Reminiscent of another recent documentary I watched on Netflix chronicling the rise and fall of Abercrombie, All Man: The International Male Story is a fascinating watch that dives headfirst into the gay experience of the 80s. Embracing fashion and masculine power, the iconic catalogue spoke to so many during its run, including those who would use the mag as their own personal spank bank. Swimming in the waters of muscle fetish and male fantasy, The International Male helped put its idea of the perfect male physique into the general consciousness.
Powered by nostalgia and adoration for the early years especially, All Man: The International Male Story is narrated by gorgeous out actor Matt Bomer (American Horror Story: Hotel, Magic Mike), and features in-depth interviews with some of the most influential people involved in the company’s formation. Male models are interviewed too, giving fascinating insights on insecurities of their own as well as brief thoughts on the influence International Male has had on modern pop culture. Gene Burkard, the founder and creator of the now-iconic brand whom the film is also dedicated to, looks back fondly on this world he helped create. Who would have thought a 20-year-old Air Force private would form one of the most influential men’s catalogues of all time?
In the late 60s/early 70s, muscular male imagery was virtually nonexistent save for the signature daddy type look. Even in films there was very little of what we view today as being the ideal male body type. Burkard changed all of this, returning to San Diego from Europe with steadfast ideas about fashion to bring into both gay and straight culture. After taking out an ad in Playboy to sell his product (a revolutionary new type of male underwear he called the “jock sock,” essentially a version of the modern jock strap), Burkard recruited a secretary as the orders started rolling in. This woman, Gloria, would go on to help shape the International Male catalogue. She had an eye for what fit perfectly on the male body, whilst Gene dealt with the fashion angle. An unstoppable dynamic duo that would go on to great success, Gene and Gloria single-handedly sold their deepest erotic male fantasies and audiences metaphorically gobbled it the hell up.
Orders had to be phoned in, as no online database existed at the time, so whenever a new issue was imminent, the phones would be ringing off the hook. As International Male evolved from niche to mainstream (with a shockingly 75% female consumer base shopping for their men!), computerizing the system became a necessity. Lifestyle marketing was all the craze in the 80s, centering International Male at an ideal crossroads. There may have been a litany of distribution issues in terms of getting the actual products from the catalogue to customers, but that did not stop International Male’s soaring popularity. At its highest peak, the catalogue impressively sold upwards of $120 million in sales!
Directors Brian Darling and Jesse Finley Reed, both queer men handling this queer topic, never forget what to sell us. Sex, beauty, and immaculate, gorgeous photographs including International Male spreads. The film is never boring thanks to the excessive ode to the best that this catalogue had to offer. I personally found the internalized homophobia interesting—International Male did not market itself as a gay mag, and yet became notorious as “that fag catalogue.” How could the creator behind the pages—who identifies as gay—want to steer away from the established gay clientele? As it dives into the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic, All Man transcends the monotony of similar docs.
This only briefly touches upon alleged racism within the company’s casting for their idea of the perfect specimen. Mostly white males adorned its pages, which allegedly was not for lack of trying. There is no doubt that International Male helped to form the perception many have about what constitutes the fantasy male body. Furthermore, it clearly had a ripple effect across fashion with its fantastic looks and often flamboyant clothing. I think we have come a long way as a society since Gene first blessed the masses with it, and yet International Male feels every bit as important to champion in modern day. Looking back on the past, one must celebrate the successes, and the monumental influences across LGBT culture. If every milestone is a pride parade, then All Man: The International Male Story comes out loud and proud.
All Man: The International Male Story screened at 2022’s Tribeca Film Festival.