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Clothes Make the Man--if They Fit

Fashion: Jockeys and others of short stature often turn to tailors to find good-quality shirts and suits in their size.

July 16, 1998|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It doesn't matter that racing jockey Kent Desormeaux won both this year's Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, coming within a horse's nose of capturing the Triple Crown--he's an invisible man in the eyes of the fashion industry.

Most clothing stores carry few fashions for short guys such as Desormeaux, who is 5 feet 3.

"Any time I go into a store and try on a shirt, the tail will go down to my knees. I have to have everything tailored," Desormeaux says. "It's difficult to find clothes that fit."

A man might sit tall in the saddle, but if he stands less than 5 feet 8, he often has big problems finding something to wear. Men's clothing stores and departments stock few, if any, styles in anything but standard sizes.

In desperation, some short men have resorted to shopping in the boys department, but they don't get the same high-quality clothing that menswear stores offer.

"The boys department won't have a $400 alligator belt in a size 26," says David Heil, co-owner and president of David Rickey & Co., a custom men's clothier in Costa Mesa.

Jockeys, and other short men with the means, have solved their wardrobe problem by having tailors make their clothes.

David Rickey has dressed most of the big-name jockeys, including Desormeaux, Gary Stevens, Corey Nakatani, Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay and Corey Black. On the walls of the clothier's headquarters hang photographs of tailors shaking hands with the jockeys, along with an autographed portrait of longtime client Bill Shoemaker and his pink-polka-dot satin riding jackets.

"All jockeys love [good] clothing, but they've never had the opportunity to wear fine clothes their entire lives," Heil says. "We can get them anything you'd find in a standard size."

Tailors visit jockeys at racetracks all over the country and help them pick everything for their wardrobes--suits, sport coats, slacks, shirts, even small socks.

Many jockeys, along with trainers, owners and veterinarians, have put in special orders for the racing season underway at Del Mar Racetrack.

"They all hang out together and don't want to look the same," Heil says.

When tailors call at the track or at home, they take the jockey's measurements, interview him about his lifestyle, then show them fabric samples, accessories and styles.

They steer jockeys toward silhouettes, colors and patterns that appear to add inches to their height. Often they'll put a short man in a monochromatic ensemble: The sport coat and slacks will be the same color "because otherwise it will cut them in half," Heil says.

Darker colors look better on short men than lighter ones because they don't show the detail of the garment, elongating the overall look. Narrow stripes make the wearer look taller and leaner. Loud plaids and horizontal lines make them appear shorter.

"You want their patterns to be subtle and small," Heil says. "Mini-checks, houndstooth patterns and textured solids are great on them for sport coats."

Jackets that have a lower button make the body look longer, while a three-button stance that rises higher on the chest can make one appear squat. Heil encourages short men to wear their pants slightly higher around the waist to give the illusion of longer legs.

David Rickey made two suits for Desormeaux recently--a charcoal pinstripe with a single-breasted jacket and lower button stance and a similar style made of a fine tan and celery-colored tick-weave.

"They keep me up on fashion," Desormeaux says.

David Rickey garments range from $1,400 to $2,500 for suits sewn entirely by hand, from $650 to $1,395 for those made mostly by machine.

Men who don't want to go to tailors have fewer fashion options. Jockey Club Ltd. in Santa Ana draws customers, including several jockeys, from all over Southern California. Men from around the country call and place orders, even though the store doesn't have a catalog.

"One guy ordered seven white shirts sight unseen," says Al Martin, owner of the Jockey Club.

The retail market for short men is much like the market for big and tall men was 30 years ago, Martin says. Then, men were lucky to have one large-sized clothing store in their county. Big and tall stores such as the Big & Tall Rack in Laguna Hills and Repp Ltd. Big & Tall in Fullerton, Huntington Beach, Laguna Hills and Santa Ana have grown in number, but stores for small-sized men have not.

The reason: "Big guys can't stretch into regular sizes. They have to buy big and tall sizes. But a short guy can buy regular sizes and have things altered and roll up the sleeves," Martin says.

Still, men of short stature are frustrated by the lack of ready-to-wear clothing in their sizes.

To fill the gap, Martin carries everything from underwear to tuxedos for men 5 feet 8 and under. He stocks shirts with 31-inch sleeves; most shirts have sleeves that are 32 inches or longer. His suits ($300 to $500) run from sizes 36 to 46 short, 34 to 44 extra short, 38 to 44 portly extra short, and 40 to 48 portly short. Sport coats are $175 to $275.

Martin also has ties that are shorter and narrower than the standard variety, which tend to hang too low on a short man.

Short men also have trouble finding shoes. Most stores don't carry anything smaller than a size 7 for men. Jockey Club carries casual and dressy styles by companies such as Bass and Florsheim in sizes 5 1/2 to 7 1/2.

David Rickey can order everything from sandals to tuxedo shoes in smaller sizes or have them made. Jockey Shoemaker has shoes made to fit his size 2 feet.

Martin avoids ordering baggy pleated pants, shirts with horizontal stripes or other styles that make any guy appear shorter. Occasionally, though, he'll make concessions to fashion trends. When double-breasted suits were the rage several years ago, he ordered them in short sizes--even though short men look taller and leaner in single-breasted styles.

"They like to be in fashion too," he says.

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