Review by Joseph Fayed
Before the rise of online shopping, mail order catalogs were all the rage. One focused its apparel on gay men in a time when sexual liberation was on the rise. All Man: The International Male Story tells the story of International Male's growing success as a catalog throughout the decades from a queer perspective, but keeps circling around the same topics to mixed results.
Gene Burkard was an Air Force vet who never quite fit in anywhere in his early years. It wasn't until coming out and spending time traveling through Europe and seeing the fashion trends that caught his eye that he knew what his calling was. Upon returning to America, Gene assembled a small group to help launch International Male. From jock socks to casual wear, the catalog started to grow its clientele. But with its success came some creative setbacks.
The heart of the story is with the long-term employees of International Male. Featured heavily in interviews along with Gene Burkard, the creative team behind the catalog offers the best moments of the film. Besides the behind-the-scenes insights from former employees, there is a lot of commentary from queer celebrities on their experiences with the catalogue in the '70s and '80s. At first, it was refreshing to hear an outsider's perspective of how the catalogue felt like a form of escapism to them growing up closeted. Though by the end, it grew a bit tiresome with how much it took away from key parts of the story, such as the ultimate end of International Male under new ownership by the 2000s.
International Male is forever associated with its gay following, even if that wasn't exactly the intention of its founder. While there are mentions of the prevalence of homophobia during this time, the film contradicts itself in not giving a direct answer to what International Male really saw itself as. Some former staff interviewed boasted about how the catalog had the biggest following from gay men, while others saw the designs as anti-department store wear for straight men. The documentary never gets a clear answer to this question, besides discussing in general what male fashion trends existed in those decades.
The segment focusing on the 1980s did discuss the AIDS epidemic and its effects on the catalogue staff. Many staff members died during this time. One employee shares how it felt to receive a call from a customer desperate to receive his order because he was dying, presumably of AIDS. The film cuts to the employee, saying that's when he realized what this virus truly was. It felt a little tone deaf to include that part when this is wedged between moments of other staff members crying over half of their friends working in the same office in West Hollywood had died. I guess some people needed a reminder that Middle America suffered a lot too. Other social issues touched upon included racism in its casting of models. Seemingly, the catalogue attempted to resolve this issue in its later years once Gene Burkard left the company, but that's glossed over just like most moments that dealt with the marketing aspects of International Male.
All Man: The International Male Story might make you laugh or cry along with those who share fond memories of it. Personal narratives aside, it doesn't let its creatives speak about the creative decisions they made in vivid detail. That alone is a creative decision I don't understand.
All Man: The International Male Story hits VOD on June 6.