'Big and tall' could be bigger — and better
When it comes to advancements in apparel sizing, women have paved the way. Men's brands seem destined to follow suit, but retailers have a lot to learn.
Our civilization encourages a dude to be a bigger man, but doesn't deign to dress him very well.
The situation in apparel for what the industry calls "big and tall" men stands in stark contrast to women's plus. A surge in feminist empowerment (spurred most recently by the #metoo movement) and the democratic nature of social media have given voice to stylish influencers who display confident images of themselves, call out brands refusing to cater to them and hail those that successfully do.
For plus-size female consumers, a dearth of fashion options in a neglected niche has morphed into a plethora of new and legacy retailers not only getting into the segment, but also offering an inclusive size range available to all, or at least many more, women. It's become easier for those who don't fit into what is known as "straight" sizes to not only find apparel, but also see themselves in marketing and on the runway.
It's been a long road, and men, by and large, are still not on it.
"Big men are ignored," says Kat Eves, a Los Angeles-based stylist at Style Ethic, who calls herself "an ethical and inclusive wardrobe stylist, fashion designer, writer, and blogger." A shopping trip for a friend helped spark her career, and she hasn't seen much progress in the industry segment since, she told Retail Dive in an interview. "I had a big and tall friend in college who wanted to impress a girl and had one t-shirt and one pair of pants to his name. I love fashion for myself and I'm also plus size and have always been, and I think that was part of it for him, I think he trusted me — so I took him shopping. But there really weren't many options."
"They blame the customer. The excuse I’ve seen brands make over the decades is that they tried to do plus size and the sales just weren’t there — but I know that the marketing wasn’t there either."
Stylist, Style Ethic
This part of the retail landscape only has a handful of well-known players. J.C. Penney recently ended its Big & Tall subscription box. There's DXL, formerly known as Destination XL. The Winston Box and Maximus Box (both offer sizes up to 6XL) have been in business for a couple of years, Bonobos offers extended sizes, and Stitch Fix recently expanded sizes for men — but they're strictly e-commerce. Brands like Gap, Old Navy, Ralph Lauren, Asos and Lacoste have options, but mostly, if not only, online. Others, including higher-end brands, sell through specialists like DXL and not mainstream retailers like department stores.
Furthermore, brands that do sell a greater range of sizes for men don't market that much, according to Tara Drury, retail analyst at fashion analytics firm Edited. "Despite a larger selection of retailers investing in plus-size clothing, promotion of this is minimal," she told Retail Dive in an email.
Eves calls that a missed opportunity. "They blame the customer," she said. "The excuse I've seen brands make over the decades is that they tried to do plus size and the sales just weren't there — but I know that the marketing wasn't there either. Bonobos stepped up and actually invested ad money — that's a huge game changer from where we were. Most people don't know that Lucky jeans makes clothes for big and tall sizes. It's almost like they don't want it to work — they're even quiet about where they carry their big and tall products."
Few shoppers have a stylist like Eves to help them find the goods, and, in all, the number of possibilities pales compared to those for women, according to experts. Still, Ray Hartjen, marketing director of store analytics firm RetailNext, calls it an interesting market with "a huge upside potential in North America and Europe for retailers willing to 'get it right.'"
"[T]here's not a lot of options out there, and the opportunity exists to carve out a real competitive advantage. It's tempting to compare men's plus apparel to that of women's, and companies that clearly do it right, like ModCloth. I think it's a bit more complicated than that though," Hartjen said in an email to Retail Dive.
The size of the market
What complicates the men's market in part is the disparity in apparel sales more generally between men and women: Menswear, though still a smaller segment, has grown more than women's in recent years, Hartjen notes.
"That's driven largely by streetwear. At its roots, streetwear might lend itself to plus sizes, but the lines typically don't include professional looks and fashions for a night out on the town," he said.
Dustin Hutton-Alcorn — who works at a tech company in Vancouver, Canada, wears double XL and has a subscription to GQ — has noticed that. He was first mortified to be shut out of teen trends as a kid and has struggled to fill his closet since, though he does see some improvement of late. "They tend to be more of an urban or streetwear style rather than business casual or formal, so it doesn't really work for office wear," he told Retail Dive in an interview. "So it's a tricky space to navigate. I'm 6 feet and 350 pounds. I'm not built like a football player who's modeling for Reebok or a brand of that nature. The same way women are fighting for larger models, how often do you see GQ with a larger model?"
People who don't fit into "straight" sizes are also missing out on the current activism around more sustainably produced apparel, according to Eves. "My personal focus is ethical fashion — which is also having a huge growing movement — and I would say plus-size women have very few options in the ethical world and men have virtually none. It's a highly exclusive, white, very Gwyneth Paltrow, very blonde movement that is ignoring that a majority of the population is plus size."
Hartjen says that some brands, especially in luxury, are starting to produce wider size ranges geared to younger men, but it remains difficult to assess the value of the market. "While men's apparel is growing at a faster rate than women's, it's important to note that men's apparel is only about two-thirds of women's apparel in total size," he said. "So, where does a brand invest? A segment of the faster growing, but smaller, men's market? Or, the slower growing, bigger market?"
Additionally, there isn't much number-crunching for the big and tall market. Many of the same research firms that track the market in women's plus and inclusive sizing didn't have similar numbers to share regarding men's. One study, from IBIS World, found that the plus-size men's clothing industry grew by 0.2% over five years to $1 billion in revenue in 2018, while the number of businesses has risen 1.6%.
