Back in 1976, Gene Burkard (influenced by what he saw in Europe) created and sold the "Jock Sock" out of his San Diego shop. That sartorial invention led to the emergence and popularity of International Malea company that became known for vivid fashion statements (think pirate pants, puffy shirts and Buns underwear) and its beefcake calendar models.
In the documentary All Man: The International Male Story, co-directors Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed take viewers on quite a cinematic ride as everyone from Burkard (who passed in 2020) and fellow company members to celebrities such as Carson Kressley and Jake Shears discuss the rise and fall of the revolutionary company. Reed and producer Taylor Vracin-Harrell recently talked with Windy City Times about the revealing film.
Windy City Times: Let's start with the title. How did "All Man" come about?
Jesse Finley Reed: That came about during a brainstorming session with Bryan. We were trying to think of a title because the subhead was a bit long. We wanted something provocative and something that was true to the publication. Bryan then said, "We want something for all men. What about 'All Man?'" I said, "Oh, I love that. It's just subversive enough but is true to the publication." Gene had this desire to modernize men's fashion in the United States; he felt they did have enough choices and that men weren't encouraged to express themselves.
Taylor Vracin-Harrell: I think that "All Man" is a little tongue-in-cheek, too. It's working on so many levels. It's like you said, Jesse: It's about the all-American macho man and, of course, a lot of the customers were gay and it's a little tongue-in-cheek in that way. It's also that you're "all man" by wearing these clothes, and a lot of women were customers, too.
WCT: Tell me about the genesis of this film.
JFR: Well, it was a happy accident. I was one of those little boys who got International Male and I was intrigued by it (and nervous about it). It sort of opened my world and eyes. I hadn't thought about it for years and I had a colleague who was leaving his position and was given two copies as a joke present. He'd put them in the recycling ban; I saw them and said "International Male" and held them close to my heart. He said I could have them.
I then asked Bryan if a funny three-to-five-minute short should be made about what this meant for gay men. So we reached out to Gene and other staff members, who were all very enthusiastic. So we met with Gene and pitched that idea, but he didn't [warm to it]. So we ended getting 20-odd interviews and we really wanted to get Gene. Bryan brought it up to [writer] Peter [Jones] and he really worked with us to bring Gene and [Vice President] Gloria [Tomita] on board. Peter having a background as a documentarian really helped bring Gene on board.
TV-H: Bryan was editing a project and we were finishing up. We talked about what else he was working on. He had his own memories of International Male and I had no experience whatsoever. But I quickly learned this crazy thing that happened.
WCT: There are some interesting interview subjects in the movie. I expected some but then there are others such as Simon Doonan, who was unexpected but just great.
JFR: What we learned early on was that there was this family Gene and Gloria createdand that there was a Facebook group; they're all still in touch now. We were actually just at a premiere event in San Diego and it was amazing to see all these International Male people show up for it. It was a special place to work but what was also equally important to us (as we conceptualized this film) was comparing what was happening there and in the broader culture.
So Bryan and I created this timeline of International Male's history, popular culture, LGBTQ+ [developments] and major historical moments on it. So when we approached people for interviews, we wanted to create the roundest portrait. Unfortunately, during that time, COVID happened so it affected the number of interviews we did. But we realized we had the whole story there. So people like Simon and Carson were there because a) they had something to say and b) they had strong reactions. It was important for us to include those voices, although I wish we could have more.
TV-H: It was interesting, too, because we were able to study the interviews once I got involved. We didn't get some of the interviews until March 2020just before COVID really kicked in; it was right under the wire. But like when Valerie Steele analyzes that a really [muscular] men's body is like an analog of the phallusthat was really interesting.
WCT: Tell me how much you agree or disagree with this statement: "International Male redefined masculinity, fashion and sexuality."
TV-H: I think that is true, to an extent. I think that some of these changes were happening in culture. Maybe something else would come along to fill that hole, but International Male was in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. I think it just offered a choice instead of changing perception: You could simply wear clothing you like and it doesn't mean you're gay or straight. I think bringing in that idea was definitely new.
JFR: Everything Taylor said is so on-point for me. We have to remember that this happened in the analog worldprior to the internet. So this publication is going into all of these mailboxes throughout the United Statesso you have this publication sliding into mailboxes in the cities and suburbs. It was fascinating for us to think about.
Again, I think it's important to contextualize what was happening because it was groundbreaking and progressive, but it also had its limitations. But it definitely offered a third option for people.
As a child of the '80s, it seemed like [that decade] was so weird. We had AIDS, Tammy Faye, Boy George and Duran Duran. How do we make sense of this? It's all connected to culture. And at one point in the movie [it's asked], "Did we get it from Miami Vice or did Miami Vice get it from us?" Who's to say?
WCT: So many things surprised me while watching this film. What surprised you the most while making it?
TV-H: As I mentioned, I wasn't familiar with International Male so the entire concept was one big surprise. But definitely what was most pleasantly surprising and important part for me was getting to know the family. Gene passed away and didn't get to see the film but other people invited us to his memorial. I felt so lucky to be part of this collective; they're so dear to me now. Also, the family is mostly gay men and womentwo groups who usually can't catch a breakworking together really hard to make this happen.
JFR: Again, I'd echo what Taylor said. As a filmmaker, I felt a tremendous obligation to do this right. At the beginning, my idea was largely driven by my experienceand I was pleasantly surprised by this world.
Otherwise, the fact that women were such large consumers was the biggest surprise for me. There was a large gay-male following, of course, but that's the thing about filmmaking: It can really change people's minds. That's what intrigues and excites me about documentaries. Like with the interviews with the modelsto be a cis-identified, straight white man working with a gay-driven companywere a little surprising.
WCT: To me, documentaries are forms of journalism. You can inform and, like you said, can change minds. Also, like you said, there were the models' interviews. Some people may have thought they just stood there and posedbut many had their own issues.
JFR: Yeah. In many ways, they're this archetype of masculinity. They're striking and nice for selling things. But their personal journeys in working for International Male are really emblematic of this larger conversation about queerness and where we find ourselves.
There's so much on the cutting-room floor. One time they had an event at a gay bar and one of the models went to the men's room. There was a picture of him ripped out and on the wall! He figured that he had made it and there was this paradigm shift.
WCT: What do you hope the viewer takes away from this movie?
TV-H: I have different hopes. I have hopes for those who are already accepting of LGBTQ+ people. For people who aren't, I hope it's a safe environment for them to open their minds a little bit. Like Jesse said, you can change hearts and minds through telling stories. For those who are more familiar with the subject matter, I hope it brings back some good memories. I hope people realize that you can find your people and make something happen.
JFR: We've talked about all these themes and Taylor touched on so many things I agree with, but I'd also say there are the power of the community [in general] and the power of the community they built. Often, we look at things and say, "Oh, it was so simple." But [building International Male] wasn't; it was really complicated in many ways. I think they persevered and creating something with a lasting impact. I feel we're elevating these voices that have historically not been elevatedand I think that can be really inspiring.
All Man: The International Male Story will run during Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival on Sunday, Sept. 25, at 2:30 p.m. at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St. For more information, visit reelingfilmfest.org/ .