The documentary about the famous mail-order clothing magazine is an enjoyable, if not mostly surface-level excursion through men’s evolution in fashion and sexuality.
This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.
Movies, like fashion, follow the fads. With the recent slew of throwback fashion documentaries like White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch and LuLaRich, we’ve all become privy to the inner workings behind fashion empires. Looking to join the ranks is the new documentary All Man: The International Male Story. Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, the documentary debut from Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed takes us on a celebratory jaunt through the pages of the famous International Male catalog.
The splashy magazine, popular in the 70s and 80s, catered to the evolution of men’s fashion post-World War II. Throughout the pages were fun and flashy-themed spreads of clothing lines, often worn by chiseled models. These fashions were a far cry from the neutral wool suits of the Mad Men era. It was often considered Victoria’s Secret for men, a way for men to elevate their fashion through the mail-order system.
The magazine also had a cult-like following from gay men of the era, serving as an escape for men from persecution and stigma for their sexual orientation. Founder Gene Burkard wanted to create a fantasy world for all men alike, a world where the straight guys wanted to be like the men in the catalog living exciting lives, and the gay men could dream of being with the men in the pages of the magazine. With the sexual revolution, not only did men’s fashion change, but so did perceived notions of masculinity and sexuality.
Just as the subject of All Man: The International Male Story is a throwback to past styles, so is the structure of the documentary. There are interviews with fashion designers, former International Male staff, and celebrity personalities who were influenced by the magazine. The format feels like an extended version of a nostalgia television show, like if the VH1 I Love the … series churned out this documentary. Some of the interviews are insightful, like a former phone rep discussing how he played his part in the fantasy by lying to customers and saying he was a model for the magazine. Other interviews, like a staff member discussing the lack of diversity in the models, feel rushed.
The rushed pacing is probably because it tracks men’s fashion trends from the 1940s to the 2000s. There’s a lot of ground for directors Darling and Reed to cover, so one could hardly blame them for the frenetic pace. To their credit, they don’t shy away from tough moments, such as the AIDS epidemic, which tragically took the lives of many of International Male‘s employees and customers. However it’s but a brief chapter, and they’re off covering the next moment of the magazine. It feels as if Darling and Reed constructed their ambitious documentary to move like a customer furiously flipping through the pages of a catalog, only skimming the colorful content.
Where All Man: The International Male Story excels is in creating a celebratory atmosphere. The magazine eventually ceased publication in 2007, as an attempted buyout from a former executive combined with the rise of the internet meant there was little to no need for a showy male fashion magazine. It’s hard to deny the influence International Male had on men’s fashion, and the muscular models in sexually suggestive poses feel like a direct precursor to Abercrombie and Fitch’s famously provocative advertising. Its influence even extends to pop culture, from serving as an influence for Seinfeld’s “Puffy Shirt” episode to being a modeling credit for Derek Zoolander in Zoolander. International Male might have been tongue in cheek, but it’s definitely left a mark in men’s fashion and culture.
At the end, All Man: The International Male Story is like a version of the magazine come to life – it’s a fun, escapist romp through the past of the influential catalog.