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International Male’s eye-popping catalogue was a lifeline for closeted Heartlanders and the fashion inept
By Pat Sherman | GSD Editor
Back in the mid-’70s, when platform shoes and polyester leisure suits ruled the world, the best that closeted gay and bisexual men could hope for was some furtive groping after racquetball practice or a brief guy-on-guy encounter in the context of a “swinging singles” soiree with the little missus. There were no home computers and thus no Internet porn for folks like Fred Karger, Barney Frank and Jim Swilley to peruse behind locked doors.
Then, a tiny advertisement began to appear in the back pages of Playboy and Gentlemen’s Quarterly (today GQ) magazines. The ad featured the image of a trim, muscular young man in a pair of tight-fitting, jockstrap-like briefs called a “Jock Sock.” It was a mere sampling of the fashions and flesh buffet to be found in the pages of Gene Burkard’s inaugural International Male catalogue.
After placing those ads and the eventual release of his fall-winter 1976 catalogue, Burkard’s sales skyrocketed.
Burkard, a former classified sales rep for the Milwaukee Journal, got started in the mail order men’s apparel business in the summer of 1972, working out of his 500-square-foot Ocean Beach cabin on West Point Loma Boulevard.
Prior to launching his catalogue, Burkard advertised his clothing in both gay and mainstream publications, nearly going bankrupt several times in the early ’70s. About 30 percent of the ads ran in gay men’s magazines such as The Advocate and After Dark, and 70 percent in mainstream publications, including the New York Times.
“The Advocate was just a little 12-page newspaper out of L.A. with a circulation of about 6,000” Burkard said. “GQ was a tiny little magazine.”
However it was his first ad in Playboy that really paid off.
“I thought if I could get into Playboy I could get to a huge amount of people and I could really see if this type of product would sell to supposedly straight guys,” Burkard said. “I’ll never forget; the ad cost $6,000. I didn’t have $6,000, so I had to borrow it from a friend.”
At the time, Burkard had only one guy helping him fill orders out of his house.
“He was stoned half the time,” Burkard said with a laugh. “We were sitting on the floor of this little beach cabin and we had piles and piles of these Jock Socks that I was having made by contractors in L.A. All the sudden I was in the rag business and I honestly didn’t know what I was doing.”
One of the things that set International Male aside from its main competitor, West Hollywood-based mail order business, Ah Men, was the move away from caftans and other androgynous atrocities of the era.
“One of the reasons why we were successful I think is because we butched up the look of gays; we were saying gay guys what was happening in gay culture at the time was people were beginning to feel better about themselves.”
Though Burkard concedes that sales of his catalogue were partially fueled by men seeking a safe, coffee table connection with the burgeoning gay culture of the east and west coasts, there remained those “wild and crazy” heterosexual guys who subscribed to International Male purely to help them pad their closets with clothes to make them more attractive to the opposite sex.
“It went right over their heads,” Burkard said. “We never said we were a gay catalogue, but gays ‘got it.’ I mean, gays looked at it and said, ‘My God, that’s me, and I can get this in the mail because it’s not saying gay anywhere. It’s just got these hot guys.’”
Though a protruding package might have sealed the deal for some, from the onset the catalogue included a variety of items, from jogging shorts and pants to linen shirts and bath accessories.
Flipping through the pages of some IM catalogues from the ’70s and early ’80s, Burkard quipped, “I mean how straight can you get? I’m even getting bored just looking at it.”
Ads that ran in gay publications, tended to be a bit more revealing, Burkard noted, pointing out one published in the first issue of the defunct San Diego gay publication, Update.
“You see, we were somewhat closeted,” he said. (But) I had an internal slogan and it was, ‘Never get respectable.’”
Burkard, who grew up in Wisconsin and Cheboygan, Mich., got his first inkling of what fashion could be while traveling through Europe, selling beer and other items to commissaries at U.S. military bases in Turkey, Italy, Spain, Greece and England.
“I was aware that they were wearing sexier clothes in Europe than they were in the States. Italian fashion’s, they were tighter,” he said.
After losing a substantial sum in the stock market in 1969, Burkard made his way to San Diego, where friend and Update magazine founder Don Hauck lived.
Burkard had long desired to seek his fortune in the mail order business, inspired in part by the success of E. Joseph Cossman, author and inventor of products such as the Plastic Ant Farm, Shrunken Heads and Fly Cakes.
