A hundred years ago, American men were the third tallest in the world: at 5’7”. Less than four percent of the population was six feet tall or more. On average, males have grown more than an inch a century since record keeping began, with variations across the globe attributed to such factors as nutrition and genetics.
As men sprouted in stature, fashion and clothing manufacturers instinctively followed suit. Now nearly every department store in the country has a “big and tall” men’s section and boutiques catering to their needs have popped up to compete.
All but shut out in the rush to keep pace with the largest segment of the market? Men under 5’10” — though one in three American males is still under 5’8”. That’s roughly 40 million men.
Lost in Translation
During their exile, gays, straights and everyone between have been forced to wear severely altered clothes created for our big bros — or found themselves scouring kids’ departments in chain stores.
To make matters worse, anyone who didn’t maintain a 30-inch waist had to choose garments meant for much taller men that were simply chopped off by tailors (who after all, aren’t miracle workers). Boxy and ill-fitting formalwear became commonplace. Those who could afford it, like late funk fashionplate Prince, had every outfit made specifically for him.
Now, with online sales demonstrating that there’s actually an underserved market for the vertically challenged, change is in the air. And a handful of entrepreneurs are willing to gamble that men will show up to buy menswear created with them in mind.
We spent time with three clothiers targeting shorter men and found that while each business seeks to serve the market they’ve identified, no two share the exact same business model for reaching them.
Ash & Erie
Founder Steven Mazur says, “It’s always been frustrating to walk into a store and find plus and petite sizes for women and big and tall sections for men, but nothing for people like me. My partner and I could never find any clothes that fit people who are 5’8” and under. You had to either get lucky, find something in the kid’s department or take what you’ve bought to a tailor. And even that doesn’t quite work.”
Most short men know how the routine. Buy a button-down? The sleeves are too long, there’s a big gap under each armpit, and your shirt now billows around the trunk. Take it to be altered, and the tailor will show you just how much of the sleeve placket you’ll lose in order to move the cuffs to your wrists.
“People tend to think that it’s all about length,” muses Mazur. “But as we got more and more into the design process, we found that it’s not so much about cutting a few inches off the pants or the shirt sleeves. There are a variety of details to take into consideration. In pants, that includes everything from where the zipper and the belt loops actually belong to the wash and taper of the leg. If those are in the wrong place — for example, a wash that highlights the knee — it’s clear they’re altered and not constructed to fit your body. And you can see that right away.”
The Shark Bites
Ash & Erie launched in 2015 (as Ash & Anvil) and got an unexpected push into the limelight on TV’s Shark Tank when entrepreneur Mark Cuban (who inhabits a different ecosystem at 6’3”) decided to partner with Mazur and co-founder Eric Huang. “We went on the show in 2017,” Mazur recalls. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pitch what we do, and we were looking for funding to continue to grow. We thought, ‘Why not?’ The worst case scenario is that nothing changes. The best is that you walk away with funding and exposure and the help of a new partner.”
Mazur and Huang entered the tank seeking $100,000 for 12 1/2 percent of their company. “Then the deal took a dramatic turn where Mark was out, then came back again. Ultimately we got $150,000 for 25 percent. And there’s a photo of me with my head craned up just to look at him.”Find LGBTQ-Friendly Resources
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The company changed names in 2017. “The first part comes from Detroit, where we’re located,” Mazur explains. “It’s the city motto: ‘We will arise from the ashes.’ And Erie is a tribute to the region we’re proud to be from.” We thought that Ash & Erie better represented our brand, but we’re the same company, people and clothes.”
The Ash & Erie line was created after interviewing and working with hundreds of men to not only identify where to place pockets and zippers, but to discover what wardrobe pieces they most longed for in their own sizes. Sure, says Mazur, there are slim and classic fits, “but it’s not just shorter guys. It’s men at a variety of waist sizes who now have an alternative to having everything in their wardrobe be sent through a tailor. Whatever size you are, we have perfect sizes for you, as long as you’re within our height range.”
For now, the company serves online customers exclusively. And while they make every effort to help clients find the right fit the first time, they know that having an easy and streamlined returns policy also makes shopping more adventure than chore. “We keep in close contact with the people we serve,” Mazur says. “And that starts from the very first time we hear from you. For us, customer feedback is vital and something we take into consideration as we’re trying to fill their needs. Not being a brick-and-mortar outlet and being able to see our customers all the time, it’s essential that we know what they’re responding to in what we provide.”
Standouts: Lower-rise jeans with just enough spandex to create a slimming silhouette rather than suggest you’re dressing out of your generation. A plethora of button-downs to keep you looking on point, even in a casual setting.
“I like seeing people come out of our dressing rooms saying, “’This is the first time I haven’t had to have pants tailored.’ Sometimes their significant others will have to drag them in to check us out. But then you see that expression of satisfaction on their faces when they try on one piece after another and go, ‘Yeah. This is right. This fits. Finally.’”
So says Zach Fields, product and marketing manager for Peter Manning, a menswear brand for customers they refer to with fraternal bonhomie as “not so tall men.”
Fields says Peter Manning debuted in 2011 with “a kind of everyday shirt” they call the weekend untucked shirt. That success led to a full line that now includes pants, sweaters, sport jackets, suits and their own take on the classic Baracuta jacket made immortal by Steve McQueen back in the 1960s. Their styles, like those of their competitors, intentionally telegraph that this is the way young professionals dress in 2019.
