SHORT IN STATURE, BIG ON STYLE.
Actor Tom Cruise, rapper Ludacris and DreamWorks exec David Geffen are all big names. But the fact that they all are short men -- measuring in at under 5-foot-8 -- puts them in an underserved segment of the clothes-shopping population.
Of course, those heavyweights rake in enough dough to make finding well-fitting suits and sportswear the least of their problems. But for the rest of the male population with similar height stats, the battle remains.
"A quarter of an inch makes more of a difference on a shorter person than a taller person," says Alan Au, clients' relation manager for Jimmy Au's, a Beverly Hills store specializing in clothes for shorter men.
But that's the problem. While there are 500 stores nationwide that cater to big and tall men, Au says there are only about 10 stores across the country dedicated to short men.
"If you don't have people who know how to make (smaller) sizes well, then manufacturers don't try," Au says.
While the Casual Male Retail Group unveiled plans to change the name of its nationwide Big & Tall menswear chain in early 2006 -- to counter a negative connotation linked with the rise in obesity -- those in the short and small apparel industry have been struggling simply to make any kind of name for themselves.
According to the NPD Group, a New York-based consumer and retail market research firm, the U.S. men's big and tall apparel industry generated nearly $5 billion in 2006, an increase of more than 6 percent from 2005. But numbers for the short and small apparel industry aren't even calculated.
Based on those statistics -- or lack of them -- it would be reasonable to think that big and tall men in the U.S. greatly outnumber their smaller brethren. Not so, if you consider that the average male in the United States is around 5-foot-9.
The most difficult to fit are men under 5-foot-5 and really slim or really big men standing between 5-foot-5 and 5-foot-8.
"Almost none of the department stores carry (suits and sportswear) to fit these sizes," says Au.
And it's his job to know these things. Au plays a big role in the 40-plus-year-old business that started with his father, Jimmy Au, selling custom suits out of his car as a sophomore in college.
"He realized the people who made the most orders were either really tall or really short," says the younger Au.
Measuring in at an especially hard-to-fit 5-foot-3 himself, Jimmy Au opened his first retail store, specializing in menswear catering to the 5-foot-8-and-shorter segment of male shoppers, almost a decade after starting his door-to-door suit-making and fitting business.
After having moved around Southern California -- including locations in Glendale and the Beverly Center -- Jimmy Au's has settled into a larger Westside space that offers a wide selection of high-end suits, sportswear, shoes and accessories.
The store works with leading designers such as Calvin Klein and Michael Kors to provide menswear to fit all shapes and sizes of shorter men.
Although retailers servicing exclusively a shorter clientele, by industry standards, are severely lacking, customers aren't exactly rushing the double doors of Jimmy Au's, and Alan Au isn't surprised.
Most of the shop's business comes from its loyal customers (many from the East Coast, where short-men's stores are nonexistent), with a handful of celebrity clientele and some TV shows seeking out their expertise as well.
"Last season, we worked on 20 shows," says Alan Au.
This year, he says, the number is likely to increase, and plans already have been made to outfit celebrities such as Seth Green and Ed Asner for the Emmy Awards later this month.
So why is the supply so low when the demand is so high?
"It only took five years to get petite-plus size stores (available for women)," points out Alan Au. "Guys, however, don't make that kind of noise.
"Consumers are complacent (and) settle for smaller sizes (at larger retail stores)," he says.
As long as they're buying from the Nordstroms and Neiman Marcuses, manufacturers continue to make them the same way -- too-big small sizes.
For designers such as Jimmy Au, the challenge becomes getting his smaller-size designs made at all.
"I have to negotiate with the manufacturer (and) guarantee a big number (on the order)," says the elder Au. His own one-year-old line, the Jimmy Au Collection, includes suits and sportswear with the "XS" label, especially made to fit men 5-foot-5 and shorter.
"There is no 'regular' size in the collection," says the younger Au.
Marshawn Williams, an entrepreneur living in L.A., avoids suits altogether. At a slim 5-foot-7, he instead opts for unique, vintage blazers he can get at trendy second-hand shops such as the Aardvark's Odd Ark chain.
