Pity any friend of Park Sung Mok who must wait for him to get ready for work in the morning. Park, a 35-year-old designer with a Seoul clothing manufacturer, has a daily grooming ritual that consists not only of showering, shaving and hair styling, but also includes the careful selection of a sharp outfit to wear and the application of a special skin moisturizer that blocks ultraviolet rays. Preparations can last up to 40 minutes, and it costs Park more than time to look good. He says he spends, on average, $500 a month for new designer clothes. Then there's the gym membership and the $100 a month that goes for cosmetics such as eye creams, facial masks and two kinds of moisturizers, for day and night. None of this strikes Park as unusual. "Some of my female colleagues think it's weird that I use a facial pack once a month and that I moisturize," he says. "But I've got nothing to be ashamed of."
Not anymore, he doesn't. A few years ago, it may have been considered sissy for a guy to be fussy about his clothing and appearance. Real men demanded the world accept them on their own uncouth, unkempt terms. But in Asia nowadays, the definition of masculinity is undergoing a makeover—and narcissism is in, thanks to economic growth, higher disposable incomes, shifting gender roles, and fashion and cosmetics industries eager to expand their customer bases. No longer content to be the drabber sex, Asian males are preening like peacocks, perming, plucking and powdering themselves to perfection in an effort to make themselves more attractive to their bosses, their peers and, of course, to women.
Vanity, thy name is ... man. The ranks of sartorially self-aware males are growing so fast in some Asian countries that they have become an identifiable social subspecies. In China, they are called the aimei nanren (love beauty men), fastidious fellows who are unafraid to spend a few hours in a beauty salon getting pedicures, pore packs and back waxes. Their counterparts in Korea are the kkotminam (flower men), club-hopping packs of primping fops who accessorize with designer bling and faux fur. "You can no longer pick out who's gay and who's straight," says Henry Wan, a Hong Kong clothing designer known for his flamboyant men's styles, "because their dress is no different now."
These flower men are not rare orchids. According to a survey conducted last year by leading South Korean advertising agency Cheil, roughly two out of three South Korean men say they have adopted androgynous characteristics and lifestyles, meaning they practice personal-care routines and indulge in fashions in ways once thought rather unmanly. "If I dressed like this in Toronto, my friends would laugh at me," admits Matthew Ko, a 21-year-old Chinese-Canadian, who on a recent night in Hong Kong was clad in a bright purple blazer over a psychedelic floral shirt offset by lime green pants. Granted, it was a special occasion. Ko was vying for the crown in the Mr. Hong Kong competition, one of several male beauty pageants that have sprung up around the region. And Ko, a doe-eyed, soft-spoken amateur pianist, won! Asked about his retina-searing duds, Ko shrugs. "The fashion trends just change faster in Asia."
Hallelujah, say cosmetics- and clothing-company officials, who help to dictate the pace of change. In fashion-forward Japan, male grooming is booming, so much so that Tokyo's popular Isetan department store devotes an entire sales floor to men's cosmetics. Throughout Asia, men-only spas and salons are popping up in major cities, and big cosmetics companies now offer extensive lines of he-male moisturizers, hair-care products, perfumery and other vanity fare. "Asian men increasingly want to look after their looks, and are prepared to spend to do so," says Carol Sarthou, managing director of Synovate, a Philippine-based market research company.
Indeed, Asians like Lee Choong Ryul, 36, consider their appearance to be an essential secret to their success. "Attractive people give out a positive vibe to others, and that's definitely a plus for your career," says Lee, owner of a hip Asian fusion restaurant in Seoul. Lee says he spends an hour getting ready for work, more on days when he feels like wearing something "challenging, like an ivory-colored tie or black and white striped shoes." Lee's expansive wardrobe, amassed during European shopping safaris, includes some 70 suits, 250 ties, 40 shirts (he prefers Dolce & Gabbana and Hermès labels) and 14 pairs of shoes. "I've always been keen on fashion trends, but I began to put more effort into my looks after I came back from traveling in England and France when I was in my mid-20s," Lee explains. "Men in England and France were so much more stylish than Korean men, so I studied their fashion and hair styles, and followed them when I came home." Keeping up appearances is expensive. Lee estimates that his monthly bill averages about $1,100, including cosmetics and three trips to the hair salon. "As long as I'm pleased with the way I look when I try on the clothes or shoes," he says, "I'm willing to spend as much as it takes."
