Napolean's Tailor Dreams of an Empire
But Too Many Short Men Are in Denial

Publisher: Wall Street Journal
Date: 6 February 2002


CHICAGO -- Gary Anders owns the nation's largest chain of clothing stores for short men. The chain consists of two stores.

What did you expect?

Mr. Anders operates one Napoleon's Tailor shop in Chicago and another in Milwaukee. But like Napoleon himself, he dreams of controlling an empire. If he could find a big investor, he would build a chain of 50 stores. Then he would have the buying power to persuade such well-known labels as Polo and Tommy Hilfiger to make clothing tailored to better fit his customers.

Is that unreasonable? Thousands of big-and-tall shops occupy the retail landscape, and Casual Male, the largest such chain, has 450 stores.

The only problem is that Americans are getting bigger all the time, and the diminutive man doesn't care to think of himself as such. He would rather buy clothing that doesn't fit well.

It's enough to make Mr. Anders, who stands 5 feet 5 in tasseled loafers and wears a 39-short jacket, more than a little agitated.

"People don't think they need me," he said one day, surveying the floor of his Chicago store, waiting for the morning's first customer. "They don't want to admit they're short. They'd rather wear baggy clothing."

And at least according to Mr. Anders's eye, most short men in the U.S. look lousy. Their shirts billow where they ought to cling. Their sleeves flare at the wrist, resembling something suitable for a pirate. Their pants flutter like flags when they walk. Yet the wearers of this offending apparel think they look swell, because they've never tried anything else.

Lately, things seem to be getting worse. The trend toward casual attire has taken a big chunk out of the men's-clothing business. As a result, department stores are shrinking their inventories and eliminating their tailor shops. That means fewer choices for short guys and fewer experts on hand to help them make adjustments.

Another trend -- the ubiquitous baggy look -- has sent the signal to short men that it's somehow stylish to wear pants in which the crotch hangs down near the knees and the knees droop down around the ankles. In truth, Mr. Anders says, oversize clothing tends to make small men look smaller.

The average American male is 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 180 pounds, according to the government's latest data. With that in mind, Mr. Anders figures that at least one in three men should be shopping in a store that caters exclusively to men shorter than that. Yet there are fewer than a dozen such stores nationwide, he says.

"Give me 10% of that market," says Mr. Anders, "and, man, I'd be living on a beach somewhere."

Napoleon's Tailor has little trouble attracting the very small man -- the one who has been reduced to buying his clothes in the children's section of a department store. But that is not a market with which a clothier can greatly expand his domain. Mr. Anders also needs to attract the man who is only slightly below average height.

In Chicago, he advertises heavily on two radio stations. In Milwaukee, he purchases a few TV spots as well. In his ads, he goes out of his way to avoid using the words "small" and "short." Instead, he reaches out to customers who are "sized more like Michael J. Fox rather than Clint Eastwood."

But such circumlocutions haven't worked as well as he would like.

"I need a saturation campaign, multifaceted," he says, "with one message after another, to teach people what's going on."

Mr. Anders does have one secret weapon. While his store caters exclusively to short men, it welcomes with open arms customers who happen to be quite wide. In fact, a big part of his business is done with men who are shaped more like bowling balls than pins. Napoleon's Tailor carries a nice selection of jackets in size 52 portly short.

While the American male grows slightly taller with each generation, Mr. Anders knows well that men are also growing wider -- and probably at a more rapid rate.

Before launching his retail campaign, Mr. Anders had a job as a pharmaceutical salesman. He often had trouble finding business attire that fit him properly. And one day his wife bought him a pair of medium swim trunks (he has a 33-inch waist) with a matching polo shirt. "I was just swimming in it," he says. But when he tried to exchange it, he was told the store didn't carry smalls because they didn't sell enough of them.

That's when it began to dawn on him: The big stores were taking little men for granted.

Even his neighborhood McDonald's, he noticed, had increased the size of a small drink and raised its price. And at Starbucks, drink sizes now start at "tall." ("People are talling," confirms Audrey Lincoff, a spokesman for the coffee chain. "Tall is sort of standard.")

All these slights miffed Mr. Anders. But he spotted an opportunity. He quit the pharmaceutical business, mortgaged his family's house in Hartland, Wis., near Milwaukee, and in October 1994, opened his first Napoleon's Tailor. A few years later, he expanded to Chicago.

His stock is made by a variety of manufacturers. Mostly they are the same companies that supply to the big-and-tall stores. While some of the clothes he sells might be available elsewhere, most are made to order for him.

At the Chicago shop, he has painted a bright-yellow line across the door, at a height of 5 feet, 8 inches, with the following message: "If you are taller than this line, the clothing will not fit you. Our store is exclusively for men 5'8" and under."

Into his store one morning, gliding safely under the yellow line, stepped Charles Richeson. Craig Gaide, co-owner of the Chicago store, helped Mr. Richeson into a gray suit that complements the tangerine dress shirt he was wearing. The jacket: size 41 short.

"I shrunk," said Mr. Richeson, who is 74 years old.

"I believe you have," said his companion, Fran Bye.

At other stores, Mr. Richeson buys regular-size pants and has them adjusted. But when the alterations are through, Ms. Bye complains, "he looks like he's got one big pocket across the back." So she recommended a visit to Napoleon's.

Ms. Bye struck upon one of Mr. Anders' biggest complaints. No matter how severely pants are altered, they won't fit a short man properly if they're not specially designed. The zippers are too long. The pockets are too big. The rear end is too baggy. When the legs are shortened, the proportions are often thrown out of whack.

"It's like everything else," says customer Bill Thomson. "It's homogenization. Either you're a medium or a large."

As he picked through a rack of wool coats, Mr. Thomson's eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped. "Forty-two extra-short!" he exclaimed, having finally found his size. "I wouldn't even know what one of these looks like."

Thanks to such enlightened customers, Mr. Anderson made a healthy profit on both his stores last year. And how did the nation's largest chain of big-and-tall stores fare? Casual Male Corp., of Canton, Mass., filed for bankruptcy protection. Perhaps that goes to prove what Mr. Anders has been saying all along: Size isn't everything.