‘We have lived through the era of emancipation for women; now we’re witnessing the emancipation of men.’
If you’d lived in 19th-century Paris – and you’d been a gentleman of a certain substance – how much time would you have spent in the bathroom?
The question is raised and partially answered by a visit to the magnificent Hôtel Jacquemart-André, a manor house that was once home to banker and art collector Edouard André and his wife Nélie Jacquemart. The 1875 building offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of a fashionable couple from that era. It is preserved intact, as if they have just stepped out for a moment. You can stroll through the vast ballroom, pause for reflection in the cosy drawing room or poke your nose into the library.
The most interesting room is inevitably the bedroom. Or perhaps I should say ‘the bedrooms’, as Madame and Monsieur had separate boudoirs. Edouard’s is the one we’re after. Note the pale pink upholstery – a bold choice that nonetheless works when combined with the chocolate and gold tones of the rug, the ivory walls and the dove grey doors. It’s the equivalent of wearing a pink shirt with a sombre tie.
Off to the right is a vast dressing room. Lined up before the mirror – which takes up almost an entire wall – are crystal decanters of cologne, essential oils, soaps and other unguents. The sparkling containers alone would put a modern metrosexual to shame. And yet our man was a Protestant financier who had been awarded the Légion d’honneur. Edouard André had powerful people to impress, and he needed to look immaculately turned out.
There has been much talk recently about the growth of the men’s grooming industry. In fact, there is nothing new about this habit. It’s only for the past 50 years or so that men have been encouraged to equate masculinity with a lack of vanity. If you were able to pay a visit to the Roman Empire, for example, you’d hear yelps emanating from the bathhouse as hair is ripped from men’s ears, nostrils and backs. Less painfully, Roman men were shaved daily by barbers who plied their trade in the street. From the dawn of time until the mid-20th century, gentlemen plucked, barbered and perfumed themselves with unselfconscious abandon.
So what happened? Two world wars can’t have helped: fighting men got used to plain old soap and a slash around the chops with a razor, if they were lucky. There was no time for dandiness when you were busy trying not to get killed. My own grandfather’s sparse morning routine seemed to confirm this theory. He’d apply shaving soap with a brush, shave himself briskly with a so-called ‘safety razor’ – it took lethal screw-in blades – rinse off the residue with hot water and then slap his cheeks with an aftershave appropriately named Brut. And that was that. This approach got passed down to the next generation.
Always a pioneer, Estée Lauder noticed that things were changing back in the 1970s. As the liberating dress codes of the 1960s hippie movement filtered into the mainstream – looser clothing, brighter colours, longer hair – men were becoming flashier, more flamboyant, dressing with a touch of the peacock about them. She embarked on two experiments that were to influence the male grooming sector for decades to come. The first was Aramis, which she had launched in 1964 as an aftershave and cologne. Now she began to expand the range, until by 1978 it constituted more than 40 products. It was also selling ‘an estimated US$40 million annually; this compared to US$175 million for the Estée Lauder division and US$80 million for Clinique’, according to Lee Israel. However, the line was dominated by the fragrance and cologne, the success of which Estée attributed to ‘strong masculine appeal, good packaging, good and long-lasting fragrance, status pricing, and clever distribution’.
The December 1977 edition of a trade magazine called Soap/Cosmetics/ Chemical Specialties, also cited by Israel, provided further analysis of the explosion of the male fragrance market:
More disposable income in the hands of black and Hispanic people who have never been influenced by the Anglo-Saxon taboos about the use of male fragrances; more money in the hands of teenagers who found fragrance an expression of rebellion against their no-smell, conformist heritage; more disposable money for non-essentials in dual-income households… advertising and promotion associating fragrance with sports, good grooming and national celebrity, especially designer names.
