“Victoria’s Secret for men.” That’s how International Male, the clothing catalogue founded by Gene Burkard is described in the opening moments of Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed’s “All Man: The International Male Story.” Only the description should have an important caveat: This smorgasbord of images of men in the sexy (if aggressively outrageous) outfits that adorned Burkard’s 1976 creation were aimed at a specific subset of men. Telling a straightforward tale about this queer-skewing business, “All Man” opens up inquiries on how masculinity has been packaged for the American consumer, straight and gay alike.
The comparison to Victoria’s Secret is an apt one, capturing the way the many talking heads that populate “All Man” speak to and understand Burkard’s goals and ambitions. International Male, like that famous lingerie brand, sold a lifestyle in addition to offering plenty of fodder for sexual fantasies. Its pages were full of photos of ripped, muscled men wearing everything from “jock socks” and tailored shorts to pattern-clashing shirts and animal-printed thongs. Here was masculinity in drag, a bevy of butch male models somehow pulling off ridiculous fashion that pushed past the drab mid-century uniform of the gray flannel suit.
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As Darling and Reed’s film outlines, such congruence of ideals is what makes this cult phenomenon a perfect vehicle through which to examine how American masculinity was reshaped in the latter half of the 20th century. The clothing International Male sold opened up men to experiment with color and patterns, expanding the parameters of what it meant to look like a man. And so, while “All Man” does live up to its title — tracking the rise of this mail-order business through the late ’70s, through the HIV/AIDS crisis and into its eventual demise once it was acquired — the doc has wilder ambitions.
With Matt Bomer reading Peter Jones’ script, the doc aims to present a simple and persuasive argument: Burkard’s makeshift endeavor carved out a space where men could be ogled. And where (gay) men’s self-fashioning could begin and end with mail-order fashion photography. Making playful use of catalog archives, the film offers viewers a delectable look at the images that, as the likes of Carson Kressley, Jake Shears and Drew Droege explain, inspired gay men of all ages. The photos promised a vision of fashionable jet-setting hunks, inviting customers to imagine what it would be like to be that man, while desiring him too.
With a tight 84-minute runtime, “All Man” is a breezy affair. Indeed, Bright Light Bright Light’s synth disco score, matched with Megan Toenyes’s playful ’80s-inspired animated graphics maintain a buoyant vibe that feels very much in keeping with International Male’s tongue-in-cheek appeal. Yet, as Darling and Reed clearly understood, this is a story that opens up many fascinating queries: What did it mean for this vision of masculinity to be as palatable to straight men as to (closeted) gay men? What to make of the fact that much of the clientele were women eager to make over their boyfriends and husbands? What could this history tell us about the fickle codes of gendered clothing? What could its demise portend about rainbow capitalism?
Thus, as a chronicle of a queer entrepreneurial success, the film is a delight — even, or perhaps especially, because it often sidesteps the thornier conversations its subject brings up. Talk of the lack of models of color during its heyday, for instance, pivots quickly away from such discrimination. Early concerns about the brand’s lack of business liability somehow gets smoothed over with talk of changing technology. Even the touching tributes to the many employees Burkard’s office lost to the AIDS epidemic feels like a missed opportunity. Instead of further exploring how queer history like the kind International Male created and nurtured can never truly be recovered, the sequence plays like an extended (if very sweet) “in memoriam” segment.
Ultimately, the bevy of vintage beefcake imagery and the truly entertaining talking heads Darling and Reed have amassed here (including an in-depth interview with company founder Burkard, who died in 2020, as well as with many former employees and models) are enough to make “All Man” worth seeking. Working as a primer on the business and on the questions its success has forced many a cultural critic to ask in its wake, the documentary will likely leave you itching for more depth, more rigor — just more, really. Which, in itself, feels apt. Unlike more overtly sexual publications, the International Male catalog sold itself on suggestion, letting subscribers’ imaginations do the rest.
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