With the image of tighter fitting, bolder European fashions fresh in his mind, Burkard launched his first line, under the umbrella name Brawn (later Brawn of California). One of his initial products was the butthugging brief, “Buns,” which he sold three for $10.
However, before Burkard could sell one pair of briefs, he had to find a way to get them made. Walking into an Ocean Beach fabric store on Newport Avenue, he posted a flier seeking the assistance of cash-strapped homemakers with sewing machines.
“After I would pick up the finished Jock Socks from the various ladies’ homes I would wrap them in baggies and take them to the post office,” Burkard said. “After buying so many baggies at the local super market I’m sure they all thought I was in the pot business. After all, this was OB.”
One of the women who responded to Burkard’s ad for a clerk in the San Diego Union is longtime friend Gloria Tomita, who went on to become the sole purchaser for International Male and Brawn of California.
“He was just starting out, in his messy, little disorganized cabin,” Tomita recalled. “He had two or three sewing girls all crammed in this cottage, so that when the phone rang they had to stop sewing because I couldn’t hear.”
With two children, an unemployed husband and no car, the Ocean Beach resident needed a job she could ride her bike to, and wasn’t taken aback by the risqué designs.
“I was a mother with two children; I didn’t care what they were selling,” Tomita said with a laugh. “I was just eager to work and he certainly was a very nice person.”
As the business grew, Burkard would go on to open a production facility and store in downtown Los Angeles, as well as stores in Escondido, San Diego and West Hollywood (for which a rather wild opening party was held at the now defunct gay disco, Studio One).
Though Tomita knew very little about fashion at the onset, she quickly took on purchasing duties for the catalogue.
“He sent me all over world,” she recalled. “One day he called me and said, ‘You’re going to Paris in a day or two,’ and I went by myself, never having been there.
“What was so exciting was to be in this company that grew,” Tomita said. “We all learned as we were doing. It evolved into this wonderful thing that actually made money, which was so surprising.”
The products became so successful that Burkard was eventually taken to court by the Jockey company, which claimed the Jock Sock had a “confusingly similar” name. The suit was filed after Burkard began selling his products in major department stores, alongside the Jockey brand.
“It was a five-day trial in Superior Court—five days fooling around with this and here I am penniless,” he said. “It was at a time when I had to let everybody go because I was so broke. I had this great big Quonset hut (factory in L.A.) and all these sewing machines were sitting there empty. I only kept my friend Gloria.”
Though Burkard eventually lost the suit, Jockey didn’t get the huge financial award they were seeking, only the removal of the word “Jock” from the Jock Sock.
In the end, Burkard won his own suit against Jockey and was awarded $50,000 when the company lifted his trademarked slogan, “For the Man in Motion.”
“They couldn’t deny that they stole it from me,” he chimed.
As Anita Bryant’s crusade against homosexuals began to heat up, Burkard began to receive letters from religious leaders outraged over his products.
“People were always writing to us—some minister or something … It was always ‘filth’ and ‘why don’t you people all die?’”
In 1986, Burkard sold what had become a roughly $24 million marketing operation to Hanover House Industries. A year later, he and Tomita stepped down from the company.
At its height, International Male and Brawn of California had about 180 employees and the clothes were manufactured in Hong Kong and other locations around the globe. A store was later opened in Hillcrest by one of the company’s successive owners.
“As a company gets older you don’t have the camaraderie that you used to have because you have so many people to deal with,” Burkard said. “It just becomes more complex. I was an idea guy. I liked the idea of putting catalogues together and finding products and coming up with new ideas, not sitting in my office and running a company.”
Burkard said the AIDS crisis also took a toll on him psychologically. He lost a number of his friends and associates in the company, including the model on the cover of his first catalogue.
“The people who put this together, most of them are gone now,” he said, choking back a bit of emotion. “The music stopped. It’s very sad, but that’s what happened.”
Asked how Burkard feels when he looks around and sees variations of his designs in today’s market, Burkard said he feels “gratified.”
“The fact is that the large underwear makers like Jockey rarely step out with something new or daring,” he said. “They let the smaller guys come up with the ideas and watch the public reaction and, if they are selling well, they simply knock them off. It’s a given in the clothing (and) fashion business that everybody gets knocked off. That’s life—you’ve got to keep coming up with new ideas all the time.”