Turns out, size does matter–and so does a name.
For more than 30 years, a store called Jimmy Au’s Small and Short sold designer duds to diminutive men. In 1995 while a marketing student at University of Southern California, Alan Au decided to experiment with the name of the business, which was owned by his dad, and changed the signage to “Jimmy Au’s for Men 5’8” and Under.” Over the next month, foot traffic quadrupled.
“What guy wants to hear he’s ‘small and short?’” laughs Au, who today serves as the company’s marketing director and vice president. “Calling a woman ‘petite’ can be a compliment, but there’s a stigma and insecurities that come with being a short guy.”
Finding the right name was just one of the ways the Beverly Hills clothier has honed its niche. Founded in 1961 as a custom suit business, Jimmy Au quickly became a favorite tailor of professional jockeys. In the 1970s, hay fever allergies forced the elder Au away from the racetrack and into a permanent retail location where he sold ready-to-wear suits in short and regular sizes. Eventually he decided to dedicate his business to smaller men.
“My dad didn’t think about it as a niche; it was more of a necessity,” says Au, of his 5’1” father. “Because of his height, it was easier for him to fit shorter men. It wasn’t until later that he discovered this part of the market was largely untapped.”
A bell curve shows that there are just as many short men as there are tall–about one in five are 5’8” or under–but Au says the big-and-tall market is more appealing for retailers because big and tall guys have no other options: “Short men can have things hemmed and taken in,” he says. “The problem is that the proportions aren’t right. That’s the part that bugged my dad. He didn’t think short men should be forced to settle.”
When he first decided to focus on this niche, Jimmy Au worked with the handful of designers that were offering short men’s clothing, such as Calvin Klein, DKNY, and Ralph Lauren, but Au says the clothing had simply been scaled down from regular sizes.
“My dad would disagree with their pattern makers,” says Au. “From a fit standpoint, it makes more sense to scale up. At the time there were other stores that were serving this niche, but my father was the only one who argued with the designers because he believed the patterns were wrong. He eventually decided it was time to go off on his own and do his own collection.”
Starting with a pattern that is designed for a 5’4” man, Jimmy Au suits, shirts, and casual wear can be scaled up or down. The dedication to fit proved to be the right choice. “The others couldn’t get it right, and their clothing didn’t do well in the market,” says Au. “We were the first and now we’re the only designer clothing store for short men in the United States.”
While jockeys have been customer since the ‘60s, Hollywood celebrities started frequenting Jimmy Au’s in the ‘80s. The store counts several actors among its clients, and supplies wardrobes for numerous films and television shows, including Modern Family, Revenge, The Good Wife, and Parks and Recreation.
People in the entertainment industry can be very secretive about their sizes, says Au. One famous celebrity that Au declined to name lists his height as 5’10” on his IMDb file. He tells the wardrobe crew that he’s 5’7”, but he’s actually 5’5”.
“Sometimes we sew in a tag with a size that makes the person feel good, but in my file I have their true measurements,” says Au. “My job is to make them look and feel good.”
Another way Au caters to his niche is to create a more comfortable environment for customers. The store has specially scaled shelves and racks that are lower than traditional fixtures. Furnishings are also smaller and shorter. And the mannequins were custom made at a height of 5’8″ to better display the collections.
With one retail location in Beverly Hills and an e-commerce site, Au says he and his dad are considering their expansion options, deciding whether they should open more stores, develop a franchise opportunity or create shops within a shop at large retailers.
“Shopping for clothing can be a very private thing for short men,” says Au. “We’ve been polling our customers, and it’s evenly split how they prefer to shop. Some guys would want to see their sizes mixed with a store like Men’s Warehouse, others want the privacy of independent store, and some wouldn’t mind shopping higher end within a shop in shop.”
Until then, they’ll continue catering to their niche–one that has proven to be a tall order. Others have tried to capture this market, but Au says the secret to his father’s success has been his firm commitment to fit. “The eye perceives proportion,” he says. “Short guys who make do with regular clothing will look shorter. Our clothing makes men look taller. Once they buy their first suit from us, they keep coming back.”