From directors Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed, the documentary All Man: The International Male Story tells the decades-long, trend-setting story of a male-centric clothing catalog that turned into one of the most influential fashion journals of the 20th century. The brainchild of Wisconsin-born, formerly closeted GI Gene Burkard, the International Male catalog wasn’t explicitly geared toward gay men when it was introduced in the 1970s, but the colorful and forward-thinking designs altered definitions of masculinity and cosmopolitan to a degree that gay men tended to be its primary customers out of the gate.
But with the magazine’s ridiculously handsome male models and emphasis on skimpy underwear, the publication quickly become the gay equivalent of what Victoria’s Secret catalogs were for straight men (or maybe it’s the other way around). By the time the 1980s rolled around, the company’s biggest clients were women buying these increasingly popular clothes for their significant others, and the clothing lines the magazine featured were directly responsible for the so-called metrosexual movement that soon followed—a movement that was so popular, the clothes started being sold in mainstream department stores, which spelled the end of the line for International Male.
As much as All Man covers the trend-setting reach of the catalog and brand, what makes it interesting is its emphasis on the small group of free-wheeling outsiders who knew very little about business, the fashion industry, or mail order in general and how they got their act together enough to eventually rake in hundreds of millions in business every year. I was especially tickled by the story of the company’s vice president and head buyer Gloria Tomita, who had to stop Burkard from featuring clothes in the catalog that they simply didn’t have in stock yet he wanted to include because he liked the way it looked.
With narration provided by Matt Bomer, the movie also features a handful of wonderful commentators (including Simon Doonan, Carson Kressley, Valerie Steele, and Parvesh Cheena), as well as interviews with most of the key players in the business, fashion experts, and historians of gay culture. Perhaps most importantly, the film reminds us that Derek Zoolander (the fictional male model from Ben Stiller’s Zoolander) gained his fame from being an International Male model. Eventually, the business became so big that the company was sold to a larger fashion mail-order business that actually made those who weren’t laid off instantly rich, and as mentioned, the company’s success was also the cause of its demise.
As All Man explains, the catalog redefined male fashion in such a way that men could start dressing and discussing clothes the same way women did, and that aspect of the company transformed everything in ways that are still being felt today. The filmmakers do a terrific job capturing the loose, party-friendly atmosphere of the catalog’s early years and the success of its later days. Unlike some documentaries that focus on fashion, this is a work that examines lifestyle and the changing culture, and how this game-changing publication was at the center of both.
The film is available to rent/purchase on all major digital platforms.
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