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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 Kimand 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' malestrength, reliability or trustworthinessare 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 campaignsspearheaded by famous personalities including Beckham, actor Richard Gere, and hunky Japanese pop idol Takuya Kimurato 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 looksit'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 androgynousdue to Western influence and the desire to 'catch up' economicallyis the glitch in history, not the other way around."