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Shorter men finding new options in clothing

Finding a suit that fits is getting easier for the shorter man. National chains still don't offer many options, but legions of men are increasingly discovering specialty stores just for them.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Finding a suit that fits is getting easier for the shorter man.

National chains still don't offer many options, but legions of shorter men in the country are increasingly discovering specialty stores just for them.

For 5-foot-5 Josh Rogers, the first trip to Jimmy Au's For Men 5'8" and Under was memorable.

"It was a fairly typical clothing store, except everything was a possibility. It wasn't like I was going to have to settle for that one weird thing that fit," said Rogers, a New York City resident who wears a 36 short.

Another first for Rogers: The custom-made mannequins were eye level.

"I never experienced anything like that," he said.

Only a handful of stores cater exclusively to shorter men. But in recent years, the Internet has spread awareness of such shops and helped attract customers from around the country. Even those who live hundreds of miles away can track down the right fit with a click of the mouse. Some make special trips to the stores.

The lack of choices in chain stores is partly a matter of economics. Buying too-big clothes and scissoring away sleeves and pant legs has long been the norm for shorter men, giving retailers scant incentive to incur the extra cost of stocking sizes for them.

Shorter men can also "roll over" into the young men's department, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for research firm NPD Group. As a result, national retailers don't realize the market's potential, he said. In total, the NPD Group estimates the men's apparel market at $56.5 billion a year. But because shorter men often buy clothes that are too large, analysts said they could not estimate what part of that the shorter men's market would be worth.

"It's a matter of build it and they will come. (Shorter men) don't look for small sizes right now because it's not there," Cohen said.

Bigger men, on the other hand, are captive to larger sizes and so stores for them have abounded. Casual Male Retail Group Inc., which owns Casual Male XL (formerly Big & Tall), has about 490 stores across the country.

The discrepancy is despite government statistics showing that there are just as many men shorter than 5 feet 9 inches as those who are taller. At the further ends of the spectrum, there are twice as many men who are 5 feet 6 inches and shorter as those who are 6 feet 2 inches and taller.

Selling shorter men's clothing also requires nuances that major retailers may have difficulty mastering. Many men hesitate to walk into a short man's store, or even a "small" section at a department store, said Alan Au, who runs Jimmy Au's in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Just a few years ago, Au removed the words "Short and Small" from the store's name. Inhibitions were lowered, and sales rose.

Like big and tall men, women have also been successful in getting sizes just for them, whether that's in petites, plus sizes, or petite plus sizes. That's in part because women are more at ease demanding clothes for varying body shapes.

Still, the smallest size available for men on the Web sites of most national retailers like Macy's Inc. and Jos. A. Bank is a 38 short.

"It becomes more and more difficult the more professional you want to look. The options just start narrowing the smaller you are," said Rogers, who runs ShortShrifted, a Web site devoted to clothing for short men.

That's not to say national chains don't carry smaller sizes. Men's Warehouse sizes go to 35 short, although there may not be as many options or styles. Select pants at Eddie Bauer can be ordered in short sizes through its catalog and Web site.

Macy's and Eddie Bauer declined to say what percentage of sales their smaller sizes make up. The entire "short" category at Men's Warehouse makes up 20 percent of sales. The largest sizes account for a greater portion, but spokesman Scott Norris declined to give specifics.

National chains will start catering to the shorter market as the Asian and Hispanic populations, which tend to be shorter, keep growing, said Cohen. Since retailers are slow to change, they'll likely start by offering those choices online only, he said.

Until then, many shorter men will be left to snip away tent-like clothing.

The result is bound to be a collage of baggy crotches, gaping sleeves and wide collars that diminish a man's stature. Specialty tailors say a good fit does just the opposite: smooths flaws, amplifies strengths, bestows newfound confidence.

Once men realize how much better they look and feel, reservations about shopping at a specialty store vanish, Au said. Some are so overwhelmed they buy entire wardrobes.

Since Napoleon's Tailor opened in Milwaukee in 1994, the shop has moved twice to more spacious quarters. It now occupies a 3,500-square-foot space with a second store in Chicago. Customers arrive to stock up on Italian suits, jeans, sweaters, socks and more.

Tom Schwab, manager of Short Sizes Inc. in Cleveland, said more people are learning about stores like his by going online. The store, opened 35 years ago, now gets about 60 percent of its business from Internet and catalog sales.

"Our end of the market is so underserved, even the downturn hasn't really hurt us. Our customers are spending less, but there's more of them discovering us every day," Au said.