You’re So Vain

It’s a rainy late-winter Thursday, and a generation of former frat boys who never got over the Thursday-night beer bashes off-campus have re-created them at Light, a velvet-rope nightclub on East 54th Street, trading the Rolling Rocks for $10 Absoluts. Many work at the investment banks and white-shoe law firms that line Park Avenue.

It’s a standard New York scene: moneyed young men in cobalt-blue button-down shirts blowing off the steam built up on the trading floor, as they did through the whole manic nineties boom.

But something’s missing tonight – in particular, the boom itself. Drinks are still flowing, but the high-fives are few, and the post-closing-bell bellows have been dialed down twenty decibels or so. That smugness that stuck in your clothes like Camel smoke only a year ago – before the NASDAQ disappeared down an open manhole – is conspicuously absent.

“Look at these guys. They look like dorks,” says a brooding 31-year-old man with a helmet of black hair. He’s wearing a thin, black merino-wool Kenneth Cole sweater with a shallow V-neck. His grooming stands out more than his penetrating, judgmental eyes. He wears a tiny, meticulous Satan beard chiseled into a little diamond point on his chin. A pleasant, if indistinct, fragrance wafts gently around him. He is, however, a guy’s guy. Do not forget that.

“Do I go for that kind of feminine grooming stuff? No way,” he snaps. “Well, I get manicures, yeah,” he allows. “But that’s it.”

Well, that’s not quite it. He also gets his hair cut every two weeks and frets as much as any Canyon Ranch-hand about those puffy lower eyelids, which sport Benicio Del Toro bags as dark as game-day eye-black. “I wouldn’t mind something for my eyes. Concealer, maybe? I have these dark circles …” He shrugs. “Women are already doing this stuff. I guess you gotta meet them halfway.”

A couple yo dudes away, a hollow-eyed guy in sports marketing is standing there sipping a Corona in that same Kenneth Cole, merino-wool sweater with that shallow V-neck.

“Yeah, it’s weird. All my friends are going for manicures all of a sudden,” he says. “I think they’re just going for, you know, the ‘massages’ in back,” he says, chuckling salaciously.

A young Swiss banker with a gel-flecked ‘NSync-ish brush of hair has plenty of energy to expound on perfect grooming and the benefits accrued to building up “Brand Me”: “A lot of people think I’m gay because I like to dress well, to look my best. But it’s important. You need to stand out, whether at work or with women or whatever.”

The bull may be slaughtered, but Power Pampering, strangely, is exploding in ways unthinkable even in the first great Age of Product, the go-go eighties. “You’ve seen American Psycho? The first five minutes, where he’s getting dressed and using all those face creams and everything?” asks one square-jawed young man with the authority of a quarterback. “That’s how it’s done,” he says, glowing with admiration.

That’s the ideal.”

The testosterone-soaked narcissism that emerged with gym culture has entered a new chapter.

“I get facials. And I’m such a regular at the nail salon, I’ve learned Korean,” Marc Streisand tells me the next day. Streisand, 33, is the top lieutenant to high-end Upper East Side custom wardrobe designer David Lance. “I mean, I grew up in New Jersey playing sports. I used to bite my nails. But when I got into the business world, I’d be sitting across the table from guys making $5 million. They didn’t just have the Rolex. They had perfectly manicured hands. You need the full presentation to match the personality. Women have always known this stuff.”

The city’s having its hangover moment right now. We partied. We woke up. We look like hell. Enter the responsible self-indulgence – the conspicuous consumption that is bag-free eyes, the affordable luxury that is a Kiehl’s moisturizing mask. It’s still indulgence, sure, but it’s indulgence that might actually help you hold on to that tenuous analyst’s salary until Silicon Alley – with its next round of options – finally rises from the ashes. These are scary days. What better time to hide behind the mask of Superman?

