Leon: The Cult of the Italian Middle-Aged Man

Coming in at an almost equal gross weight as Can Cam every month is Leon — a fashion magazine aimed at Japanese men in their late 30s and early 40s. The name comes from the Luc Besson film Leon to perhaps channel the good looks and charm of its French middle-aged star Jean Reno (the [now defunct] sister publication for women is naturally called Nikita.) The magazine began publication in 2002 and has attained a certain notoriety in recent years. Although it only runs at a circulation around 92,275 (2007 printer-certified figure), Leon’s identification/creation of an exciting new market segment for bad-boy middle-aged men has made it the center of much social attention.

Leon employs the 45 year-old Italian expatriate Girolamo Panzetta as its cover model and official mascot, and just like with the Can Camsenzoku models,” the suave Neapolitan appears in countless pages of the magazine to show off specific apparel items for readers. Forget the long-held strategy of selling youth to the older generation: most of the models in Leon are older men proudly displaying cases of male pattern baldness and a week’s worth of stubble. Unlike other magazines on the market, not a single Japanese model appears in Leon — except when accidentally used in adjacent advertisements. Most women’s magazine readers aspire towards Japanese celebrities who may indirectly aspire towards the West, but the Leon man’s aspirations are directly pointed towards (white) Western men (and perhaps, the young blond women on the white models’ arm). Many Japanese fashion magazines skim the streets of the world’s major cities for street snaps of the latest international trends, but Leon looks to only one specific foreign locale: Milan, Italy. The magazine is filled with photos upon photos of well-groomed Italian men, and other sections include longer interviews with Italian “experts” on various topics. Leon firmly establishes the original homeland for the self-confident, stylish middle-aged man squarely in the Apennine Peninsula.

Unlike the standard men’s magazine in the West like GQ, Esquire, or even Playboy, Leon has very little in the way of general-interest material, interviews with celebrities, or long-form articles. Almost 95% of the magazine is product information — with a majority of the content veering into unabashed advertorial “tie-up.” All the major luxury brands are represented. For suits, the range spans from Ralph Lauren to Paul Smith to obscure Italian tailors. Few items gain attention outside of apparel — only cigars and whiskeys, but even these generally appear as accessories to a wardrobe rather than areas in which the gentleman should develop expert knowledge.

Some of the content veers so much towards (Japanese perceptions of) Italian male customs that the advice may not be particularly practical within Japan. In the November 2006 issue, for example, Leon recommends spraying a little cologne on your suit jacket label — something I would guess is too aggressive for famously scent-conservative Japan. But the overall Leon styling is not interested in “classic” nor “traditional” looks to begin with. The editors create contemporary and fashionable ensembles that work to enhance the best qualities of the older, masculine male. Watches are enormous. Street wear is acceptable as long as it is classed up a bit, like hooded sweatshirts with fur inner lining. Sometimes this veers into the absurd: Their exemplar burly men often don crocodile skin vests and envelope their girlfriends in long black capes.

The Leon man is a “choi waru oyaji” — a term for a middle-aged man with a bit of a bad-boy charm. Unlike the desire for subcultural “uniforms” seen in youth fashion magazines, Leon does not offer readers a group-specified conformity. The ideal reader may not be a traditional success at a first-tier company, but Leon shows him how to set himself apart through world-class clothing and conspicuous success with younger women. Since most of the readers are men in the 40s, or at least, younger men aspiring to look older, the magazine is more interested in instructing methods of distinction rather than proscribing socially acceptable outfits. Leon readers already know fully well how to wear a blue-suit and not be seen. They are going out of their way in response to conformity to find themselves something with a little more edge. An advertorial piece for Ermenegildo Zegna in the Nov. 2006 issue has the headline “差が付く休日の過ごし方” — the way to pass time on the weekends to separate yourself from others. Leisure is no time to relax in this grand social competition!

Like the young women reading Can Cam, the Leon man feels a need to purchase luxury goods, but his two main purposes for those goods are not “fitting in” to a social standard. He wants differentiation from his peers and the ability to attract younger members of the opposite sex. Although the Leon movement does not have the readership numbers of the Can Cam explosion, that may be for the best: If all the Japanese middle-aged men became a little bit bad in this quasi-Italian imitation, that would only make it that much harder to stand out.

You may not see so many real-life “choi waru oyaji” prowling the streets of Tokyo, but Leon has made itself relevant by creating a sexy, yet plausible consumer subculture that well-reflects the spirit of our time. As Japanese society gets older and teens don’t have the spending power of the previous generation to make society-wide trends, middle-aged men have to pull up the slack. Leon lets them do this in style.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

5 Responses to “Leon: The Cult of the Italian Middle-Aged Man”

  1. Più avanti di tutti. « It’s Getting Tougher to Say the Right Things Says:

    […] avanti di tutti. In Giappone ci sono queste due nuove riviste no, Leon e Zino. Ne parlano sia qui che qui. Sono specificatamente targettizzate verso il quarantenne/cinquantenne single che vuole […]

  2. Litwack.org » Odds n’ sods Says:

    […] scans but I just picked up the new issue of Leon and it’s good to know that shit is ridiculous as ever. Forty pages on a certain style of […]

  3. Myles McKenzie Says:

    LEON, Yes it’s wild!
    But our clients are in this age bracket 30-60 and many of them have express how great the magazine is!

    It’s interesting to watch their reaction to the presentation of the products that are presented in LEON. I even take an issue with me when to I go to meet with an client for a private fitting in his office. While I am getting ready to present our new swatches of fabric for a new handmade, made to measure suit or custom dress shirt ( http://www.nelsonwade.com ). They are often looking thru the magazine and when I see that funny grin come across their face. You know the magazine has it a cord and has done it’s job!

    All of our clients who peruse the magazine, feel it’s great that their is actually a magazine that reflects the excitement of life for a professional man of this age. But they are terrriblely dissappointed when they find out that it’s not available at their local bookstore. So, I tell them that, they will just have to call again. Make another appointment and select some more fabrics for new shirts, in order to see the latest issue. Funny, it seems to work….

  4. Sara Says:

    It’s interesting how there are many female Japanese models in female targeted fashion magazines over here, but how many male Japanese fashion magazines feature foreign men.
    Another similar thing is that I was looking at a clothing shopping catalogue, and all of the women in the women’s clothing catalogue were Japanese, except the underwear models.
    Yet all of the men appearing in the men’s catalogues were foreign white men, not just the underwear, but even everyday clothing as well.

  5. W. David Marx Says:

    Japanese catalogs usually have white women modeling for the underwear shots, although Peach John is changing that a bit.