That’s not wrong. A young techie named Al Faiella appeared during our interview to shop and left after spending $1000 on wardrobe upgrades. “I did a lot of market research,” he confessed between changes. “I don’t shop until I can find a spot where I can really find things for guys like me. I had basically just given up, because I very rarely buy clothes anyway. But that’s what really led me here today. I was thinking about what I was looking for, and the biggest surprise moment for me was just now trying on a pair of pants on for first time that completely fit everywhere. And because I couldn’t do that before, I really didn’t care as much how I looked all the time. But as I’m getting older and making more money, dressing well is more meaningful. Why did I spend so much? Because everything I just tried on worked. So I bought it all.”
Fields jumped from a full-time career as an attorney to join Peter Manning a year and a half ago because he was convinced as a customer that this market was going through the roof. “Even though something like 90 percent of our business now comes from online traffic,” he says, “here you have the advantage of trying things on. So you have some expectation of what the fit and feel of each garment is like, and that saves a lot of time in terms of returning things until you have every purchase exactly the way you want.”
While almost all clothiers take pride in their designs, have clients raving about them on social media, and are vying for brand loyalty, what sets all these purveyors apart from most retailers is how passionate they are about what they do. They’re aware they’re selling much more than clothes. Each one is selling confidence and customer satisfaction.
“Being not so tall myself,” says Fields, “it helps you understand that what’s different here is all the details — where the pocket should be on a shirt, for example. I can remember trying on suits in department stores and having the sales guy say, ‘That looks great,’ when you know the coat is too long, and everything else is completely out of proportion. That’s why I hate those guys,” he says. “Because they haven’t been there and they know nothing about what it’s like. They’re just trying to make a sale.”
Could this trend all suddenly go away? Is it some kind of fad or flirtation? Or are shorter men permanently back on the industry’s radar?
“There’s definitely still a long way to go,” says Fields. “It often takes me back to when I was shopping for a tux for my high school prom. I had to get a rental and I had no idea how bad the fit was back then. Now I know.”
Standouts: A pair of jeans so black you could wear them to a funky formal dinner. The übercool Baracuta jacket. Their new puppy-soft sweatshirt.
Elie Robinson, the founder of Under 5’10, has done his homework. He says standard sizing began during the Civil War so that uniforms could be made in bulk. “General size buckets were created in order to make it easier for manufacturers to mass produce clothing,” he explains. “And getting uniforms fast that fit good enough was . . . well, good enough. Before clothiers could execute their work, they needed standard sizes (what we know today as XS, S, M, L and XL). “They were crudely created by sampling sizes from soldiers and finding obvious patterns that came up over and over again. When the war ended, standard sizing was adopted by the public market and has only changed slightly since then.”
As average male height in America increased over time, he says, mass manufacturers continually updated their sizing charts to accommodate “the natural evolution of men getting taller and heavier. And while this was happening, a new evolution of ‘Big & Tall’ began, leaving shorter men even further behind.”
What’s Up Down Under
No more, says Robinson. “At Under 5’10, we believe that the 32 million men in America who are 5’8” and under have simply been forgotten along the way.’
Like his colleagues, he decided that at 5’7”, he deserved more and better options. Robinson’s company was born “out of my personal need for off the rack clothing that fit well,” he says. “My entrepreneurial curiosity recognized the opportunity for a niche buildout for a seemingly ignored market.”
The credo at Under 5’10 is simple: “We believe that men of all heights should have the opportunity to buy great clothing off the rack. Ours are engineered to fit men under 5’10 and without having to pay a premium for it. Men shouldn’t have to shop at the same stores as their children, be forced to buy custom or have to pay for extensive tailoring.”More Content from Metrosource
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Because theirs is such a narrow market and smaller batches make each item more expensive to produce individually, clothing can cost more than what shoppers are used to finding at The Gap or J. Crew.
Opening a brick-and-mortar store in Cedarhurst, NY helped to keep those costs under control. And with a less expensive space, Under 5’10 is also able to keep more of its inventory in house. Translation: You can walk in, try on clothes and walk out the door with them. “But our price points are probably the biggest differentiator,” maintains Robinson. “We firmly believe that if we are to succeed in outfitting our customers and to stop them from buying ill-fitting clothing from mass manufacturers, price cannot be a factor in their decision making.”
A One Stop Shop
The company began with button-down shirts, then diversified into jeans, ties and polos. The company now even offers a first foray into footwear with their vegan sneaker. “Ultimately,” says Robinson, “we plan to offer a full line of men’s clothing and accessories as a one-stop shop for men.”
Everyone exploring this untapped market wants to make a profit, says Robinson, but the biggest winners will be those customers who wandered so long in the wilderness. “In the end, the more companies that get involved, the more that will benefit consumers looking for more options,” he concludes. “We are thrilled to be on the ground floor of this clothing revolution. Now that we have entered into the marketplace along with a few competitors, we also foresee a shift in the way shorter men shop. What started out as my desire to have off the rack clothes made for men under 5’10 and serve that demographic is evolving into a lifestyle brand specifically created for the shorter man.”
He’s certain of one thing: “The customer’s relationship with their local tailor will never be the same.”
Standouts: Slim, stretchy jeans in hypnotically deep indigo. A gingham button down that would work at a Broadway opening or over a truck stop plate of biscuits and gravy.
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Last modified: July 31, 2019