'Dennis, your lipliner's wonky'

Will make-up for the average bloke (and we're not talking Goths or drag queens) ever catch on? Jean-Paul Gaultier has just launched a range, so maybe the time is right. Josh Sims and friends trowel on the slap - in a manly fashion, of course
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"Hang on. What does magnifying gel do? Oh, it's mattifying gel. I still don't know what it is. I'm not sure about any of this," says Tim Shaw, a 25-year-old supermarket manager, as he applies his lipstick. "I mean, Kings Cross here I come. And eyeliner! I know what that is and there's no way I'm wearing it out," he adds, giving his cheekbones new prominence with a dash of the blusher brush. His friends Nico Yianikou and Dennis Sterne are dabbling too: surveying the potions like witches around a cauldron, soon to be transformed into beauties.

"This thing is good - smooth and tasty," adds Dennis, a 36-year-old art editor, as he works out how to give his lips that just-kissed gloss: it's rather like applying varnish to wood, he suggests in suitably manly terms. Ten minutes later and the full effect of tinted moisturiser, gel, clear nail varnish and lipstick is in force. The effect is disorienting: Dennis looks neither like a panto dame nor a pop star. He doesn't even look effeminate in that Eddie Izzard sort of way. He looks healthy, awake, better defined, like himself, only more so. Dennis-plus.

"This tinted moisturiser is great," says Nico, a 30-year-old architect, applying so much of the stuff he begins to look gently toasted. "It's a lot easier than self-tan, and if it doesn't stain the sheets it'll be just perfect. The only problem is that men normally want to just wash and go. I'd only use something I could chuck on fast. No, that's not true actually: if it makes me look better, I'll use anything."

Men have worn make-up in performance circles, as a playful means of sexual expression, confrontation or pure spectacle for the past 50 years. Little Richard, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, The Kinks, Kurt Cobain, all enlarged their stage persona with more than a touch of the powder puff. Some, from Iggy Pop to Keith Richards, Robert Smith of The Cure to Michael Stipe of REM, still do. Indeed, from the Mods and their eyeliner to the deathly pallor of punks to the New Romantics and their mascara, the idea of some men in make-up seems almost passé.

In the real world men in make-up may no longer be considered dangerous, but - even in the age of the macho-lite "metrosexual" man, who drinks wine, goes to spas and enjoys clothes - they are certainly still regarded as wayward and their masculinity (or more precisely, their heterosexuality) questioned. Certainly, while women are demanding their men take greater care over their appearance, on the whole they find the notion of them wearing make-up an unattractive one, just as generally men now prefer women to look polished but not to wear a face an inch thicker than it is at night. There is an appreciation for make-up's subtle effect, but not for knowledge of the process that achieved it.

This is the idea behind at least one of two new cosmetics ranges which are being sampled by this group of "regular blokes" here this evening, in the privacy and comfort of a west London bachelor pad. The key difference is that these are ranges designed specifically for men. One, just launched, unsurprisingly comes from the acclaimed fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, who has also designed skirts for men. Called "Le Male Tout Beau Tout Propre", Gaultier's range includes a "complexion illuminator", a gloss roll-on for the lips, an eye pencil and a "nail-smoothing highlighter": while packaged in tough all-black containers and lacking mascara or foundation (so far), at £10 to £28 these are the kind of attention-grabbing high-end department store luxury cosmetics one might expect from a Frenchman with a love of outrage.

"We're sure the first men to buy it will be trendy, gay guys," admits Le Male's product manager Stephane Goret-Dervailly. "But pretty soon it will be used by men who just need to present themselves well, who want a solution in the bathroom when they wake up looking tired. Fifteen years ago we weren't talking about skincare for men at all. So this is pretty revolutionary."

It is also, contends Nico, as he eagerly applies another layer of tint, a lot of hassle, surely. "Generally, there's no way I'd get up early to carefully apply some make-up. Girls like all that, though: 'what shall we do tomorrow? Let's just sit around putting make-up on!'. Anyway, it's just the law, isn't it? Men aren't allowed to take longer to get ready than women. Especially when they're putting on a bit of camp blusher."

But perhaps more revolutionary, and much more surprising, is the launch next month of XCD. Created by King of Shaves, makers of reassuringly manly shaving oil, blokey brand and all-round City favourite, XCD aims to be an affordable, mass-market line, which will take "male cosmetics" to the nation's locker rooms initially via 250 branches of Boots (with a bigger launch set for the US in November). The company, which has been developing the line since 1998, believes that many men have over the past decade grown used to using moisturiser, toners, shaving balms and other items designed to solve skincare problems. Certainly, according to market researchers Datamonitor, the British men's grooming market was last year worth some £576m, representing a 33 per cent increase over the past five years, and major women's cosmetics brands are now launching dedicated men's skincare lines. Nivea For Men was followed last autumn by Clarins' men's line. This September, Lancôme enters the arena with Lancôme Homme.

