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Apparel stores for short men are getting harder to find

APPAREL

Two of the few stores that remain are in Southern California, where owners credit shorter immigrants, certain ethnic groups, jockeys and diminutive Hollywood types for keeping them in business.

March 31, 2010|By Sharon Bernstein
  • Jimmy Au, founder of Jimmy Au's for Men 5'8" and Under in Beverly Hills, got into the business of selling clothes to short men in the 1960s. "If the clothes fit properly, they make you look taller," he says.
Jimmy Au, founder of Jimmy Au's for Men 5'8" and Under in… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

The marketplace for short men's clothing is, well, shrinking.

With Americans growing taller, and recessionary pressure in the specialty clothing market, it's become harder than ever to find apparel stores for short men. Just a few now remain of the dozens that dotted the national landscape years ago.

Actor Ben Giroux can tell you all about it. "To shop for clothes as a short man is one of the most aggravating things you can try to do," said the 5-foot-2 Giroux, who has guest-starred in the Fox series "Bones" and played a gruff elf in the Disney movie "Santa Buddies."

At the Beverly Center recently, he said, a clerk in a high-end men's store gave Giroux a quick once-over and shook his head sadly.

"You're either walking into a boys department somewhere and you're swallowing your dignity, or you can shop at one or two places," Giroux said.

Two of the last holdouts are in Southern California, where owners credit short immigrants, certain ethnic groups, jockeys and diminutive Hollywood types for keeping them in business despite tough times. In the Midwest, one of the last short men's stores is staying in business by selling Green Bay Packers underwear (all sizes), among other items, on the side.

It's hard to find the right villain for this sartorial assault on the little guy.

Store owners like to blame casual Fridays, saying the 1990s practice marked the beginning of a trend away from well-fitting business clothes for men. No longer needing to buy suits, the reasoning goes, smaller men just went to discounters or department stores to buy khakis and had them shortened.

There are also fewer short guys around.

The average height for an American man is now close to 5 feet 10 inches -- nearly 2 inches taller than in 1960, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

"As people eat better, they grow taller," sighed Bob Stern, who closed his Cleveland store and Internet business, Short Sizes Inc., last year.

In Southern California, Alan and Jimmy Au figure they hit the mother lode of short guys with money to spend on clothes when they moved their store, Jimmy Au's for Men 5'8" and Under, to Beverly Hills from Glendale in 2006.

"Just look out on the street on a weekend night," said Alan Au, dragging a visitor toward Beverly Drive. "All night long it's a parade of short men with tall women."

Giroux, 25, is one of them. In nightclubs, he says, women tower over him like trees in a forest, especially when they're wearing high heels.

Gary Stevens is one of the world's best-known jockeys and is familiar to millions as the actor who played jockey George Woolf in the movie "Seabiscuit." The 47-year-old horse-racing Hall of Famer won eight Triple Crown races and eight Breeders' Cup races.

But he can't buy clothes off the rack at a department store. "I'm 5-3," said Stevens, who was stocking up on dress shirts at Jimmy Au's. "It's really hard to find things that fit and are comfortable and look nice."

Jimmy Au, 71, got into the business of selling clothes to short men in the 1960s, measuring the jockeys at local racetracks for suits and sending orders to his father's tailor in Hong Kong.

At the family store just off Beverly Drive, neat displays of suits take up nearly half the space, while dress shirts in a dozen colors line shelves. There are short ties, short khakis, short jeans and small shoes. There are bomber jackets in three kinds of leather and long wool coats made to show off a small man's physique instead of enveloping him in baggy folds.

"If the clothes fit properly, they make you look taller," Jimmy Au said, spinning around in a long coat. Smaller men don't just need shorter sleeves or pant legs, he said. The shoulders should be narrower. The pocket needs to be sewn on higher or it will wind up closer to the stomach than the chest.

Since moving to Beverly Hills, the store has shifted its product mix so that it's more upscale -- a pair of jeans goes for $200; a suit is about $900. In classic Los Angeles style, the walls are lined with autographed photographs of actors, among them Danny DeVito and Al Pacino.

On a recent weekday, costume designers rushed in and out, picking up clothing for short actors whom they would not name.

In Santa Ana at the Jockey Club store, owner Al Martin says he is picking up Internet sales from customers around the nation whose favorite shops have closed. He doesn't get as much Hollywood business as Jimmy Au's, Martin said, but Southern California has enough short immigrants and ethnic groups to keep up the customer base.

"My business is one-third Asians, one-third Hispanics and one-third Jews," he said.

Apparel industry analyst Marshal Cohen said the recession had been hard on purveyors of all specialty sizes, whether they are for big customers or smaller ones. That's because it's the marginal businesses that get hit first when customers begin to cut back.

Some department stores stock suits and blazers in short sizes, he said, but little else. Macy's, for example, said most stores sell suits in a size 36 short, which could fit a man who is 5-foot-3 to 5-foot-8.

Although the market for big and tall clothing is growing, the customer base for small sizes is not, Cohen said.

"The short business represents the smallest part of the population," he said. "That's not a pun. That's the way it is."

It's also hard to find manufacturers who will make items for shorter men. The Au family is ordering from an Italian manufacturer who produces clothing for short European men. Martin buys from a Canadian manufacturer.

In Milwaukee, Gary Anders is keeping his store, Napoleon's Tailor, afloat by selling Green Bay Packers merchandise -- in regular sizes.

"I've got everything in here from the hats to the T-shirts down to ladies unmentionables," he said. "I had to do something."

sharon.bernstein@

latimes.com

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