I’ve never been a fashion gay. I’ve always said that the thing that makes me feel most oppressed as a gay man is how much I’m expected to spend on underwear. So as I watched the explosion over the last couple of decades in fashion brands that are designed by and marketed directly to the gay male community—think Charlie (by Matthew Zink), JJ Malibu, Timoteo, Nasty Pig, Cellblock 13, Addicted and the like—I was initially pretty dismissive.
At first, I thought of them as successors to old disposable gay brands like Toronto-based Body Body Wear—A Stephen Sandler Design, which dominated North American gay villages in the 1990s with cheaply made and exceedingly tight wares and then fell out of fashion and disappeared in the early 2000s. Was this flock of new brands just about making a quick buck from a community that can be incredibly loyal to any company that pays it attention (remember campaigns from Absolut and IKEA)? If so, why do so many gay men seem eager to turn themselves into walking billboards for the brands themselves, their names and logos splashed all over the thing they produce? Why, when you search Instagram hashtags #jjmalibu or for posts tagged @charliebymz, do you see so many pictures—basically unpaid ads—of sexy, everyday men showing themselves off in sexy clothing brands and getting so many likes and comments and followers about their bodies and their wardrobes?
Wait. Did I just answer my own question?
The more I looked, the more it seemed that contemporary gay fashion brands had evolved into conduits for actual communities. Gay men are using gay fashion labels to identify with and find other gay men who share their values and aesthetics, and the current crop of labels is showing a more sophisticated understanding of this desire for a sense of belonging and connection than those of the past. The brands acknowledge not only that their consumers are sexual people, but nod to their sexual interests and build upon those interests to create points of social reference. The clothes provide ways to start conversations that may be rooted in sexuality, but can become bigger than that.
“The community wants to support brands that market to the community and support the community,” says Francis Gaudreault, owner of Men’s Room, a clothing and fetishwear shop with locations in Toronto, Montreal and Chicago. “Banana Republic doesn’t really speak to the community.”
I’ll come back to that desire for community, and the willingness to let savvy brands define it and propagate it. First, some quick history.
Gay men have been using fashion as a signifier for ages. Back in the 1970s, tight Levi’s jeans were a subtle way to hint at one’s sexuality—and show off one’s goods. The hanky codes, where the colour and position of hankies communicated one’s sexual interest to those in the know, were a less subtle one.
When I was finding my way in the gay world, it was whatever undersized shirt I could fit in from Le Chateau or, in a pinch, The Gap. I’ll never forget one of my first gay friends scolding me that I “really could have fit into that extra small.” I could wear mediums with straight people, but at a Homohop for underage queer kids, guys were supposed to see my rib cage through my shirt.
Even though that pink Gap baby tee or those tight Levi’s were markers of gay fashion, they weren’t necessarily made for that purpose. The layers of meaning were not there in the original design, and often not in the marketing; they were added by queer consumers themselves who co-opted the looks and remixed their contexts. These mainstream clothing brands, often available at the mall, weren’t owned by gays. Gay men and queer people were just a tiny side hustle to the larger—and more lucrative—heterosexual markets that these companies really cared about.
But the world of fashion has gone niche, even as it has gone global. Today’s style makers are less concerned about chasing the mainstream market and are happily speaking directly to consumers who share a sensibility, a point of view, an ethos, a particular way of moving through the world. Various streams of gay and bisexual men—from the sleek, globalist twinks to the reference-obsessed gender-nonconforming artists and the rough-and-tumble kinksters who like to act out all their porn fantasies—can now expect to have their own niche, their own jockstrap. And they’re loyal to it when they find it.
Nasty Pig CEO David Lauterstein, who founded the company with his husband Frederick Kearney in 1994 at a point in the AIDS crisis when AIDS was the leading cause of death for all Americans ages 25 to 44, says the goal of the brand was to help gay men reclaim a sexuality that had been branded as deadly. That history has earned Nasty Pig credibility within the community.
“For millennials and Gen Z, authenticity is the number-one thing they look for. I think people who come to engage with our brand recognize they’re engaging with authentic artists,” says Lauterstein.
Although gay guys who have been around for a while might think of brands like Nasty Pig, Maskulo and Cellblock 13 as fetish wear like jockstraps, Lautertstein says sales of non-fetish wear have been increasing—there’s definitely been more crossover. Men are wearing innuendo-infused gay-branded clothing out in public, not just in the bedroom (or the darkrooms). Yet logos and brand names recognizable to community members are often inscrutable to straights, making it easier to find like-minded people out in the wild, all over the world. This era’s gay branding is subtle and audacious at the same time.
“We wanted to design something that you could wear in an airport or Costco and identify very quietly with the brand and community,” Lauterstein says. “We’ve recently heard a lot of queer people, outside of big cities, wear our brand quietly, and they’ll be shopping and hear, ‘Nice Nasty Pig hat,’ and it makes them feel safe.”
The look can be as important as the meaning behind the brand for sending signals to other gay men. Gaudreault notes that the most popular designers catering to the gay market are serving up cuts and styles that the mainstream labels aren’t. They may be able to pass the notice of straights, but the designs themselves tap into various gay tastes.