The formula for selling cosmetic products to men has hardly changed since. Along with sport, men appreciate the language of technology and science: they approve of functional products, which made Clinique ideal for them. Clinique Skin Supplies for Men made its debut in 1976 with smart gunmetal packaging and the familiar three-step process, augmented with a masculine twist: ‘Clean, exfoliate, moisturise. Gets your skin in its best shape for your best shave.’ Promoted as a three-minute regime, it has now considerably broadened into a range of 29 different products, including hydrators, face washes, blemish solutions and bronzing creams.
In 1987, Estée Lauder introduced Aramis Lab Series for Men, ‘highperformance, technologically advanced skin care, hair and shaving essentials’ developed by ‘the elite team of doctors, scientists and skin care specialists of the Lab Series Research Centre’. The range is now simply called Lab Series, having disassociated itself from Aramis. The tech-speak of its marketing language remains intact.
Lauder undoubtedly blazed a trail, but the evolution of the male grooming sector began to accelerate in the early 1990s. Companies like Unilever and Procter & Gamble were aware that half the population was still not spending enough on beauty products. There was money to be made, but how to get men to spend?
The metrosexual offered them a way forward.
Journalist Mark Simpson coined the term in an article for the Independent (‘Here come the mirror men’, 15 November 1994). The piece was inspired by an exhibition called ‘It’s a Man’s World’, an exhibition of male-oriented brands organized by GQ. Simpson seized on this as evidence of a new breed of male. ‘Traditionally heterosexual men were the world’s worst consumers,’ he wrote. ‘All they bought was beer, fags and the occasional Durex, the Wife or Mum bought everything else. In a consumerist world, heterosexual men had no future. So they were replaced by the metrosexual.’
The metrosexual crossed the Atlantic when the term was picked up by Marian Salzman, then chief strategy officer at the advertising agency Euro RSCG Worldwide, who produced an influential report on metrosexuality and marketing to men. Key to the metro’s appeal was that he embraced the consumption habits that had previously been the preserve of gay men – or of women. The report rocketed across the media. ‘Metrosexual’ became shorthand for a new, marketing-friendly male that advertising agencies were determined to conjure into existence. Soccer star David Beckham became the poster boy for metrosexuality: a married sporting hero who was perfectly at ease with his off-pitch role as a fashion icon. A further step was the US TV series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, in which straight men gratefully accepted grooming and lifestyle tips from a troupe of gay advisers. Suddenly, the metrosexual entered popular culture
Although evidence of the metrosexual’s existence was limited – a survey by a US ad agency in 2006 determined that only a fifth of the population fitted the description – the message that it was OK to moisturize filtered through. The word ‘metrosexual’ was abandoned as ordinary men slowly integrated his habits. It was as if they realized that they could enjoy masculinity and good looks too – a power drill and a grooming regime. In 2009 the researcher Kantar Worldpanel estimated that, in the UK alone, spending on men’s skincare products had risen by £22 million in one year, bringing the total up to £592 million.
Its research found that the impetus for purchasing men’s grooming products usually comes from their female partners – either because women are fed up with men furtively borrowing their moisturizer, or simply because they want their man to look and smell better. It’s no coincidence that an awardwinning 2009 ad for Old Spice body wash in the United States began with the words ‘Hello ladies’. The preposterously handsome hero, Isaiah Mustafa, then explained to his female viewers how ‘your man’ may not look as good as him, but could at least smell like him – all this while wrapped in a towel and transitioning in one take from a bathroom to the deck of a yacht and, finally, to horseback.
The ad was so pitch-perfectly ironic – advertising a product aimed at men by satirizing ads for products aimed at men – that it appealed to everyone. The advertising agency, Wieden & Kennedy, went one step further by creating online videos featuring Mustafa – still clad in his micro-towel – responding to consumers’ comments about the ad on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. This in turn generated more comments and questions: the agency replied with even more video responses from Mustafa. As Teressa Iezzi explains in her (2010) book The Idea Writers: ‘The results were staggering – on their first day, the responses got nearly 6 million views on YouTube and by day three had surpassed 20 million views. One week after launch, the videos had been viewed 40 million times, making Old Spice the most viewed branded YouTube channel ever.’ In the month after the ‘responses’ went live, Old Spice sales were up 107 per cent. Humour, self-deprecation and interaction – and never forgetting that women are an audience for men’s products – are a winning mixture in the male grooming market.
