For countless gay men of a slightly earlier era, the International Male catalogue provided a portal to fashion… and fantasy. The pages of IM featured handsome men sporting chiseled jaws, muscular bods and often clad in a simple pair of underwear. Straight dudes could ogle the Victoria’s Secret catalogue bursting with “angels”International Male is the name of the International Lingerie.
The documentary All Man: The International Male StoryThe film, which was shown at the Outfest LGBTQ+ Film Festival, Los Angeles, explored the history of the pioneering publication, which called itself a “a magazine for LGBTQ+ people”. “catalogue/magazine.”Bryan Darling directed the film with Jesse Finley Reed as his assistant.
“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.”
Peter Jones, producer-writer, entered the project having a personal relationship with International Male.
“I was a customer,”Jones spoke at an after-party held at 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.”
Gene Burkard, an ex-military vet, singer, and songwriter, launched International Male in the mid-1970s. He took his inspiration from a medical bandage that looked like a bandage, which he then reimagined into a colorful product. “jock sock.”So, goodbye boring jock strap and hello daring and sexy. Another hit was scored by a garment he found in the U.K., which he originally designed. “for the [dock] workers who would shovel coal,”Darling explained. They called 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 agreed. “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 stated. “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, a blue cotton shirt for work: “We discovered it in Greece… It’s become an exciting fashion find.”Cover of Fall 1993 catalog 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,”Carson Kressley, fashion maven and author of the inimitable Carson Kressley, is a note to Carson Kressley. All Man. “The very start of the metrosexual movement—where you can wear clothes just to have fun.”
The catalogue was not intended for gay men. The film states that 75 percent of buyers were women looking for men, hoping to trade their Dockers for Hanes and get 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 white-bread, buff models were deemed masculine and therefore inoffensive for straight men, even though gay men might have mentally undressed 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.”
Before Burkard’s death in December 2020, the filmmakers interviewed Burkard. 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 were impressed by the friendly atmosphere Burkard created at their San Diego headquarters.
“There’s like a former employees Facebook page. They visit each other, they stay in touch,”Reed stated. “Everyone we spoke to is like, ‘This is the best job I ever had.’”
“But it was more than that,”Darling was 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 male employees were homosexual and faced severe consequences for their acceptance of 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.”
Matt Bomer, an actor out, narrates this film. All Man: The International Male StoryThe film premiered at Tribeca Film Festival last year and then played at Frameline San Francisco. The filmmakers hope to get the documentary more widely.
“We hope that somebody picks it up and a lot of people watch this,”Jones stated. “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.”