“Generally the LGBT brands have slightly different cuts,” says Gaudreault. “They’re more form-fitting, they highlight the body more. JJ Malibu might have more form-fitted jeans or shirts. The clientele takes pride in their image and wants to be seen.”
The real world is not the only place where designs and labels play out in gay male culture. Smart gay brands also look good on social media and use promotions, tagging and influencers to build a community through their products. For Instagrammer and Mister World Singapore 2022 Joshua Hee, proudly wearing gay brands is a form of advocacy in a country where gay sex is still illegal (but not for much longer) and queer expression is limited.
“I like these brands, or rather, support these brands to raise more awareness for the LGBTQ+ community in my country,” says Hee. “The sentiment here toward accepting gay culture is low, but it is improving.”
For Alex Dandonneau, who hails from London, Ontario, it’s less about politics and social change, more about socializing. He says wearing queer brands helps him connect with other gay men online.
“The reason I enjoy wearing brands that have gay designers is because it gives me a sense of belonging with fellow queer people, whether it’s fetish-based, just wanting to represent the queer community through clothing or being out and proud with my clothing choices,” says Dandonneau. “The reason I choose to tag these brands in my social media posts is to support queer-owned businesses, and so that the queer community can also find me on socials through my clothing brand expression.”
Dylan Fogarty, who lives in New York City, tags gay designers in his posts to support queer businesses that make him feel confident and sexy in their clothes.
“I think gay brands hold a higher standard to quality and design compared to their ‘straight’ counterparts,” says Fogarty. “I trust gay brands more, whether it’s Charlie or MCE Creations, that they will fit comfortably while making me look and feel good.”
Fogarty says that the tagging relationship with these brands is also symbiotic—he supports them, but his association with them improves his own standing online.
“I love to engage with the brands that I’m loyal to on social media. It builds upon my brand and creates social proof that I’m trendy,” he says.
Of course, brands encourage their customers to post and tag them, in some cases with the possibility that the brand itself will reshare the images to their wider audiences. Grand Axis, the fashion line owned by Steve Grand, the gay singer/songwriter and—it has to be said for context—muscle hunk, reposts many pics of Instagrammers wearing its skimpy underwear, jockstraps and bikini-cut bathing suits.
Post a pic, get seen by thousands of gay men around the world in association with Grand and other muscle models—it’s a club that many, though of course not all, gay and bisexual men would like to join. Other gay swimwear and underwear brands like JJ Malibu, ES, Pump and Addicted often use influencer posts, frequently those by and of porn stars, to highlight their connection to sex and glamour, with varying degrees of raunch and explicitness. More upscale brands like Charlie, which will sell you a jockstrap for USD $52, a bathing suit for USD $150 and a pajama shirt for USD $375, project a sense of sultry affluence—and of course, more sex.
Like so much of modern life, it’s not just about wearing these fashions, but about being seen and recognized for wearing them.
As niche as some of these brands may seem, we’re not even touching on the enormous and possibly unquantifiable section of the gay fashion sector: the underground artists, the mini labels and the print-on-demand designers. Web portals like Etsy, Threadless and Redbubble are teeming with gay designers hawking everything from T-shirts to ball caps with gay-themed designs, slogans and erotic art. It’s common to see gay men sporting these designs everywhere from clubs to casual events, though they are harder to track online than the brands that spend so much on promotion.
Jeremy Lucido, publisher of the beefcake zine Starrfucker, started selling T-shirts as an extension of the queer art collective he founded around the online and paper publication. His cheeky and sometimes explicit designs have won fans around the world.
“The level I am at is very small and niche. I’ll be travelling and see a shirt, and to me, I feel a connection with that person because it’s not like I’m branded across the country and manufactured,” says Lucido.
The more daring designs he and other designers put out are in some ways a counterpoint to the mainstreaming of gay fashion lines—as Nasty Pig gets more subtle, new brands step into its place to be more outré.
“I have a different experience than a lot of people. I’m pretty much wearing a shirt with a dick on it a few times a week. I don’t think twice about it, but that’s living in Los Angeles and having a gay life,” Lucido says. “People tell me it causes a stir, just the name, wearing something with the word ‘fucker’ on it…. I’ve had people tell me they’ll wear it intentionally to a family thing to make a statement.”
Fashion has always been about making a statement. But gay brands have made it much easier to make a clear and knowing gay statement—whether it’s “support queer artists” or “look at how great my gay ass looks in this skimpy bathing suit.” Yet their rise is also tied to how much less dangerous it’s become for many (though, of course, not all) openly gay and lesbian people in affluent Western countries.
“The community has never been more accepted in the mainstream culture than it has been now,” Gaudreault says. “I think more people are comfortable with wearing LGBT-branded clothing because there’s less fear of harassment for being visibly queer these days.”
The more I’ve dug into it, the more I’ve come to appreciate how genuinely so many gay men see themselves reflected in the brands that they wear, using gay labels and gay designers to express themselves fully and find like-minded guys to connect with. And the designers themselves have the power to do this because they’re actually part of our community and know what we want.
Modern gay fashion isn’t merely about flaunting hard bodies in form-fitting clothes. It’s also about knitting together our communities and giving gay and bisexual men the freedom to be loud and proud with who we are. For a price.