For almost 30 years a curious clothing catalog has sold ruffled pirate shirts, pink sleeveless suits, and sequined black capes to a seemingly invisible public. What’s it like to go through life in a mesh top? Radar treks from the stands of Yankee Stadium to the banquettes at the Four Seasons to investigate life as the ultimate fashion victim
The International Male catalog was born almost three decades ago, in San Diego, the brainchild of Gene Burkard, a transplanted Wisconsinite who at the time was still fairly new to the apparel field. A few years earlier he’d made use of the savvy he had acquired in the advertising department of the Milwaukee Journal to market a satiny, package-gripping pair of underwear he called the Jock Sock. First, Burkard bought ad space in the Advocate, which was then a local gay paper in Los Angeles, and later, after his assless skivvies had taken off, in the back pages of straight glossies such as Playboy.
He hit paydirt with the Jock Sock, and in 1976 he launched International Male, a catalog that introduced a revolutionary new aesthetic for gay men. “Prior to that, gay fashion was more effeminate,” says Burkard. “There were lots of caftans and froufrou stuff. We came along and butched up the act.” At the time, International Male had a certain resonance in the gay community. “I can’t tell you how many thousands of guys I’ve met over the years who told me how this catalog affected their lives, living on a farm in Iowa or North Dakota,” Burkard says. “They wouldn’t believe there was someone out there like them.”
Apparently many of the 1.25 million men who received the catalog in the mid-’80s liked what they saw. “I remember when it came in the mail, you’d take it into the bathroom to have a little fantasy,” says Marc Berkley, a 52-year-old club promoter and cofounder of Homo Xtra, Manhattan’s premier gay nightlife guide. “They obviously had their models fluff a bit.” In 1986, after building International Male into a $26-million-a-year business with three retail stores in Southern California, Burkard cashed out.
Today, International Male seems on the verge of extinction. “It’s such an embarrassment,” Burkard says. “It’s like a costume catalog. I really don’t know who would dress like that. Do you?” Calls to the company, which is now owned by New Jersey outfit Hanover Direct, didn’t provide any answers. The parent company, which last February was delisted from the American Stock Exchange, unsuccessfully put the catalog up for sale in 2003. Now, according to an e-mail sent by its new marketing director, Eadie Kelly, International Male intends to “reposition” the brand, and Kelly didn’t want to cooperate with any stories until she’d gotten International Male “fashion-right.” “We are all acutely aware of what the catalog was in the recent past!” Kelly wrote. “I have no interest in flogging old news.”
I have been asking the same question Burkard has about International Male since it started materializing in my mailbox three years ago. Who is this mysterious customer in the market for package-enhancing underwear, black leather “Swashbuckler” shirts with lace-up fronts, and sleeveless pink suits? I phoned Barneys New York creative director Simon Doonan, who calls himself “the world’s leading authority on bad men’s catalogs.” Doonan, who when he first moved from London to Los Angeles in the ’70s proudly wore square-legged velour leopard swim trunks from International Male around the pool at his apartment complex, sounded legitimately dejected when he heard that the catalog might be rebranding. “Oh, no,” he said. “They’ll probably try to turn it into Banana Republic. That would be a tragedy.”
The catalog, he says, is one of the last remaining bastions of the pre-feminist ideal of hypermasculinity: swingerwear, if you will. “The guys are real Hai Karate guys, unapologetically masculine,” he says. “They’re not girly boys. They’re not metrosexuals. They’re real blokes in the tradition of Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood. To me the International Males don’t look gay. They look like tough, sleazy, straight men, which is probably why gay men like it. The contemporary ideal of masculinity is actually very girly. Jake Gyllenhaal couldn’t pull off a bloody pirate blouse with a trouser with 16 pleats.”
Though I was having difficulty understanding how wearing a ruffled shirt might be considered any more masculine than, say, owning a Persian cat, I surrendered to Doonan’s counterintuitive premise. I’d always fantasized about being that tough, sleazy, straight man, but I never had the confidence to pull it off. I am at heart a highly insecure, fearful person. I’ve strived for invisibility in my dress, chosen conformity rather than running the risk of standing out and being scrutinized for my noticeable physical attributes: recessed hairline, hirsute paunch, one eye that sits on my face considerably higher than the other.
But on this, the eve of destruction of the International Male, I resolved that I would repress those feelings for a full week, wear International Male — from the white crochet driving hat down to the tan, strappy gladiator sandals–24 hours a day, and unleash the inner swinger that’s been hip-thrusting within. It would not be easy.
Ensemble #1: The Scarlet Pimp
On the sidewalk in front of the Four Seasons, the gold standard of the Manhattan power lunch, I’m hyperventilating in International Male’s flaming scarlet five-button pinstripe suit with nearly knee-length jacket. The only thing distracting me from what shrinks call suicidal ideation is the pain of a pair of black-and-white square-toed lace-ups digging into my ankles. I had some trouble adjusting to a jacket cut to the knees; earlier I dragged the hem through urinal water. The suit’s roomy pant leg seems to have been designed to accommodate a man who customarily travels with large packages taped to his thighs.
“Aren’t you horrified to be seen with me?” I ask my girlfriend, who has joined me for lunch. “Look,” Robin says, tugging me toward the entrance, “this is apparently the only way you’ll take me to the Four Seasons.”
Inside the Philip Johnson-designed Grill Room—notable for its austere wood paneling and the fact that every navy suit-clad mogul in the room has a perfect vantage point from which to stare—I notice a slight hush and the craning of necks as we are led to a corner table. “You might want to dab your face with your napkin,” Robin whispers across the table. Before we can even crack open the menu, the flamboyant co-owner, Julian Niccolini, whom I have never met, seizes upon the suit. “You must trade jackets with me!” he shrieks; he then performs a balletic revolution around the dining room in my billowy coat, asking diners at each table if they approve of his new finery. Warner Music chief executive Edgar Bronfman Jr. smiles wanly. Our neighbor, the sugar baron Pepe Fanjul, smirks as he announces, deadpan, that he owns the same suit, but in yellow. Niccolini disappears into the kitchen to show his grotesque find to the staff, while I sit in his perfumed Valentino suit jacket, wiping sweat off my forehead and slugging down the wine that he’s offered us gratis.