Love-handled corporate lawyers undergoing triple-oxygen facials. Television-sports producers anxiously debating the Atkins diet. Male-pattern-baldness-type corporate lawyers filling shopping bags with bottles of Clinique. At first glance, this explosion of male vanity might lead you to believe that men have at long last embraced their softer, feminized selves, 40 years after Betty Friedan fired the first salvo at the patriarchy. A decade after Iron John, are we all just giving up on our inner child in favor of our inner Marcus Schenkenberg?

“At first, it was just the curiosity factor. My wife got facials,” says Jared Boshnack, 28, who works in production at ABC Sports and tried his first facial at Reebok Sports Club last year. “But the curiosity turned into a habit. I work hard, and I probably don’t give myself enough treats on the side. Now I get manicures as well. I even forced one of my best friends to get one before his wedding. Hey, you look better, you feel better.”

Often, the male primping impulse starts with a simple massage at a day spa – the need to decompress after a brutal day in corporate combat. But for men who begin down the road of ladies who lunch, that’s not always where it stops.

“I always had a weak jaw. It runs in my family,” confesses Dennis, 32, a management consultant. “And the way I looked made me feel very self-conscious, especially when I was dealing with female clients.”

Six months ago, a friend got a chin implant. Dennis was surprised, but intrigued. It made a difference. Dennis dropped in for a consultation with a “hot” oral and maxillo surgeon (in an age when such a thing is possible), Dr. Mark Moses, on the Upper East Side. Moses showed Dennis a computer simulation of what he could do with chin and mandibular implants. One week and $3,500 later, Dennis was a retooled corporate warrior.

“People knew something was different, but they didn’t know what had changed. I just looked better. They asked if I had lost weight,” he says. “It gave me a more powerful jaw, a better profile. I’m no longer worried about how I look. I can just get down to business.”

“These days,” Dr. Moses says, “stuff like this has really just become an extension of working out.”

Bruce, a television-news producer, recently skulked off to the dermatologist for the unthinkable: Botox, after seeing his wife eradicate her crow’s-feet.

“I’ve got a lot of lines in my forehead. It’s the only place I really show my age,” says Bruce, 40. For $500, the doctor made about 30 tiny injections of botulism toxin along the frown lines traversing Bruce’s brow, paralyzing, for six months, the muscles causing the trouble. “It feels a bit strange. You try to furrow your brow, or raise an eyebrow in skepticism, and you just can’t. But nobody noticed, and I look five years younger.”

A decade ago, psychologists estimated that one in ten people suffering eating disorders was a man. Now, some say, the figure could be as high as one in four.

“The audience for all this is not women,” says Feminist Susan Faludi. “This is mirror gazing.”

Feminists are certainly intrigued to see the female Beauty Myth foisted upon men. Susan Faludi, author of the male-angst exegesis Stiffed, thinks the modern urban male’s overnight Adonis Complex has everything to do with economic realities.

“There’s been a shift from the Industrial Age to the so-called Information Age, which has crafted this new vision of what it means to be a man,” Faludi says. “Instead of being based on work and brawn, it’s all based on what you can buy and put on your body to prove your manhood. It’s an ornamental vision of masculinity. The men who are the most susceptible are the men who feel their work is ephemeral. The more it’s about pleasing other people instead of producing things, the more they buy into this.”

“Appearance has become a class issue,” The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt says. “The higher you go in the hierarchy, the more rigidly people have to display this self-control.”

Feminists aren’t the only ones taking note. “I’ve had conversations with a number of women who’ve said their ‘Gaydar’ doesn’t work anymore. They can’t figure out what a guy is,” says Lionel Tiger, author of the curmudgeonly Decline of Males. “But I don’t think this is a case of ‘men getting in touch with their female sides.’ Men are just doing things that will enhance their maleness.”

To be sure, this is not an outbreak of campy androgyny. Nor is it dandyism. “The audience for all this is not women,” Faludi says. “This is mirror-gazing.”