That’s not the end of the story, however. Marketing men’s products to women assumes the presence of a female partner. But men are staying single for longer – and divorcing sooner. For long periods of their lives, they are forced to shop on their own. Genevieve Flaven of the trend consultancy S-Vision told me: ‘Men are changing because the context in which they live their lives is changing. They are evolving because of the evolution of women. This is a huge chance for men to change the identity and roles that have been imposed on them for centuries. They will retain their masculinity, but it will be a new kind of masculinity. We have lived through the era of emancipation for women; now we’re witnessing the emancipation of men.’
Unilever touched on men’s exploration of their own identity when it launched Dove Men+Care range at the end of 2009. This was aimed at men over the age of 35. Unilever hoped to repeat the success of its Axe brand (known as Lynx in the UK), originally launched in 1983 as a deodorant body spray but later extended to shower gels, skincare and hair care. It had appealed to much younger men by straightforwardly yet humorously suggesting that smelling great was the best way to get a girl.
Dove Men+Care was a somewhat riskier proposition because the brand was already identified with women, via both its advertising and the associations of purity and gentleness conjured up by the word itself. The centrepiece of the launch was an advertising spot called ‘Manthem’, which celebrated – in a light-hearted fashion – the various aspects of manhood. To the galloping tune of the William Tell overture, a song detailed all the challenges that guys face on the road to maturity. Play sport, meet a girl, go to college, play the fool, grow up, get married, have a family, work till you’re 60 and plan for retirement. And these are just a few of the things on the list. Why d’you have to do all of them? ‘Because you’re a man!’ The message was clear: men were proud of and at ease with their role. In an interview with the website eMarketer, Kathy O’Brien, vice-president and general manager of Unilever Skin in the United States, put it cleverly: ‘For Dove Men+Care, it’s about celebrating the unsung moments where men are most comfortable with themselves, including literally being comfortable in their own skin’ (‘Unilever’s Dove dives into male grooming’, 6 April 2010).
Going into more detail about the range, O’Brien said, ‘While men’s overall interest in personal care is not as strong as women, men are becoming more sophisticated in grooming desires, but still want a simple routine. We also know that 51 percent of men are already using women’s skin care products and many men trust and use Dove.’
The campaign made its debut during the Super Bowl, one of the world’s most watched live sporting events and a showcase for advertising creativity. As O’Brien pointed out, this enabled the ad to reach not just men, but families: ‘a captive audience of over 100 million consumers effectively reaching both men and women’. She added that the brand intended to have ‘a significant presence in platforms where we can engage and interact with our target male consumers and the women in their lives who are, many times, the primary shopper in the household’.
The ad generated comments from men on Twitter, feeding the social media element of the campaign.
O’Brien stated that ‘the real growth opportunity in men’s care is outside of shaving’. But marketing to men means focusing on their centres of interest, and in the bathroom their centre of interest is often their razor blade, which is why men’s skincare lines tend to start with a core shaving product and then swirl outwards in a constellation of post-shave healers, moisturizers and anti-wrinkle potions. The P&G-owned Gillette dominates the shaving business, with a 70 per cent slice of the market. It also has a vast range of skincare products for ‘before, during and after the shave’, from balms and lotions to face washes and scrubs. And of course it’s skilled at using the language and imagery of sport, having signed faces ranging from David Beckham to Roger Federer and Thierry Henry over the past decade.
