What makes the American man?
According to a new documentary by Gregory Caruso, the elements would include Marlon Brando in a black leather jacket, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” beards and integrity.
For his directorial debut, titled “Making the American Man,” which begins streaming July 1 on Netflix, the University of Southern California graduate interviewed some 44 designers, retailers, manufacturers and bloggers in the growing industry that extols American-made grooming supplies, accessories and clothing for men. Forever fascinated by men’s style from the Forties and Fifties, he was driven by a key question: “What companies are doing it that way now?”
The 24-year-old Angeleno was able to shape an informed opinion before starting the two-year project. Throughout high school, he collected books on men’s fashion and tomes that addressed chivalrous gentleman. For a role model, he looked to his paternal grandfather, Dollar Rent A Car founder Henry Caruso, who wore a suit everyday well after his 90th birthday. His father is Rick Caruso, the retail developer behind The Grove and The Americana at Brand in Southern California.
Caruso also swirled briefly in Internet infamy when TV viewers caught him sitting behind CNN journalist Jake Tapper at a GOP debate last September. Until his identity was revealed via a press tour on “Good Morning America,” Cosmopolitan, TMZ and other outlets, he was known on Twitter as #hotdebateguy. (For the record, he supported John Kasich. “I’m disgusted with Donald Trump — he’s lowering the bar,” he said.)
Still, the social media frenzy — “a crazy and ridiculous experience” as he recalled it — helped his film. “That’s how the Netflix deal came about,” he said.
His father also played a pivotal role as both benefactor and beneficiary. He called in a favor to J. Crew chairman and chief executive officer Millard “Mickey” Drexler, who has placed shops for J. Crew and its sister brand Madewell at The Grove and The Americana, for an on-camera interview. He also watched early cuts of the documentary and met with some of the up-and-coming fashion players when he and his son were in New York at the same time. As a result, Shinola is now opening at The Grove.
“It was really cool in that sense — introducing him to smaller shop owners,” Gregory Caruso said.
Caruso’s first-time filmmaker status is betrayed by the absence of a traditional narrative that guides the viewer through a coherent story. The 68-minute documentary opens with an introduction read by Caruso that clocks under four minutes, edifying viewers that manufacturing accounted for 30 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product in 1950 but has fallen to 12 percent in 2016. The subjects — ranging from the proprietors of Brooklyn Circus, San Francisco’s Taylor Stitch and Chicago’s Oxxford Clothes to Jason Schott, whose New York-based family business made Brando’s leather biker jacket from the 1953 cult film “The Wild One” — are granted an open platform to wax on the history of their companies and the state of men’s fashion. What they hold in common is passion for their craft, a sense of integrity and dedication to quality. Caruso also didn’t want to weigh down scenes with statistics and graphics. To that extent, the film appears to be a beautifully shot hybrid of a men’s style blog and an infomercial set to kicky jazz tunes by Loston Harris.
Caruso justified making that decision for the sake of preserving “the purity of the film,” he said.
“I wanted the makers to tell the story,” he continued. “It started seeming more like a true and down-to-earth story and conversation with these people.”
Many of the interviewees lit up in front of the camera, especially when they took a whack at defining masculinity. Scott Freeman from outerwear brand Freeman in Seattle suggested self-reliance, while Joe Lotuff, the founder of bag maker Lotuff Leather in Providence, R.I., said, “You show up at work, you take care of your family and you do what’s right.” Drexler reasoned that “if they behave like mensches, it’s fine.” Others revealed what they hated about men’s fashion: mustache screenprints, skinny jeans, Affliction T-shirts.
Caruso’s own take on style and masculinity is “it’s important to obviously be who you are and comfortable with who you are.” Moreover, he said, he likes subtlety. “People are trying to be too exuberant in their style. Sometimes men’s fashion gets mistaken for wearing a pink blazer with white pants and being over the top.”
As for the viability of domestic manufacturing, which has added almost 800,000 jobs since 2010, Frank Clegg, who makes high-end bags for his namesake brand and Michael Bastian in Fall River, Mass., summed it up best. “It’s very good that people are interested in quality,” he said, “because that’s the only way manufacturing, I believe, is going to come back to the U.S.”
Caruso is doing his part in supporting the made-in-USA movement. Describing his everyday outfit as “the same pair of jeans, Converse, usually a T-shirt and a ball cap,” he shops from several of the stores and designers featured in the film, including Baxter Finley Barber & Shop, The Hill-Side, Unionmade and Tellason. His fondness for the Fifties will surface in a forthcoming fictitious film about young jazz musicians who journeyed to Central Avenue in South Central Los Angeles to experience the music scene there.
“It’s the height of men’s fashion,” he said. “I think it’s coming back.”