Why is the Asian male suddenly in bloom? Kam Louie, who teaches Asian Studies at Australian National University, cites the region's bulging economic biceps. "The East Asian economy is being felt throughout the world," Kam says, "so it makes sense that Asian men have more confidence and have started looking after themselves." Then there's the regional popularity of the U.S. television show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which ridicules slovenly, typical-guy behavior while challenging couch potatoes to reinvent themselves as stylish gents. Others say fashionable Asian men are simply late-flowering "metrosexuals," an urban subtype first popularized by British journalist Mark Simpson, who in a 2002 story on Salon.com provided this definition of the breed: "The typical metrosexual is a young man with money to spend, living in or within easy reach of a metropolis—because that's where all the best shops, clubs, gyms and hairdressers are. He might be officially gay, straight or bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object ..."
Simpson concluded that no one exemplifies metrosexuality better than David Beckham, the British soccer superstar known for his kaleidoscopic hairstyles, Versace suits, sarongs, sequined tracksuits and use of nail polish. Beckham is wildly popular in Asia. He's favored particularly by Japanese women, so it's no coincidence that he was hired in 2002 as a spokesman (along with his wife, former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham) for Tokyo Beauty Center, a Japanese chain that operates 34 men's salons. Their not-so-subtle marketing message: guys, if you want to score with the ladies, gender-bend it like Beckham.
When it comes to appearance, being a little swish is, in fact, a great way to stand apart from the rutting brown herd. "Women tend to scrutinize men, so if I am serious about looking good, then women get interested in me," says Kazutaka Taniguchi, a 34-year-old Tokyo account executive. "And I can make a conversation lively by raising a fashion subject." Soki Ohmae, president of a Tokyo website-consulting company, says his transformation into dapper man-about-town has boosted his self-confidence. "At parties, if I am neatly dressed and behave properly, then basically any woman will talk to me for an hour or two," says Ohmae. "It's a huge change that now I can talk to many different women and have a good time." Women, for their part, say stylish men seem more attuned to their wavelength. Yumiko Hatano, 38, a textile planner for an apparel company, says her fashion-conscious boyfriend "notices every detail, things one would not expect him to look at in the first place."
For example, Hatano says, he recently criticized a film starlet for having pudgy fingers. "The actress was a beauty by anybody's standard, but her hands were not long and slim, so he said they were ugly." This made Hatano feel better. Points for the boyfriend.
It's not as if men have figured out some secret formula. Behind every love beauty man, there's a love beauty woman nagging her sweetie to buy new underwear. Professor Kim Hyun Mee, who teaches sociology at Yonsei University in Seoul, says men are cleaning up their acts because Asian women are increasingly independent and can afford to be more selective when choosing a mate. "They aren't shy about saying exactly what they want in a boyfriend or husband," says Kim—and what they want are more sensitive partners who smell nice and trim their nose hairs and love shopping. "Men who possess only the characteristics of the 'traditional' male—strength, reliability or trustworthiness—are not attractive anymore," Kim maintains. Dandy House, Japan's leading chain of men's beauty salons (with 59 outlets), got its start in the 1980s because its founders noticed how women were pressuring men to adopt better grooming habits. "We heard things like, 'Could you do something about my son?' or 'My hubby is fat, can't you fix him?'" says Hiroatsu Hirayama, Dandy House's public-relations chief. Even so, the company's first outlet was opened in a back alley of Osaka's Namba district where sheepish male clients could sneak in undetected. "We thought it would be difficult for men to walk into something glaringly visible with a lot of people milling around," Hirayama says.
With male vanity out of the closet, catering to newfound masculine needs has become a growth industry, backed by a plethora of glossy male fashion bibles such as UOMO and Monthly M in Japan, Men's Uno in Hong Kong, and six different Asian editions of Esquire. Global sales of male-grooming products will surge by 67% to $19.5 billion between now and 2008, estimates Euromonitor International, a market-research firm. Business executives say they are pushing men's beauty lines because competition in the traditional female demographic has become overwhelming and sales growth difficult to maintain. "The women's market was so saturated," says Venice Tsoi, one of the founders of Mence Beauty, Hong Kong's leading male-beauty center, which offers high-end slimming programs, facials and permanent hair removal. Mence has opened five salons in the past three years, with sales doubling every year.
Meanwhile, Asian cosmetics companies mount multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns—spearheaded by famous personalities including Beckham, actor Richard Gere, and hunky Japanese pop idol Takuya Kimura—to carry their message of "cleanse, exfoliate, hydrate" to the spotted male masses. Japanese cosmetic giant Shiseido was an industry pioneer. In 1996, the company began offering Geraid, an eyebrow plucking and waxing kit for men that comes complete with diagrams for shaping the ideal arch. Competitors now all boast men's lines, with names such as Man Holding Flower, made by Somang of South Korea, and Gatsby skin and hair care, made by Mandom Corp. of Japan.
