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You're So Vain

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It's not surprising, in fact, that physicians are at the forefront of the explosion in male vanity. While beauty has been techified, it's also been given a reassuring medical overlay. Business is burgeoning for a new generation of doctors who are convincing men that ugliness is something of a disease. To deny the Adonis within is almost irresponsible, like smoking.

"What I'm really trying to do is to educate men to go to the next step," says Brad Katchen, owner of the new, aggressively unisex vanity palace SkinCareLab. "Men have always been really skittish about getting manicures, getting pedicures, body exfoliation . . . " He shakes his head. The operating-room glare in the space, so brilliant as to be antibacterial, is actually no accident. It's not a spa. It's a "lab." Each $150 enzyme facial is a matter as grave as a biopsy. The Lab, in fact, is an outgrowth of Katchen's thriving medical practice one floor below.

"Society is changing," says the Helmut Lang-clad Katchen, who exudes the same clubbish, bright-eyed giddiness as the late Steve Rubell, despite the Johns Hopkins pedigree. "Through advertisements, movies, television, we constantly see a new body ideal, the Super Body, the Brad Pitts. This is the body ideal. It's really had an impact on the male body image, on the self."

Perhaps there's a link: Nearly 40 percent of SkinCareLab's clientele were men during its first month, a stunning number in spa-land.

A generation of guys raised on The Six Million Dollar Man are perfectly happy to let the technology rebuild them. Still scarred by teenage acne? Check out microdermabrasion, where doctors like Katchen blast your skin with aluminum-oxide crystals and sandblast away those very 1993 Tommy Lee Jones acne scars.

The medicalization of beauty has even rubbed off on non-doctors. Without advertising, London-based "trichologist" Philip Kingsley has built a thriving practice on East 53rd Street, catering to celebrities like Kevin Kline, John Cleese, and Howard Stern and a growing number of Wall Street gamecocks alike. A trichologist doesn't have an M.D. but can certainly assume the manner of a physician. After six years of training, Kingsley acts as sort of a shrink-cum-osteopath for the modern city dweller's wigged-out tresses.

Operating out of an office lined with portentous tomes like the Physicians' Desk Reference, Kingsley offers a holistic approach to scalp health, prescribing a wide range of not-cheap home-brewed hair treatments and scalp tonics intended to counteract the wear and tear from the ever-expanding types of hair treatments available. "Certainly more men are coloring their hair -- coloring, bleaching, perming, straightening," Kingsley says. "The more you do to your hair, the more you need to do to it."

What the clinicians can't accomplish in escorting us into this new terrain, a new generation of image consultants will -- for a handsome price.

"Remember," says custom wardrobe designer David Lance. "In a horse race, even if you win by a nose, you still win. It's all about getting that edge."

Lauren Solomon, a former in-house image chief at Chase Manhattan now running her own consultancy, patrols the Barneys menswear department.

"When the market's tight, and you're at risk of losing your job, you're going to start dressing better, because that becomes your competitive edge," Solomon says. "Suddenly, everybody does not want to look like everybody else. You figure, 'Oh, my God, the guy next to me is wearing a Disney sweatshirt and showing butt cleavage because his jeans are too tight. I can outdo him in three notes.' "

She stops to examine an avocado-green wool polo shirt, lips pursed. She nods her approval. Despite the collapse of the New Economy, Solomon considers this the New Gold Rush, at least in her specialized business. "Remember: If you design your message, you're either going to be the sporty guy or the elegant guy or the romantic guy, but you will have a look. It's like a signature. That becomes part of your ultimate goal: shameless self-promotion."

"Shameless," she says, folding the polo shirt as fluently as a fifties mom. "But very subtle."


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