'Making the American Man' Filmmaker on the Importance of Products Made in the U.S.

Greg Caruso
'Making the American Man'

Gregory Caruso's documentary, now on Netflix, examines the rise of America's menswear market through raw denim, quality leather goods and soap made out of bark.

Earlier in the election cycle, back in September, a gentleman named Gregory Caruso was advantageously placed behind the moderator of the second GOP debate. Sitting there with a jawline our forefathers would be proud to see at an open forum of democracy, a meme was born.

When sharing his visage, most did not know the "Hot Debate Guy" was actually a filmmaker. And the man behind the meme is now out with a new movie.

Caruso's documentary, Making the American Man, explores the evolution of men's style in the last few years, and the artisans and the manufacturers who are at the forefront of the Made in the U.S. moment in the men's fashion market. Gone are the bedazzled Ed Hardy days of yore, giving way to a fashion movement that promotes style and substance. 

Fashion is somewhat of a family business for Caruso. The USC film school graduate is the son of Rick Caruso, the Los Angeles real estate developer responsible for L.A. shopping malls like The Grove and The Americana. Although The Grove features more commercial retailers like Nordstrom and Zara, the younger Caruso's doc focuses on small-time manufacturers.

"A lot of these manufacturers started their business because they couldn’t find the product they wanted or they wanted to make product better,” explains Caruso of the brands featured in the doc, which include Shinola, Tanner Goods, Brooklyn Grooming and Unionmade (he discovered the latter label online and then traveled up north to the flagship store in San Francisco and met Unionmade's Todd Barket and Carl Chiara through Baxter of California's J.P. Mastey.)

With the release of Making the American Man on Netflix on FridayCaruso chatted with The Hollywood Reporter about the rise of men's fashion and how a good haircut can go a long way. 

How did you go about choosing the brands you feature in the Making the American Man?
I started in L.A. with Baxter of California. Their owner at the time introduced me to the owners of Unionmade, which in my opinion is the best men’s store in the states. From there I started seeing patterns in the brands these stores carried and the same people would be showing up at pop-ups. It is a very intimate community. Then I met Michael Williams of A Continuous Lean., who had an "American" list, so my producers started calling these companies and it snowballed from there to about 40 manufacturers.

In making this doc, was there a brand that really impressed you?
There were a couple. There is this brand called Juniper Ridge that is run by these hikers who live outdoors and they make fragrances out of plants and flower and bark and they distill it all into colognes and soap. One of the most impressive backstories I heard was from a husband-and-wife team in Seattle and their brand is called Freeman. The husband’s favorite rain jacket completely wore out and they tried to find a replacement, and when they couldn’t they decided to just make one themselves.

Why do you think there has been a recent desire for these American-made goods?
People are sick of disposable products. I think a lot of millennials have a certain void in terms of connecting with things so there is this desire to have products that we can have a connection to. Where we know the people who made it.

Some American-made brands market this "working man" aesthetic but the price of their products could not be afforded by a blue-collar worker. How do they navigate this paradox?
Some will be very honest and say we make a quality high-end product so it is not necessarily easy for everyone to get their hands on it. Other companies are more affordable but there is always this inherent quality that you are paying more for because it is a better-made product.

What do you think it will take to get these small "American Made" products onto larger stages without compromising their integrity?
A lot of these people started or opened their stores and factories in their hometown and maybe one or two stores in a bigger shopping center would be beneficial, but not much more than that. A lot of them are very happy with the situation; they are not trying to grow too much. My dad is a developer and I talked to him about it, and he is very interested in these smaller retailers because people want that experience, like something was made for them.

With the recent controversy with Shinola, where the FTC is investigating the validity of their "Built in Detroit" slogan, do you think there is a threat that some brands will take advantage of the marketing value of a "Made in America"-type moniker?
I can't talk on behalf of Shinola because we were there and they are making stuff in Detroit, but I think a lot of companies in the last five to 10 years have started using words like "heritage or "vintage" or "old school" and they are using it to promote new products, which doesn't make sense. That being said we wanted to tell a story about quality. The film starts with a quote by Ouigi Theodore that goes, "It's not just about waving an American flag." We wanted to get both sides of the story, so we didn't want to be too like "American-made is the only way to go."   

Your doc talks a lot about being a gentleman. What do you think makes the modern gentleman?
It is a person who takes pride in the way they groom themselves and the way they look but without being too pretentious. There is an importance that should be placed in modesty while dressing well. Like you can’t do too much with a tuxedo to make it better. At the same time, it is important to have your own style.

Does any celebrity come to mind when thinking about what it means to be a modern gentleman? 
When talking about gentlemen, my mind always goes to old Hollywood, like Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. For me, it’s because I look to how my grandfather dressed in the '40s and '50s. A lot of young men idolize that generation. Their look is timeless — being clean-shaven with a good haircut in a suit is tough to beat. But it is also fine to grow a beard and get dirty. Guys are just sick of big logos on tees.

Making the American Man is now available on Netflix.