Size matters at the daddy of all leather competitions with a total of 72 contestantsthe largest number on recordcompeting at International Mr. Leather ( IML ) 2018 in Chicago, IL, surpassing the previous record of 66 contestants from 2002. IML draws an estimated 18,000 attendees from around the globe who will have a boots-on-the ground presence this year to mark the 40th anniversary of the event.
Those boots will also have the opportunity to receive leather care at the 26th annual International Mr. Bootblack competition, which takes place throughout the IML weekend and features four contestants this year.
IML began as a competition at the Gold Coast, a long-shuttered gay men's leather bar in Chicago owned by iconic businessman and IML founder Chuck Renslow. The contest became so popular it exceeded the pub's capacity, and in 1979, International Mr. Leather was born. Today, IML has evolved into a multiday event featuring fetish workshops, speakers and dance parties, with a Leather Market full of kink wares from chains to chaps.
To honor the enduring heritage of Renslow, who died June 29, 2017 at age 87, an exhibition titled Chuck Renslow: A Legacy of Leather featuring materials from the Leather Archives & Museumwill be on display during IML, including a guest book for visitors to sign that will be added to the Archives' collection.
"In an age of almost overwhelming sexual oppression, Renslow was a key player in providing the necessary means for liberation," note Chicago journalists and authors Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen in the opening pages of Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow, a biography of Renslow, published in 2011. "Suddenly there wasn't such overwhelming isolation when it came to exploring sexuality and lifestyles beyond hetero and beyond the borders of 'vanilla.' Renslow had an impact on tens of thousands by helping people recognize their sexual desires, their kinks, and their fantasies."
IML organizers also plan to celebrate Renslow's legacy during the IML contest Sunday evening, although program leaders prefer to keep the specific details of the celebration close to the ( leather ) vest at this point.
"I can't get into specifics, because the person who manages and makes all of the weekend magic happen, our executive director Bill Stadt, asked me not to, but at the contest Sunday evening at the Auditorium Theatre, there will be a very special, and what we believe to be, powerful and poignant moment that underscores who Chuck was and what he meant and continues to mean to every single one of us to this day," said Jon Krongaard, president IML, Inc. Krongaard also noted that IML attendees can expect a large number of past IML winners to help honor Renslow's memory as part of the evening's program.
In addition to recognizing Renslow's leather legacy, organizers also plan to mark IML's 40th anniversary by updating some of the conference's content and structure. Opening Ceremonieswhich include an introduction to this year's judges, a brief preview of contestants' and their number selection to determine their order for appearances throughout the competitionare being moved back out of the host hotel and into the Auditorium Theatre in a format called "Reversing the Room."
"This year, there's a twist," said Krongaard. "All of the attendees at Opening Ceremonies on Thursday evening will join the contestants on stagethey're actually going to be part of the show. Everybody will be on the stage. It's unbelievable. If you've ever been on that stage, even with just the house lights up, and looking out into that venue, then you know it's mind-boggling, bone-chillingly awesome, and nothing less than amazing."
Another notable change this year is a new Friday event called Flashback. In previous years, outgoing IML titleholders have hosted roasts or given "step-aside speeches," but this year, Flashback will give Ralph Bruneau ( IML 2017 ) and Ryan "Pawlish" Garner-Carpenter ( International Mr. Bootblack 2017 ) the opportunity to engage in a Q&A with attendees to describe their experiences of the past year.
"We're trying to make it a little more of an intimate and conversational setting," explained Krongaard. "This format will allow them to talk about their year and share some stories that may or may not have made it onto Facebook. They may even give some final thoughts as they wind down their year. Ralph and Ryan are actually very excited about it."
Other new and notable IML offerings this year include the following: Puppy Yoga ( bring your mat! ), a warm-up of sorts to the Off Leash: The Pup and the Handler Romp, which has moved to Friday night and features a much bigger space with a carpeted floor; a screening of the 2017 Tom of Finland film on Sunday afternoon, which provides a biographical look at Touko Laaksonen ( aka Tom of Finland ); Forever Leather, a session on preserving leather ( hint: there's more to it than keeping it shiny ); and four instructional Kink U sessions once again organized by Titans of the Midwest.
Two of the four Kink U sessions feature traditional topic areas including, Stress Relief through BDSM ( stress management through play time ) and Leather Through the Lens ( panelists discuss strategies for capturing the modern leather/fetish world ).
The other two sessions feature especially timely subject matter. The Good Touch Games session is an interactive class that teaches practical approaches to establishing consent aimed at both the experienced player and the rookie. The other well-timed session, especially considering the state of race relations in the U.S. today, is the Fireside Chat with Mufassa, founder of ONYX, which will explore the state of diversity in today's leather and kink communities.
"Remember in 1979, 400 diehard leathermen showed up. Now, we're starting at 18,000 plus, from every walk of life and corner of the universe that you can imagine," said Krongaard, when asked to describe the level of diversity at IML. "Chuck knew that. He saw that. It's always fun to see what the next generation is going to do, what the next evolution is going to be, and this year will be no different."
With all of the new event programming this year highlighting both the legacy of Chuck Renslow, and the 40th anniversary of the pioneering event he founded, at least one pillar of IML weekend remains unchanged: the popularity of the Leather Market. "As we all know, the hotel and the market, especially during the day, are the social hub of the weekend," said Krongaard. "People like it because you can try on gear and play with the toys that the vendors have brought in a non-judgmental, safe space. It's a big deal. And the Leather Market is also popular, because, let's be fair, the sexual energy in the room is certainly ramped up pretty high."
For more information on International Mr. Leather events, which take place, May 24 through May 28, visit: www.imrl.com .
Images in this story originally appeared in the book Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow by Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen.