He loves Armani, is seen just as often near a catwalk as competing in sport, confesses an adulation for Kylie Minogue, even designs his own jewellery. But he’s not gay.
So Ian Thorpe told Australia in a radio interview last November. With interests outside the domain of the traditional Aussie macho male, Thorpe talked about his sexuality for the first time. He was flattered that the gay community identified with him, he said, but he was, in fact, heterosexual.
“You know, I’m a little bit different to what most people would consider being an Australian male,” Thorpe told ABC Radio. But he’s not that different at all. Men – of all sexualities – are taking a greater interest in their appearance. They go to hairdressers rather than barbers, avoid using soap because it’s too harsh on their skin, visit the gym instead of playing sport and even have difficulty deciding what to wear.
They’re spending their time differently…
not only occupying more of it in front of the mirror but also shopping at boutique stores, drinking at bars rather than pubs, enjoying a dance at a nightclub and going to beauty salons. Cosmetics brands such as Ella Bache say men make up as much as 40 per cent of their salon customers in some areas.
Marketers are spurring on the change, dropping the macho from their products that target men. Gone are the tough male images – even from beer and car ads. Cosmetics brands are actively targeting the new, softer male, with Clarins the latest brand to launch male skin-care products. Men’s fashion chains are growing, with women’s stores such as Esprit launching men’s ranges, and department stores are offering boutique-style experiences, too. Men’s magazines are increasing their coverage of fashion – not just for editorial reasons but because they’re getting more ads. The men’s title FHM says its fashion and grooming advertising has increased 35 per cent over the past three years.
Twenty years ago fashion, skin care and vanity in general were primarily the domain of gay men. Now sexuality, it seems, is irrelevant. In fact, British newspapers have even found a new word for the softer man: the “metrosexual”.
David Beckham, the man whom British academics have credited with changing male behaviour, has been deemed the ultimate metrosexual. Beckham has helped break “masculine codes”, says a Warwick University sociology professor, Dr Andrew Parker, “defying various manly expectations such as what clothes a man is allowed to wear”.
Like Thorpe, he’s a “little bit different” from the traditional heterosexual male. Beckham may be captain of the English soccer team, but he wears sarongs and nail polish, and has even posed for gay magazines. As the American online magazine Salon said, he has even admitted that he likes to be admired, and does not care if it’s by women or by men.
Whether they have heard of the term “metrosexual”, men across the world are acting this way. Stores like the Myer Grace Bros chain say it’s a trend that’s starting to hit the mainstream – and they’re not going to sit back and just watch. This year the company will launch a new department for male cosmetics and fragrances. David Jones also says its men’s cosmetics range is experiencing double digit growth.
Some men have always taken great care of their appearance but they have generally been on the fringe, says Myer Grace Bros cosmetics buyer Marissa Galatis. No more. “We are trying to appeal to the wider men’s market,” she says. “In particular to young men – a lot of this growth is driven by them.”
Mark Wahlberg’s appearance as a semi-naked model for Calvin Klein underwear in the early ’90s is often cited as the beginning of mainstream male vanity. Marketing legend has it that the ad was aimed at a gay market but it was straight men who took notice. Whether it was because women were ogling, or men themselves thought the former rapper looked good, the campaign hit the mark. Calvin Klein soon became cult clubwear, with the marketing so successful that men wore their pants low in order to show off the brand.
A decade later and it’s not just clubbers who are concerned about body image. Witness WeightWatchers for Men – the 21st-century version of GutBusters. Ten years ago the brand WeightWatchers was strictly for women and “gutbusting” was seen as the more acceptable term for a bloke. Now it’s OK for guys to watch their weight.
“The under-40s are certainly interested in the way they look and their physique,” says Allan Bolton, a key developer of WeightWatchers for Men. “Over-40s are interested in how they look for the health benefits.”
Role models are changing – and it’s not just Beckham and Thorpe. Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Pat Rafter, Hugh Jackman, Lachlan Murdoch and footballers such as Craig Wing are carefully manicuring their appearance and constantly showing off their softer side. Rafter poses as the caring father on the front page of newspapers; Jackman appears in musicals as well as in tough-guy roles in films such as X-Men; Wing told women about his gentle side in a Cleo bachelor of the year competition.
In response to this groundswell, magazine publishers have established men’s titles like Men’s Health and GQ. Even the blokier ones such as FHM and Ralph have increased their fashion and skin-care coverage.
