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 makeoverand 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 metropolisbecause 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.