"I don't like name brands, but (retailers) tend to make clothes too big anyway," says Williams. He points out that while women and kids have it the easiest ("they've got stuff for them everywhere!"), for men his height and size, "They don't give options."
While some men such as Williams put fashion first, and worry about fit later with a trip to the tailor, Alan Au says for most men in a similar predicament, fashion isn't as much of a priority as "finding clothes that fit" -- even at the expense of personal style.
Fortunately, his store's customers don't have to choose. "Not only do (the clothes) fit, you're getting fashion that's in line with current trends," he says.
Au also points out that smaller sizes from bigger retailers aren't really made for the smaller man.
"Most major designers start at a regular (meant for men 5-foot-8 to 6 feet) and tailor from there," he says.
Au emphasizes proportion as opposed to size. When tailoring a "regular" suit, "It may technically fit, but the proportions are off," he says. The end result will be lower placement of the pocket, where the elbow should be on the sleeve, and the arm hole, which, designer Jimmy Au says, "cannot be altered."
The partially color-blind designer, who works out of his Beverly Hills store, is committed to creating proportion with the use of his own tried-and-true measurements, developed from his many years in the business.
His son picks out colors and patterns that complement a smaller build rather than overwhelm it.
"What people find attractive is proportion," says the younger Au. "And if you don't have the right proportion, then you've got to wear clothes that create the illusion of proportion."
Semhar Debessai (818) 713-3665;
>Where: 9408 Brighton Way, Beverly Hills.
>Information: (310) 888-8708 or www.jimmyaus.com.
STYLE FOR ANY SIZE
Whether you're a 5-foot-3 businessman or a 6-foot-3 athlete, "Everyone likes clothes that fit," says Alan Au, who holds the primary responsibility of choosing many of the fabrics and colors for menswear at Jimmy Au's in Beverly Hills. When it comes to clothes, Au says, "always go for balance ... across the board." For the underserved male clothes shopper under 5-foot-8, Au offers these tips for achieving the right proportions.
>PATTERNS: Avoid thick/wide stripes on shirts or ties. "It makes the guy disappear." Go for finer/narrower stripes, midwidths no bigger than a half-inch.
>SHIFT ATTENTION UPWARD: Bring the focus away from your height with light colors (on shirts) that attract the eye, and narrower lapels that don't overwhelm a smaller frame.
>BUTTON UP: A three-button suit is good for a guy who wants to make his torso look longer. A two-button is better for a man not so concerned with height, but who wants to "make his chest look broader."
>EXTREME CONTRASTS: A black belt with white pants may "cut you in half," says Au. Opt for white on white or no belt at all.
>SHOES: Because most smaller men tend to have smaller feet, Au says, "Stay away from square (tips) ... it can look like your toes are chopped off."
>OVERALL: Rules are nothing if the suit doesn't fit specifically to the man who's wearing it. "If it's the right cut, it'll look great," says Au.
14 photos, 2 boxes
(1 -- cover -- color) SIZING UP FASHION FOR MEN UNDER 5'8"
(2 -- color) Above: Jimmy and Alan Au's store caters to men under 5-foot-8.
(3 -- color) Right: Ed Asner is a client of Jimmy Au's and will wear a suit tailored by Au to this year's Emmy Awards.
(4 -- color) BOB DYLAN
(5 -- color) AL PACINO
(6 -- color) TOM CRUISE
(7 -- color) PRINCE
(8 -- color) DUSTIN HOFFMAN
(9 -- color) REGIS PHILBIN
(10 -- color) ELIJAH WOOD
(11 -- color) JON STEWART
(12 -- color) JACK BLACK
(13 -- color) DAVID SPADE
(14 -- color) JASON ALEXANDER
(1) STYLE FOR ANY SIZE (see text)
(2) THEY MAY BE OVERLOOKED BY THE FASHION INDUSTRY, BUT SOME SHORT GUYS GET PLENTY OF ATTENTION