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The Clothes—and Gel and Lotion—Make the Man
By John Rodat

Long overlooked by the appearance industry, guys are now a prime target audience

 

Among his male friends, James Barton is the go-to guy, the answer man. At only 27, he may seem a precocious wise man, and he’s modest about the status, but he acknowledges that his peers often turn to him for his special expertise.

“Well, I’m not obsessed with the subject,” he says, “but I’m definitely conscious. I’m just a little bit more involved in that stuff than they are.”

Though Barton’s insight is valued in part because he is a guy, the tips that he provides are not stereotypical “men’s stuff” nuggets—it’s not all bench-press wisdom and pick-up lines. It’s more “Does this tie work with this shirt?” or “What do you think about these shoes—too much?”

“If they’re ever going to have any talks about clothing,” he says, “they come to me—especially if it’s shoe-oriented.”

Referring to one pal in particular, a fashion-footwear neophyte, Barton says, “Yeah, he finally got a pair of Steve Madden’s; he’s been wearing ’em non-stop for about a month, but, you know, good for him.”

According to formal market research—or even casual attention to the media, from TV shows like Queer Eye For the Straight Guy to the magazine racks featuring ever-more male-specific fashion and shopping magazines—the male vanity industry is booming. So, though Barton’s position in his social circle as an arbiter of good taste and style may be secure at the moment, there are many experts-in-training out there making the rounds of the malls, outlets, boutiques, salons and specialty shops dedicated to getting and keeping men looking good.

According to a report at Market Research.com, the men’s grooming biz is at a record-high level, 3.5 billion a year, and growing. And in an article written for The New York Times, business writer David Carr reported that over a two-year period, sales of women’s casual sportswear declined 3 percent, while during the same period the sale of men’s casual sportswear increased by 5 percent—to more than $28 billion.

Carr also noted that the publishing (and, therefore, the advertising) industry was tapping into this expanding market: Condé Nast is attempting to copy the success of its women’s shopping magazine Lucky with a male-oriented version called Cargo; the publisher of W, Fairchild Publications, too, is giving it a shot with Vitals. Though these publications are open, even brazen, in their product pimping, it’s only the natural next step from lifestyle magazines such as Details. Even magazines such as Esquire and GQ, once known primarily for the high quality of writing in their pages, have revamped their looks and missions and are now far more aggressively promoting consumable goods to male readers.

But while the impossibly priced wristwatches, the bleeding-edge cell phones and PDAs, and the next-generation whatchamacallits fit snugly within the everyday guy’s love of all things gadgety, the pages of facial lotions, under-eye concealers, hair-coloring kits and hardbody-in-a-can solutions seem less likely. On facing pages with top-shelf liquor and luxury SUV ads, sit products traditionally regarded as the sole province of female shoppers—girly things.

It’s a stigma the savvy businessperson has to consider when pitching the guy market. Kelly Leavitt, manager of the three-year-old Rumors IV Men, a Latham salon and day spa catering exclusively to men, backs this up. The salon’s original location—which is still open, directly across the street—is unisex, but male clients were reluctant to venture beyond the straightforward haircut.

“We didn’t think men were taking advantage of services that they might like to get done, because they didn’t want to be getting a pedicure next to their wife’s best friend,” she says. “It wasn’t comfortable for them.”

So, before opening Rumors IV Men, the salon’s decision makers dedicated significant time to determining just what makes a hair salon a manly hair salon. “We just looked into every aspect,” Leavitt says. “Everything from questioning people in our lives—our fathers, our brothers, every man we ran into—‘How do you feel about this? Do you feel that this is masculine?’ So men would feel that this is an environment they could feel comfortable in. Right down to the TVs . . . and the music selection and the scent of the candles.”

And, in truth, the facility’s physical character does feel more like an upscale, with-it barbershop than a beauty salon. The house sound system is playing gentle alt-rock—at the moment, it’s R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” The color scheme is warm but reserved, featuring hues one would guess had names such as stone, putty or earthenware. The appointments, too, are subtle: From the classic revolving barber’s pole out front, to the black leather waiting-area chairs, which abut the magazine rack—where Sports Illustrated rounds out a selection heavy on the aforementioned lifestyle mags. Even the services offered have been tweaked and given names less redolent of perfume: A facial, for example, is known as a “facial skin tune-up.”

Stylist Stacy Andrew, who has been at Rumors IV Men since its opening, explains that the staff works to reinforce the level of comfort initiated by the décor and descriptions. “When the clients arrive, we give them a tour, so they know where everything is, so they’re comfortable with their atmosphere. We let them know, ‘I will be giving you a neck-and-shoulder massage, and I’m going to put a hot towel on your face. Feel free to relax.’ After the shampoo—after they’re waking up—I bring them back to the chair and I explain to them again what we’re going to do with their haircut, and ask them some questions like ‘When was the last time you loved your haircut?’—and talk to them like I’m their friend.”

The excessively gentle approach makes it sound more like coaxing a cat into the car for a trip to the vet than offering a man a haircut; but Andrew prefers a different metaphor: “It’s like a date, every single time you come here,” she says, laughing. She emphasizes that the give-and-take between a stylist and client is a very personal one, and that she’s made a number of good friends while standing behind the chair. Outgoing and effusive, Andrew says that she takes a type of proprietary pride in her clients. “It’s our job here to make sure the guys are looking their best.”

This level of attentiveness and interaction, the staff say, helps the men overcome any embarrassment about the perceived femininity of the procedures offered. (It’s worth noting, that on the long list of services at Rumors IV Men—from hair removal to hair coloring, manicures to pedicures—the least popular is one of the most traditionally masculine, the shoe shine. It may not be entirely coincidental that it is also the service that allows the least direct contact with the personable staff.)

In short order, both Andrew and Leavitt confirm, even the most reluctant metrosexual is soon talking the talk: Within a few visits, they say, clients begin asking about “what’s in, what’s new” in hairstyle and personal-care trends. With a little personal attention and a reminder that they “deserve” the service, men can be cajoled away from the “clippers and the little flip-up front” routine. They begin to embrace the belief, as expressed by Andrew, that “haircuts are more than that. It’s your personality we’re fitting your haircut to.”

Which raises the question: Can you judge a book by its cover, or a man by his manicure? The fashion-forward, and the those who keep them in Kenneth Coles and American Crew, claim that appropriate self-care leads to an increase in self-esteem and confidence. However, some skeptics are concerned that an increased emphasis on image-conciousness among men may lead to some of the same problems that have plagued women for years: an inability to conform to unrealistic media- and market-driven trends and an attendant diminishment of self-worth; or, worse, actual health issues such as eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulemia. There are some reports that suggest that such conditions are on the rise among the male population.

Judy Wixted, a Weight Watchers “leader,” who handles an area including the Capital Region, says that though Weight Watchers itself follows a strictly regimented, gradual weight loss program and enforces healthy minimum weights based on federal guidelines, she does wonder if societal pressure is increasing for men. “At Weight Watchers we assign goal weights based on body-mass index, and very rarely do I hear a man say ‘That’s a good weight for me.’ They say, ‘The last time I weighed that much I was 12.’ Whereas, women rarely question the goal. Men are getting much harder on themselves.”

And the solutions used to address this appearance-orientation range from the cosmetics counter to cosmetic surgery, which, according to Dr. Jeffrey Rockmore of Albany’s Plastic Surgery Group, is also experiencing a boom. From 2002 to 2003, says Dr. Rockmore, there was a 30-percent increase in procedures performed, with men constituting the fastest-growing segment of patients.

Rockmore says that improvements in technology and medical practice allow for less invasive means of addressing patients’ concerns, and incredibly speedy recoveries—“In some cases, patients are back to work by the end of the day,” he says. And, though he acknowledges that patients’ choices are influenced by prevalent tastes, he and the other doctors at APSG are careful to avoid anything “too trendy,” saying “that’s not the healthiest way to make a decision.” Rather, it’s the ability to correct something that has been a long-standing source of “self-deprecation” that attracts men to the office, and provides the benefit. And in Rockmore’s opinion, the freedom to make these changes in appearance and self-worth, a sort of aesthetic upward mobility, is “the beauty of America.”

For his part, James Barton thinks that his desire to present a “current, professional” image stops short of surgery. He pays attention to the men’s magazines, tries to keep an eye on fashion, and works out—though “winter’s tough”—and, so far, that’s good enough. “I don’t think my desire to be any one thing would push me so far I’d want to go under the knife, but I can see how people are doing it,” he says.

And he says he can understand how, theoretically, an increased anxiety among men to keep up could lead to trouble: “There are certainly some detrimental effects for the young women trying to dress up as pop stars,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s gone that far for men, but it could.”

But, for the time being, Barton is pleased that society seems to be loosening up a little and becoming more accommodating of the conspicuously fashionable man—even the man in a pink DKNY oxford and boldly patterned tie, whose nails gleam like the chrome of a fender.


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