Gillette’s strongest competitor in the mass-market male grooming sector is Nivea for Men, launched in 1986, whose widening range of products can be seen on supermarket shelves. They express the fresh, healthy, no-nonsense sprit extolled by the core brand. French giant L’Oréal is also convinced by the potential of the male sector. It markets a range of skincare products under the L’Oréal Paris Men Expert label. At the upper end of the market, Jean Paul Gaultier, Dior, Clarins and Lancôme all have lines for men. Lancôme launched its range in January 2007, with rugged British actor Clive Owen as its face. It was the first time a male Hollywood star had become the face of a skincare range.
The depiction of male role models in advertising has created problems of its own. Men are increasingly being confronted with the inadequacy of their own bodies – something only women had to put up with until the 1990s. The turning point is generally cited as 1992, when Calvin Klein launched a poster campaign featuring the rapper ‘Marky’ Mark Wahlberg clad only in briefs, his muscled body taunting the flabby executives who strolled past the giant billboard in Times Square. The casual clothing brand Abercrombie & Fitch deploys similar imagery. The ‘perfect’ male body is now gym-honed yet sexually ambivalent, as it is entirely free of body hair. Sales of depilatory products for men are up, and body hair removal is a feature of a new generation of male-oriented spas. Having successfully traumatized women all over the world, the beauty industry now seems determined to standardize male attractiveness too.
A quirky French brand called Nickel, launched by Philippe Dumont in 1996, has become an expert at speaking men’s language. An admirer from a rival brand told me: ‘Men aren’t really interested in hearing about the universe of a brand or being told the story of a product. They just want to know what it does. Nickel realized that straight away. Its flagship product is called Morning After Rescue Gel. It ditched the whole language of claims that had been adopted for women’s skincare in favour of a chatty, amusing style, as if you’re talking to your best pal in a bar. Even the packaging looks indestructible.’
Similarly, Nickel opened a series of men-only spas, starting in Paris, before taking the concept to New York and London. ‘That’s the other thing about men,’ my informant continued. ‘For both shopping and treatments, they want their own space. They don’t like the beauty sections of department stores. They don’t like Sephora. They want to walk into a distinctly male environment. Duty-free shops are just about anonymous enough for them, but department stores should reconfigure their offering to make sure all men’s products – clothing, accessories and skincare – are in a separate area, preferably on a separate floor.’
The beauty companies have managed to globalize the male grooming trend too: demand for ‘post-shave’ and anti-age products has risen in Asia and Latin America. Euromonitor International reports that between 2004 and 2009 the annual male grooming market in Latin America (Mexico and Central and South America) grew from US$2.44 billion to US$4.87 billion, or 99.6 per cent.
However, after a period of explosive growth in the global men’s grooming market, there are signs that the demand is beginning to slow. British high street chemist Boots pulled out early, abandoning in 2001 plans to open a chain of stores specifically for men after testing the concept with pilot operations in Bristol and Edinburgh. Sephora has visibly reduced its selection of skincare products for men. The sector stumbled during the recession, as its value was undermined by special offers and promotions.
Christian Courtin-Clarins, the chairman of Clarins, told me: ‘The trend really began with sunscreens; even if they weren’t convinced by other products, men got into the habit of protecting themselves in the sun. This convinced the beauty companies that there was a wider market for men’s skincare. It did well among early adopters: people who worked in sport and entertainment, and of course gay men who already purchased cosmetics but were attracted by packaging and formulations that better suited their needs. After that, slightly later adopters came along. The market expanded rapidly starting in 2000. And then it stopped. Now we get the impression we’ve reached a sort of ceiling. The market will continue to grow, but far more slowly than it has over the past decade.’
Courtin-Clarins is convinced, however, that men ‘remain peacocks at heart’. Men still want to be seductive charmers, he says, ‘even though we’d only admit it to ourselves.’
Perhaps Axe had it right all along. Throughout time, men have been persuaded to preen themselves by the common urge to attract a sexual partner. Returning to the home of Edouard André and Nélie Jacquemart, you’ll recall that they had separate bedrooms, which was common at the time. This may explain Edouard’s interest in maintaining his looks. When you’re obliged to seduce your own wife every evening, you certainly don’t want to let yourself go.