It is, rather, a detectable shift by a generation of ambitious young urban males who have suddenly come to believe that by co-opting female and gay personal-care rituals, they can construct a more bulletproof masculinity. These products, these procedures, aren’t Pentium Age peacock feathers. They’re just a new suit of armor for the bloody corporate wars.

Six years ago, I was sitting across a Lenox Room banquette from William Lauder, a president at cosmetics behemoth Estée Lauder, fêting the launch of Tommy Hilfiger’s Lauder-backed cologne, Tommy. Lauder began to speak in general about the selling of beauty. The problem was that the women’s market was mature and the male market, at that point, was almost wholly unrealized – an Alaskan North Slope of untapped consumer potential. In answer to this, Lauder explained, his company had unveiled the unisex body-care line Origins to help bridge the gender gap. All men needed, he said, was to be educated.

Five years later, men apparently are in grad school. Last fall, the conglomerate’s Aramis division unveiled a men’s-cosmetics line of a very different sort, Surface. There was Surface Healthy Look Gel, essentially a self-tanner, and Surface Skin Smoothing Gel, basically a concealer.

“We knew we couldn’t call it makeup, that’s for sure,” says Aramis marketing vice-president Terry Darland, who helped create the brand. “The M-word is taboo. It couldn’t have color. It couldn’t be detectable. Guys don’t want to paint themselves. They have a real problem with that.”

Zirh Skin Nutrition, the product of a Lauder-like vision by a group of Arizona entrepreneurs a half-decade ago, has since moved to New York and gone international. The core product is a series of face treatments – packed into aluminum canisters shaped like artillery shells – that sound like they were named by a Parris Island drill instructor: Prevent, Clean, Correct, Restore, Scrub. Some handy product-placement cameos in Sex and the City and Eyes Wide Shut haven’t hurt sales, either. Last year alone, receipts at the Zirh counter in Bloomingdale’s rocketed 307 percent.

“All of a sudden, products that would be called Windsong Majesty for women were being renamed Lab Series Scruffing Lotion for men, as if it was something you’d use to work on your carburetor,” writer Paul Rudnick says, laughing.

It was a propitious collision of forces: At the very moment that anxious urban careerists were beginning to create a male-beauty market bottom-up, the beauty-industrial complex (encompassing medicine, cosmetics, fitness, fashion, nutrition, and personal care) was already well into a major effort to pry open this market from the top down. “It’s a chicken-and-egg question why this has all happened,” says image consultant Lauren Solomon.

The impulse to power-pamper has also surged because two primary archetypes for ambitious young professionals have collapsed. The puffed-up, Macanudo-chomping Wall Street “hitter” in his Gucci-loafer “deal wheels” got punctured by “corporate casual” sometime around 1997. His antithesis, the smugly rumpled dot-commer “Yettie” – young entrepreneurial technocrat – tanked quicker than Priceline shares over the past year. What resulted from this implosion of the reigning nineties clichés was an oddly postmodern attempt to fuse the two. The goal, suddenly, is to be hiply casual yet sleek, to be outside the box but still a player.

James Jurney, 31, was crunching equity derivatives for Morgan Stanley when corporate casual got its start a half-decade ago. “My friends and I got a huge kick out of the Dockers-and-polo-shirt look. We called it the ‘Blockbuster uniform,’ ” Jurney says. Looking to capitalize, Jurney and his wife, Gwendolyn, founded casual-but-chic custom clothier Seize Sur Vingt on Elizabeth Street. Already, he sees many of those confused young professionals suddenly catching on.

“It’s sort of a last aspect of that nineties ‘aficionado’ gig,” Jurney says. “First, it was the wine-speak and the cigar-speak. Clothing is the latest thing. We get people coming in every day asking for Sea Island cotton or Super 100s, even if they’re not sure what that means. They’ve picked up these terms somewhere.”

Even the big fashion houses like Hugo Boss and Zegna are seeing an explosion of men’s business tied to evolving American-male tastes. Gildo Zegna has noted that “the feminization of men’s fashion,” which he says started with the move toward corporate casual in the United States, has led to an increased male literacy in everything from accessories to cosmetics.

