Starting in the 1970s, the International Male catalog had a coded appeal to gays anxious to gawk at throbbing pecs, shop for some offbeat chic, and maybe giggle a little. At the same time, straights picked up on its revisionist take on how males were allowed to look, complete with muscly models in white pirate shirts and blue boxers with a “contour pouch.”
The catalog’s pre-stardom models included the likes of Shemar Moore, Kevin Sorbo, David Chokachi, and Reichen Lehmkuhl, and its admirers were everyone from Calvin Klein to movie and theater costume designers looking for threads and ideas. At its peak, in the 1990s, there were about three million catalogs sent out every quarter, with an amassed revenue of well over $100 million.
The resulting phenomenon is finally the subject of a documentary: All Man, directed by Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed. “More than outrageous fashions, hunky models, and scandalous undies, All Man is a journey across three decades of the International Male catalog’s lasting impact on fashion, masculinity, and gay rights,” reads the documentary’s mission statement. The film is currently in production, with no concrete release date.
I talked to the directors about the project and what made International Male so “readable.”
Hi, guys. I always happened to get the International Male catalog in the mail. I have to admit I wondered how they got my name, but I was kind of thrilled that they did.
Jesse Finley Reed: That’s the number one question. “How did they get my name?” They bought mailing lists. It was a magical thing for me. This thing started coming, and I thought, Did the boys at school who tease me send this to me? I didn’t care.
Bryan Darling: In our movie, Carson Kressley describes the experience of getting it in such unbelievable detail. It would be sent to his older brother and Carson would go to the mailbox to get it first and take it to the basement rec room. At some point, he convinced his mother to buy him some clothes out of it.
Was his brother gay?
JFR: No. Let’s say you had gotten Playboy, GQ, or Columbia House Records. They’d buy those mailing lists and send catalogs, assuming that was the demographic they were going after. You have all these men in their 20s and 30s that had subscriptions to something and it would just go to them. A lot of the clientele were straight and a lot were women buying it for their men.
Would you say it also appealed to a lot of closet cases?
JFR: It was safe to have on the coffee table. It could go in the regular mail without a special envelope. It was a gateway to a different world—a way of looking at men and men’s bodies. That was super powerful to gay people because representations of gayness were horrific in the ‘80s. Here were men traveling the world and laughing and wearing underwear.
BD: Gay men have always been more aware of their bodies than other men, and straight men were never allowed the freedom to do that. In a lot of ways, International Male was educating and giving permission for men as a whole to look at each other and themselves in a way where sexuality is open and the body is something to be celebrated and looked at, and you could wear colorful prints and wild clothes and not be gay or not be feminine. You’re still masculine, still a man.
JFR: That’s why they chose super masculine, ripped, able-bodied models.
BD: The ideas of being sexualized and body-conscious had always been reserved for women. If guys did that, people thought they had to be gay because That’s a good-looking guy was not as common as now. International Male helped normalize the way straight men could look at other men and say, “That’s a hot guy. I want to look like that.”
To me, the catalog tripled as kitsch, porn, and a useful guide.
JFR: It was permission for not-yet-out gay boys to look, for straight women who want to see what they consider a sexy Don Johnson-type guy and dress their boyfriend that way, and for a straight guy who wants to be a little more self-expressive.
How did International Male start?
BD: Gene Burkard—a gay man who’s now about 89 or 90 and is still in San Diego—started it in 1972 with a piece of underwear called the Jock Sock. He was walking down the streets of London and came across a medical store full of incontinence items where he saw a pair of adult men’s underwear. He was intrigued and brought it back, then hired a pattern maker to modify it and make it the Jock Sock. He put an ad in Playboy and that’s when it took off. In 1976, the first catalog went out.
JFR: Ah-Men was a catalog that preceded International Male, and Gene felt their clothes weren’t masculine enough.
BD: It was that sort of decadent gay look of the ‘70s—caftans and bathing suits. Gene felt it was too gay.
But he still whipped up lots of flair.
JFR: Some of Gene’s initial inspiration was, “Why are men dressing so boringly, compared to Europe?” That’s what he wanted to build on.
BD: A lot of the people that came on board at the beginning of International Male were young and inexperienced. They were doing it by the seat of their pants and had no idea what they were doing. It started in a cottage with termites. It wasn’t until the ‘80s that people were brought in to professionalize and streamline it. They wanted to make something sexy and different and fun.
JFR: It was a band of outsiders that came together. The staff was all gay men or women. It was amazing to go to work. To work in a place where you could be so open was something not experienced. And women learned what gay was. As for the models, it was the highest paying job a model could get in the industry. This was the beginning of the male model and supermodels. Some were models for Versace and Herb Ritts, but they made their bread and butter working for International Male and bought their houses from it. Gene wanted a “magalogue”—part magazine, part catalog. He said, “I want to do a tight headshot of a model on the cover to make it like a glossy magazine.”
Why was Caitlyn Jenner on the cover in 1980?
BD: It was a way for Jenner to get [her] name and clothes and brand out there. For International Male, it was a way to legitimize their brand. There was always a letter from the editor, Gene. The one from that catalog is so good because that was the time Jenner and [her] people were pushing [her] to be more of a celebrity. It talks about 1980 being wonderful because a movie called Can’t Stop the Music [a big flop starring the Village People and Jenner] was coming out. It said, “From early rushes, we can tell you it’s hot.”
What were the most outrageous items sold by International Male, aside from the Jock Sock?
BD: One of the first items they found was this British navy shirt called the Stoker. It was a completely knit mesh shirt, which looked like you were wearing a net. On the navy ship, it soaked up sweat when they were shoveling coal into the engine. They brought that back and created a story around it. When you look at it, it’s pretty gay. It was such a huge seller that they ran out of it and eventually began to knock it off.
JFR: In the ‘80s, they sold a jumpsuit with lots of zippers in a soft lavender. It’s amazing. It was a piece in their Foreign Legion collection.
How did the brand evolve through the years?
JFR: Gene sold the company in 1986. It was taken over by Hanover Direct, a conglomerate which previously had conventional, middle American catalogs. They had the desire to blow up the catalog, mainstream it.
BD: In the ‘90s, you saw changes. They were trying to make it sexy, but not sexualized. They wanted to straddle this line to get more straight males, a broader demographic. They wanted to keep the gay customer, but also expand it. It grew to an enormous extent. They were heavily influential in creating the young men’s clothing market.
Why did the brand fade out in 2007? Was it the internet?
JFR: There was the internet, and I think they lost their way. You can see them oscillate between extremes—super trashy in one issue and super conservative in the next. The culture changed and they lost their audience.
BD: If you look at their later clothes, there was nothing special about them. In the ‘90s, who is wearing this giant leopard print outfit? It almost became a cartoon or parody of itself. International Male actually designed a lot of clothes in-house—they didn’t just buy clothes—but at a certain point, they were no longer innovating. They were trying to appeal to fathers. All of a sudden, kids and families started appearing in the catalog. I hate to pin it on the internet because they did have a site. It’s more that the people owning it didn’t know what to do with it.