. “It wasn’t [just] the best job, it was literally like, ‘We were a family.’ It was a unique experience. How many people get to say that about their jobs?”
Many of the male employees were gay and had faced repercussions for accepting their sexuality.
“It was the relationship that Gene and Gloria had and that fanned out with the employees and the young men that they hired who’d been rejected by their families. The cultural significance now, as far as this film goes – I wanted people to see humanity in the business world,” Jones commented. “I think about the two documentaries out now about Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret. They were run by psychopathic maniacs who abused people. Now we have International Male and Gene Burkart, who is a good man who cared about his employees and took care of them.”
Out actor Matt Bomer narrates the film. All Man: The International Male Story premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last month and subsequently played at Frameline in San Francisco. The filmmakers are seeking wider distribution for the documentary.
“We hope that somebody picks it up and a lot of people watch this,” Jones said. “We do have a very interested party who was at the [Outfest] screening and who was able to hear the audience reaction and see it on the big screen, which I take as a positive sign. But we shall see.”