“Now that men in the media are being objectified the way women always have been, there’s a margin of men who are responding to that,” says Simon Doonan, Barneys’ creative director. “But remember, if you went to a deli in New York in the fifties, you’d find straight guys with matching tie pins, cuff links, and pinkie rings, and they would have glazed nails! There was always a permission for this sort of thing among a certain class of urban men. It’s just the language has changed. Now if you’re a ‘regular sort of dude,’ you want to go for a groomed sort of Friends look.”

“We couldn’t call it makeup,” says an Aramis VP. “The M-word is taboo. Guys have a real problem with that.”

Doonan laughs.

“I know some insane guys who have had everything done. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on hair plugs. They spent Christmas down in Brazil. Plastic surgery is very good there, and it’s cheaper. I just said, ‘You do realize that nobody cares, right? You’re a guy.’ I’m mystified by it. Unless you’re Antonio Sabato Jr., nobody’s looking, honey.”

Still, for most men, being lured into the beauty subculture involved overcoming some resistance. To enter was to swallow the fear, like when you’re sent to buy tampons for your girlfriend. If men were going to get dragged into this netherworld, we at least needed to be coaxed in along a comfortably familiar path. That path, it turned out, was any boy’s best friend: high technology.

Frank Carfaro, 30, is fashionable, is straight, and runs the Desiron custom-furniture showroom in SoHo. Carfaro devotes maybe ten minutes every morning to slathering on skin products from Prada’s pricey new unisex skin-care line. “Even Origins is a little foofy,” he says. “But to have something in this extruded polypropylene tube, where you have to open up a Tyvek package to pull it out, that’s just the greatest gadget.”

Day spas are luring in men by translating their socialite-friendly treatments into scientific-sounding procedures. At Yasmine Djerradine on East 60th Street, the “nonsurgical face-lift” is a two-hour process. I tried it. Nathalie Dinoia, a Bond-girl sort of French stunner in a lab coat, electro-massaged my cheeks and chin with two small sponge-coated electrodes. You don’t work out your facial muscles; you have them worked out for you. All you do is shut your eyes and watch the strobe-light show flickering in your skull. It’s all very no-pain-but-gain.

Boys like that.

“You have to understand: One of the reasons cosmetic surgery is becoming more appealing is that it’s becoming less invasive. Men will put up with a lot less than women will – in terms of scarring, in terms of recovery, in terms of pain,” says Dr. George Beraka, a Park Avenue plastic surgeon.

One of Beraka’s patients, Ron, who despite his day job – hairdresser – gives off a seriously regular-guy Springsteen vibe, decided to give himself an eye job and laser peel for his 50th birthday.

“Before, I looked really weathered. I looked like hell. Now I don’t look a day over 35. No joke,” he marvels. “It’s outrageous. My girlfriend is twenty years younger than me. She’s younger than my son. And she has no idea I had anything done.” He laughs. “It’s expensive, but so what? It’s a midlife crisis. I would have just spent it on a Harley anyway.”

The male panacea of this plastic-surgery moment is the “mandibular glove” chin implant that runs up the jaw, giving men that Heath Ledger jawline via the miracle of silicone.

“The last three face-lifts I did were men,” says star-kissed cosmetic surgeon Dr. Thomas Romo, head of facial plastic surgery at Lenox Hill. Romo has seen his male practice spike from 25 percent to 40 percent in only five years. Men are particularly motivated toward his youth-enhancing endoscopic brow-lifts: recovery time, three days.

“The Wall Street guy will come in,” Romo says. “You know, he gets out of college, he gets a little age on him, he starts eating steaks at Morton’s and sitting around on his butt. He starts getting a heavier neck. The way to improve that neck is with liposuction and a chin implant. That’s just a great way to go.”

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.

You’re So Vain