The huge diversity
Some companies, especially newer online upstarts, have discovered demand on their own. When Stitch Fix launched a big-and-tall offer for size XL, for example, it garnered a waitlist of 25,000 men, according to an email from the company to Retail Dive.
"Some men are bigger than others. Some men are taller than others. We all have different bodies and that should definitely be taken into consideration when certain brands walk into the big & tall market."
Big-and-tall model, fashion blogger at The Gentlemen's Curb
The service's data also revealed a need for a diversity of fits, including for men who find sleeve and shirt lengths to be too long. Kavah King, a big-and-tall model and fashion blogger at The Gentlemen's Curb, told Retail Dive in an email that's something more brands need to do.
"Some brands [are] extremely quick to offer 'extended sizes,' but haven't done enough research and appeal to only one body type," he said. "Some men are bigger than others. Some men are taller than others. We all have different bodies and that should definitely be taken into consideration when certain brands walk into the big & tall market."
While many styles available now simply accommodate girth, men like Hutton-Alcorn would like other fits to choose from, like slim-cut jeans. "I continue to find clothes definitely geared toward older gentleman, not so much to those who have fashion aspirations. Being a young person, I would love to be able to purchase a pair of branded jeans, from Lucky brand, maybe, just a nice pair of dark denim," he said (unwittingly possibly proving Eves' point about that brand's marketing efforts). "In flipping through these magazines or even just watching TV and seeing ads, these brands carry options for bigger men but don't carry them in store. Or they carry them for women but not for men."
Entering the market, though, does invite complications. The design and manufacture of extended sizes require extra attention and work with suppliers. Production takes pattern grading and knowledge about neck size, sleeve size, shoulder span, waist and all-around fit. "I've worked on the inside of a brand that's inclusive and know how difficult it is to accommodate every body type," Eves said. "If a brand that has traditionally done straight sizing, when they expand into plus sizes, and they should, they really are starting from scratch if they're doing it right."
The big problem in stores
Shopping for apparel can be especially daunting when a guy runs into customer service at the store level that, like the clothes, wasn't designed for him.
"I think there's a sense in the retail space that it's a world-class experience for anyone who is coming in, say at a Nordstrom or a Calvin Klein, but it can be difficult when you walk in and you get ignored because the people working there know you're not going to be purchasing," Hutton-Alcorn said. "Even if they don't have the items for the plus-size customers — maybe it isn't today, but it's a matter of making sure that you're treating any customer as though we are customer number one."
His experience at a Tom Ford location in Las Vegas is seared in his mind. "I was given a phenomenal experience by their team members," he said. "So I don't necessarily purchase Tom Ford clothing, but I'm purchasing Tom Fordoptical and Tom Ford fragrances, and the way I've been treated, I am a promoter of their brand. If and when he were to announce a line of plus-size apparel, I would be among the first to purchase it."
DXL, as did women's specialty retailers like Lane Bryant years ago, is filling a void, and the retailer appreciates its unique position. "At DXL, we are focused solely on a guest who often can't find anything in his size in other stores. In contrast, we offer one-stop-shopping for this underserved guest," DXL COO and Executive Vice President Brian Reaves told Retail Dive in an email. "Big and tall is all we do, but uniquely different than other stores, our fit is spec-ed by size and garment and for each size. We don't just scale up product from a regular fit like most other retailers. [O]ur associates uniquely understand the big and tall shopper."
As Reaves notes, the retailer carries labels like Polo Ralph Lauren, Lacoste, and Levi's each season, as well as developing designs for DXL's own labels, like Harbor Bay, Oak Hill and True Nation.
And yet, men also want to be able to shop at other retailers — a desire that has helped propel the swift acceleration in recent years of more inclusive sizing for women at retailers like Nordstrom, J. Crew, Target and others that previously didn't offer plus at all, or relegated it to a corner of their stores.
"I would love for those retailers and brands that cater to big & tall men to receive the accolades and a return of investment," King said. "But, I would love for the generation after to not feel weird that they only have to shop at certain places. I know that feeling all too well. As a child when a brand doesn't cater to you, it definitely affects your confidence when all of your peers shop at that store."
Will bigger get better?
When it comes to advancements in apparel sizing, women have paved the way, and men's brands seem destined to follow suit.
In fact, the recent rapid change in women's inclusive sizing is likely accelerating efforts because fashion brands these days can hardly afford to ignore any slice of the market, according to Hartjen. "Women are leading the charge, and one thing that success breeds is imitation, so the expectation is that the men's market will be a fast-follower," he said.
"DXL will continue to grow its footprint. Parallel to that are the product brands themselves. DTC brands will continue to push the market, primarily online, and that's going to lead to deals similar to Walmart's acquisition of ModCloth," he said. "Merchants like Target will be looking to source more and more brands to build out their offerings, and department stores will begin to expand their product line offerings. And, I think, all of that is going to happen fairly quickly."
Eves and King do testify to progress in recent years. "A few years ago the selections were hooded sweatshirts, Oxford shirts, khakis, and polo shirts," King said. "So there are a lot of changes and more opportunities for brands so that there is some diversity in the field. There are different designs and patterns. A few retailers even offer some patterns that previously were exclusive only to custom pieces. I think that it's a beautiful time! I want to commend and show respect to the women that have been on the front lines, pushing size inclusion until it was forced to be recognized."