ST. LOUIS — It would be the fashion feat of the decade.
Maybe the feat of all time — at least in the history of facial hair.
The task? To repopularize a 1970s relic that suffered the same fate as the perm, the turtle neck and disco. Not to mention tie-dye, pet rocks and Quaaludes.
And what more suitable place for a rebirth of the "lip sweater" than St. Louis? Home to the Gateway Arch. Also known as the "world's largest mustache."
Of course, the crusade began the way many great ideas do: with a handful of guys and food.
Three years ago, Aaron Perlut was sitting in the corporate lunchroom of Fleishman-Hillard, a public relations firm based in St. Louis, with a half-dozen colleagues. Out of that casual conversation came a mission.
They would resurrect the mustache.
"It was an utterly random conversation," recalled Perlut, who sports a fine Arch-inspired 'stache.
Today, the movement Perlut and company created — the American Mustache Institute — is a well-waxed operation. Just a few weeks ago, Jay Leno mentioned it in his opening monologue. And the topic even came up at a press conference with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who proudly displays his own lip sweater.
The experiment helped lead Perlut and two other Fleishman employees, Dan Callahan and Brian Cross, to break away and create their own firm, called Elasticity.
The company's message is that in today's information age, the best public relations strategy is one of flexibility, using traditional media, social networks and digital marketing. An example they trot out to prospective clients: their work in relentlessly hyping the American Mustache Institute.
There's also a charitable element, raising money for a good cause.
And it all comes back to mustaches — in particular, to the mustache of the late Robert Goulet.
The first thing to ask about the American Mustache Institute is, well, do you get the joke?
The line between reality and tongue-in-cheek humor is blurred — actually, more like obliterated.
The Web site — americanmustacheinstitute.org — declares the goal of creating "a climate of acceptance, understanding, flavor saving and upper lip warmth for all mustached Americans alike."
And recently, it released a "study" claiming that mustached men earn 4.3 percent more than the clean-shaven — or those plagued by what the institute calls "bare-upper-lip disorder."
This much is real though: " 'Stache Bash," an annual celebration of "mustacheology."
The first 'Stache Bash in 2007 had about 50 people. Last year, the bash grew to more than 800. And this year, the group rented out the Roberts Orpheum Theater for the Oct. 30 bash. They even hired the mustachioed John Oates, of Hall and Oates fame, to perform.
The event raises money for St. Louis Challenger Baseball, a league for children and adults with disabilities. Buck Smith, the league organizer, said proceeds from 'Stache Bash are no joke — they amounted to $15,000 last year.
"These guys are nuts," Smith said. "They want to do something fun, but at the same time, they want it to be meaningful."
At 'Stache Bash, the institute announces the winner of the prestigious "Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year" award.
Why Robert Goulet? The group chose him as its standard-bearer not only because of his famous facial hair, but also his renowned sense of humor. They even got the OK from his widow.
Over the last couple of years, the American Mustache Institute has become the enthusiastic and willing source of observations on facial hair for media outlets. It has graced the pages of the New York Post, USA Today and the Dallas Morning News, among others.
In 2007, ESPN producer Gabriel Goodwin wanted to do a story about sports and mustaches. An Internet search brought him to the American Mustache Institute.
Perlut appeared on air as "Dr. Aaron Perlut" (as in doctor of "nuclear mustacheology,") complete with white lab coat and a stethoscope. The doctor touted research showing that a resurgence in then-New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi's batting average was due to his new mustache.
ESPN anchorwoman Dana Jacobson asked, "How much credit do you give that strong mustache for his play?"
Perlut replied, "I would give it at least 75 percent of the credit. Our studies have shown that the mustache can increase manly-hood by 68 percent."
Viewers loved it.
"The response here was, 'Man, that guy was hilarious, and I can't believe you put him on television,'" Goodwin recalled.
The institute also has become a lobbying arm — railing against "the bias and stereotyping plaguing the Mustached American Race." What that amounts to is rifling letters to organizations that crack down on facial hair.
The institute last year actually got a school district near Dallas to change a policy that banned student facial hair.
"A student wrote to us and said, 'I was removed from class and made to shave my mustache,'" Perlut said. "We essentially went after the superintendent. We got into a dialogue with him, and he was extremely reasonable."
In the end, it's a lot of effort and publicity for something that amounts to an Andy Kaufman-like ruse. So how does it translate into dollars for a new public relations business? The pitch goes something like this: If they can generate so much buzz around a quasi-fictitious institute, imagine what they can do for real.
"A lot of larger PR agencies feel the work they have is very, very important," Cross said. "Humor does not play a role. ... We said, 'To hell with that.'"
The pitched worked on Monsanto, which has hired Elasticity to help market a new corn seed to farmers through social media. Brian Effer, a Monsanto brand manager , said he could tell he was dealing with a creative group when he pulled up the American Mustache Institute's website.
"I was blown away," Effer said. "I just couldn't stop laughing."
Effer grew a mustache for 'Stache Bash. "Everyone in the company is surprised," he said.
But in the end, has the ACLU of the mustachioed accomplished its original goal? Has it brought back the mustache?
"Without a doubt," Perlut declared.
The proof he offers? He and his partners have tracked the number of mustache mentions in media outlets across the country the last three months. Perlut says the number totaled 80,000.
"There has always been a large degree of method behind the madness," he said.