The general manager of men’s wear at David Jones, David Bush, says: “There’s no doubt that David Beckham, Robbie Williams and Ian Thorpe and the ‘blokey blokes’ that are interested in fashion send the message that by being so you are not going to look like a fairy. Twenty years ago we sold clothes and now we sell fashion.”
Younger men in particular are taking to their bodies with closer shavers, new fragrances, moisturisers and bottles of hair dye. One of Calvin Klein’s latest fragrances, Crave, is targeted primarily at 15- to 22-year-old males, who spend much more time in front of the mirror than their fathers. “Certainly at that younger end of our business, he’s serious, he’s really got it on, unlike his older brother or father,” says Bush.
Why? Those in fashion have a few theories. The first concerns women. As the presence of women has increased in men’s social and working lives – as their rights were belatedly recognised – men have changed the way they act. Straight men, some marketers believe, are changing because women demand their partners take greater effort with their appearance.
“The feminist movement has been the biggest contributor to the men’s market since it has developed,” says Jean-Marc Carriol, director of the fashion company Trimex, which represents Clarins in Australia. Clarins is launching a men’s range of skin-care products in May. Carriol says the difference is primarily one of marketing – men will not buy skin-care products if they are designed for women. “Men’s skin is a little bit thicker,” he says. “There’s a difference but it’s not massive.”
As women have pushed for equal rights, Carriol says, “the success of that push has fundamentally altered the way men and women interact within the workplace. Appearance and grooming are really important.”
The workplace itself has changed for many men, too. As the proportion of white-collar workers grows, so does the need to look good. To compete in today’s work environment, you must dress well, have your hair cut neatly and take care of your body.
“The workplace has become far more competitive,” says Bush. “It has become incumbent on the individual to look his best.” And as the world becomes increasingly globalised, Australian men are starting to see that men in other countries – particularly in Europe – proudly take care of themselves.
Even with beer, marketers are taking on a less macho tone when they communicate with men, especially with such premium brews as Hahn Premium, Crown Lager and imports like Beck’s, Stella Artois and Heineken. For instance, women drink with men in commercials for Toohey’s Extra Dry, part of a growing trend to remove many of the overtly macho characteristics traditionally associated with beer.
“We have certainly seen a change towards more segmentation [of the beer market],” says Lion Nathan’s premium marketing director, Paul Foster. “There’s still that ‘hardcore’ masculine image at the core end of the market [but] there’s also a lot more progressive market segments.”
Just as in fashion, where the market has segmented into different brands, you don’t just buy one beer any more. The type of beer you drink can also say something about the type of man you are.
Men are also changing the way they buy homeware, cars and electrical goods, says Alan Treadgold, director of research and consulting at the advertising agency Leo Burnett.
“There’s a lot of categories that are purchased by males but using what we would conventionally regard as female cues,” says Treadgold. “Traditionally, when purchasing home entertainment systems we would expect guys to be motivated by gadgetry and technical features. But increasingly there’s a certain type of male choosing it from what might be seen as female attributes, such as the environment of the store, level of service and other intangible things.”
In car advertising, for example, much more emphasis is being placed on the people driving – and the feelings they are experiencing – rather than the car’s specifications.
Global research by the advertising agency Euro RSCG last year showed that men were more secure in their masculinity, with those aged 40 and above displaying greater sensitivity, particularly through family values.
“The definition of what it means to be male is changing,” says Euro RSCG’s strategy planning director, Matt Donovan. “They are definitely taking more care of themselves. Some older men, but particularly younger men.”
Hence the proliferation of products such as Biotherm Homme, Clinique for Men and Nivea for Men all hoping to capture this new market. Some are targeting more subtly, going along a unisex path rather than overtly seeking men. Ella Bache does not have a men’s range but says many of its products are bought by men, who make up 10 to 15 per cent of its customers.
Ella Bache’s chief executive officer, Karen Matthews, says the brand’s packaging is deliberately ambiguous, emphasising the functional nature of skin care and cosmetics products rather than glamour. “When it comes to marketing and communicating with guys, they want to hear it how it is,” she says. “They don’t want any crap; they just want to know what it does.”
Matthews says she has seen the rise of the metrosexual among her friends just as much as her customers. The term, however, may not refer only to men from fashionable areas for long. While the trend originated in inner-city areas across the world (such as Paddington and Newtown in Sydney), it is rapidly spreading beyond the metropolitan.
“The CBD streets tend to have people that are a bit more fashion-forward,” says David Jones’s general manager of cosmetics, Paul Zahra. “We’re seeing growth in [men’s] cosmetics and other products across Australia. It’s happening everywhere.”