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Baghdad clothier is waiting for Iraqis to live large again

A shop for big and tall men has seen business shrink since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Nowadays, customers have less money and less taste, the owner says.

March 15, 2009|Tina Susman and Caesar Ahmed

BAGHDAD — Clothes make the man, no matter what his size, and few know that better than Wisam Hussein.

His men's clothing shop is one of many along a broad and busy avenue, but the sign sets it apart. "Farah Fashion for Large Sizes," it reads in letters too large to miss.

Have plus sizes come to Iraq, where a Baghdad University study put the average male at 5 feet 6 and 168 pounds? Not exactly, but Hussein is serving a specific clientele by catering to the large-size crowd, which in Iraq means the ones with money.

"Those who are wealthy are big and fat, but many left the country," he said one quiet Saturday, when just three customers -- taller than average but not overweight -- entered the long, narrow shop during an hourlong conversation.

Business has been down since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, but Hussein is hoping for better times if security continues to improve. He is well-positioned to make a killing, being the only large-size men's store in the Karada district, a relatively well-heeled area bustling with newly opened shops.

Like many of Iraq's merchants, Hussein has been forced to adjust since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The power brokers who once yearned for Italian-made suits are gone, replaced by men with less money and less taste, he says.

Luckily, their waistlines are just as big.

"Some people will come in and want a shirt and, believe me, their waist will be like this!" he exclaimed, holding his arms wide as if describing a massive fish that got away.

He shows off trousers with 52-inch waists, and suits in size 68 -- about 58 in U.S. sizes. His T-shirts range from 3X to 5X -- big, no matter what country's sizing system you use.

Hussein, who flips between English and Arabic depending on what he's trying to explain, is not a big man himself. He stands about 5 feet 7 and has a medium build. In Iraq, he's average size. In China, he's extra large, Hussein said as he explained the challenge of importing the right sizes to suit the circumstances and the clientele.

Chinese-made suits could be had for about $15, but they would never be large enough for his shop's customers. European suits are the right size but are too expensive. Hussein's uncle in the United Arab Emirates offered to send him Versace, Valentino and Pierre Cardin suits. He said no.

"They would be worth $1,500 or $2,000. I'd be robbed and killed in no time," he said.

A tiny man scurried in from a nearby shop with a tray holding glasses of steaming, sweet tea as Hussein showed off his products. The store was quiet. The wall clock read 10:30, but it was several hours behind. Outside, traffic streamed by.

Most of his suits are from Turkey and Lebanon, and they hang in elegant lines along the wall in shades of blue, gray, black and brown. The most expensive are about $200 to $250. Shirts in crisp white, soothing lavender and colorful pinstripes are layered beneath glass display cases and suspended from the wall. Stacks of boxes hold gleaming leather loafers and lace-ups, none with the up-pointed square toes so popular with young Iraqi men.

Ask Hussein about taste in the new Iraq and he doesn't hesitate to offer his opinion. "None! None! None!" he exclaimed, citing the shoe trend as an example. He refuses to carry them.

Like other merchants who have begun catering to the new moneyed class -- many from the long-repressed Shiite majority that was denied perks and jobs under Saddam Hussein -- he laments what he considers a loss of style and sophistication. Say what you will about the late former dictator, "he was quite elegant," the shopkeeper said.

"But now, those who are in charge, they don't wear according to the styles. They should know how to fit their collars and their ties. They should wear striped shirts with sports jackets," said Hussein, who gets irritated watching political leaders on TV in what he considers mismatched outfits.

He also gets irritated catering to customers whom he suspects of thievery or kidnapping. He told of one recent customer, a "filthy, ugly" man who came in and asked for a suit.

"He was loaded. Either he's a killer or a thief," Hussein said, describing how the man dug wrinkled $100 bills out of his pockets to pay for his new clothes. "There are so many similar figures nowadays. All the doctors, teachers and engineers, they ran away because of kidnapping and killing. Now, there are just two kinds of people: poor and thieves."

Asked why he never left, Hussein says he considered it. He has an uncle in California and another in Washington, D.C. They tell him security is good, but making a living is hard. "How can I live over there?" said Hussein, who has a wife and child to worry about.

So he plans to remain in Baghdad, hoping that violence shrinks and waistlines expand.


Ahmed is a Times staff writer.

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