But now it is time to tentatively introduce products that simply enhance. King of Shaves' first wave of products include self-tan and tinted moisturisers, that magnifying gel, an eye cream - all minimally packaged and with suitably macho names: the tinted moisturiser is called an "Improver", the gel a "Perfector". Next April will see the launch of five new products, for eyes, eyebrows, nails and lips. Christian Dior is rumoured to be planning a range called not "make-up" but "Groom-Over".

"I think that could start straying way too far into the 'other' territory," says Dennis, checking his look, pouting. "It'll get too Billy Smart's. But this lipstick is goooood. It makes me feel special! Whereas this gloss will get me noticed a bit too much. No. I look like a transvestite. And as for the blusher thing..."

"The industry tricked men into using a moisturiser by calling it a 'balm', got them to wear a perfume by calling it an 'after-shave,'" explains Will King, managing director of King of Shaves. "Men already have problem-solving products. But this is about defining a credible beauty language for men and getting them to use products that make them look better. There's a growing acceptance of this idea, but its presentation is important: some men will still be suspicious because this is a new school of products offering the benefits of women's cosmetics."

Companies have dabbled with men's make-up before. Aramis Surface, with its "shine erasing gel", was launched in 2000. Menaji, with its powders and "camo sticks" developed for the film industry and favoured by the likes of Johnny Depp and Antonio Banderas, is now available to the public. The hip LA nail polish company Hard Candy has Tarantino's favourite, Candy Man, sporting names like "Testosterone" and "Dog". But now the timing could not be better: the media has educated men in grooming matters, and its male archetype is increasingly buffed and glowing. Surface increasingly determines success in the workplace. A recent Psychology Today study found that 43 per cent of men questioned were unhappy with their appearance, three times the number in a similar study conducted 30 years ago.

Indeed, by now such is the enthusiasm of our guinea pigs turned handsome stallions, that Nico is ready to critique others' application style: "Dennis, you can't go out like that. Your eyeliner is wonky and you've got lipstick on your teeth. Still, at least now we'll always know whose beer is whose: we'll be able to tell by the lipstick traces."

"I must say I look almost healthy for once," adds Tim, caught in his own gaze. "But once you've started with this stuff you've got to keep using it to maintain the illusion. Imagine that: a row of us touching up our eyes at China White's. We'd get our heads kicked in. Still, does this eyeliner make my eyes look bluer? Is it waterproof?" Nico, now rubbing self-tan moisturiser into his scalp, suggests that Tim's effort has had the effect less of defining his baby blues as making him look like he has spent three minutes on the wrong side of Mike Tyson. Very Clockwork Orange.

"This eye cream is a big hit with me because I get bad bags under my eyes. I blame my grandmother for that," adds Tim, toning down his pantomime dame. "But this eyeliner is just so hard to put on properly. I really need lessons. And never mind that: how do you get it off? Do girls apply it to each other? Or is that just the videos I've seen?"

"Men are scared that they don't have the expertise to apply make-up, and they won't ask for advice at a cosmetics counter, so these new products really have to be idiot-proof," says grooming and make-up expert John Gustafson. "And although advanced make-up can be practically invisible now, there's still a social barrier for men. But they're uncertain also because they still see women in very thick foundation and heavy mascara and that shapes their misconception of what make-up is about: looking like a prostitute. Men may be ready to try make-up, but they're not ready to share the fact just yet."

This, of course, is something of an irony. Younger generations may be unaware that just two centuries ago it was women that went unpainted and men who were the peacocks. Following the fashion lead of Louis XIV, "Hanging" Judge Jeffries wore powder and rouge, and by the 1770s the Macaronies, young men who did the European Grand Tour and returned with all sorts of funny ideas, made make-up an aristocratic essential. "But your sober city banker and the working classes wouldn't have touched it," adds Susan North, the Victoria & Albert Museum's senior curator of fashion. "By the Victorian times there was a very distinct difference between men and women's appearance that we've never recovered from. Even now, despite the idea that men are in social control, they remain much more restricted in their appearance than women. The fact is that visible make-up for men is still stigmatised, though there are plenty of companies out there who would love it if men overcame that."

And surely the advent of men's make-up would be no bad thing, if a sparkle in the eye, a shine to the lips and a healthy, realistic flush to the cheeks was the result. But it will be possible to walk through the cosmetics department without a gas mask the day men get up early to separate their lashes or match their lippy to their pinstripes. "Men like things to be simple," concludes men's grooming consultant Carmello Guastella. "But I already have clients that use similar products from the women's ranges. Of course, the macho-man type is going to be very confused by all this. But there's no doubt it's going to happen: subtly, men will get better looking."