And all that effort isn't just good for your looks—it's great for the soul too. "Makeup is not just about outer appearance," explains Yu Sang Ok, the 72-year-old CEO of Seoul-based Coreana, who felt so strongly that men should become comfortable using his products that he wrote a 2002 autobiography entitled The CEO Who Wears Makeup, an affirmation of manly fastidiousness. "Makeup," says Sang, "is for the inner self." It is also for the corporate bottom line. Men's cosmetics now bring in $20 million a year for Coreana, accounting for 10% of overall sales.
But is the rise of the Asian Pretty Boy all that revolutionary? Not really, says Romit Dasgupta, who teaches Japanese studies at the University of Western Australia. "It's not a result of David Beckham that suddenly Asian men are starting to look after themselves," he says. "The tradition was already there." During Japan's peaceful Heian period between 794 and 1185, for example, both men and women powdered their faces white. Chinese University of Hong Kong professor Anthony Fung notes that in the West, maleness typically means "muscles, dark skin and strong bodies." In Asia, by contrast, definitions of masculinity have traditionally been more flexible. During China's Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), men were depicted in paintings as ethereal, feminine creatures. That refined ideal is best found in the Chinese classic novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber, in which one of the main characters, Jia Baoyu, applies makeup and writes prose in his study instead of battling enemies. And he gets the girl! "Extreme androgyny is nothing particularly new," says Fabienne Darling-Wolf, a professor of Japanese studies at Temple University in Pennsylvania. "The 50 or so post-war years during which Japanese men were not androgynous—due to Western influence and the desire to 'catch up' economically—is the glitch in history, not the other way around."
So Aerosmith's Dude Looks Like a Lady is now the background music for the region's fashion zeitgeist, and gender confusion is the order of the day. "When I got to Asia, I had trouble differentiating between gays and straights," says Norm Yip, a gay, Chinese-Canadian, Hong Kong-based photographer who released a book of portraits called The Asian Male earlier this year. Yip is not suffering disorientation in isolation. When two Hong Kong TV stations decided to host separate male beauty pageants this summer, producers had to wrestle with the amorphous definition of modern manliness. "Everybody knows the standards with female beauty, but how do we judge men?" asks Wilson Chin, the executive producer of the Mr. Hong Kong pageant, held in July by local network TVB.
In years past, the answer might have been arrived at through caber-tossing or spitting for distance. When it staged its own male beauty pageant, Hong Kong TV station ATV, a rival to TVB, decided the old values needed a little updating. Contestants were judged according to workplace-appropriate traits such as charisma, wisdom and crisis management. "We don't want a feminine character," insists Ip Ka-pao, vice president of variety, public relations and promotions at ATV. "We wanted contestants to have the characteristics of a real man."
TVB took a few more risks—but still hedged its bets. It divided 16 gladiators into two camps, a "macho" team and a "debonair" team. Contestants were introduced to the all-female contest judges and the all-female studio audience with videos showing them leaping out of army jeeps and firing weapons while clad in camouflage fatigues and war paint. During the talent competition, some performed martial arts and chin-ups. But one debonair lad roller-skated around the stage singing a French love song, while another contestant made a dress onstage using nothing but a black cloth. Ko, the winner—he of the lime green pants—played a dreamy ballad on the piano.
In the end, the real arbiters of what makes a man beautiful will be those tyrants, the people who moved the goalposts in the first place: wives and girlfriends. Some women say they can tell when men have gone too soft. "I think men should spend one-third of their time and attention on their looks," says Phoenix Lau, a Hong Kong college student. "But Hong Kong guys spend too much time this way," she protests, "more than one third!" Japanese flight attendant Motomi Asano has a higher threshold. "50 to 60% is O.K.," she says matter-of-factly. Asano has learned to accept her fashion-crazed boyfriend as he is, even though he spends twice as much money on clothing as she does. But Asano, too, has her limits. "When I go shopping with him, he is all over the place looking at everything," she says. "I sometimes think, 'For goodness sake!'"
Make no mistake. Once you've exfoliated, there's no going back. "We are living in a day and age when men are supposed to look more attractive," says Park, the Seoul clothing designer. He makes no excuses for paying attention to his appearance. "I've got nothing to hide," he says. "The fact is, women today want men with good skin and good bodies." Guys, remember the old locker-room adage: No vain, no gain.