Niche fashion: More designers cater to neglected demographics

New York Times News ServiceMarch 12, 2014 

At 5 feet 8 inches, with a slender build, Peter Manning says that finding clothes for his proportions has been a challenge his entire adult life.

“I’ve never bought a pair of pants or a jacket that fits me right,” said Manning, 46, a former Broadway producer. “Tailoring them or looking sloppy is the way I’ve always had to go.”

Frustrated with his limited options, Manning started an eponymous clothing collection in mid-2012 for men like him or smaller (which would be around 25 percent of all American men, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), selling it exclusively on his website petermanningnyc.com.

On a recent winter afternoon, the energetic Manning bounced around the conference room in his offices in New York, showing off the line of everyday T-shirts, jeans, blazers, cotton and wool sweaters and khakis, which cost $28 to $800.

They resemble items that may be at J. Crew or Banana Republic, and men can find that coveted perfect fit by using a height and weight calculator on his site that directs them to one of six sizes.

“It’s classic American sportswear for guys 5-foot-8 and under who are thin, stout or somewhere in-between,” said Manning, who indicated that he had had 5,000 Web orders and doubled his business in the second nine months after he started it. “The clothes are going to fit properly, and when that happens, you look taller, trimmer and just overall better.”

His line is one of several new clothing companies designed for body types once considered marginal, including Willis & Walker for men 6-foot-2 and taller; Frame Denim, which has a line for statuesque women; and Fashion to Figure, for women’s sizes 12 to 26.

Less stigma, more style

This kind of specialization isn’t new – companies such as Lane Bryant for plus-size women and Destination XL Group, which has a slew of stores throughout the country for big and tall men, have been around for decades – but the ones today are less stigma, more style.

Their success is also standing out in a saturated market, according to Pamela Danziger, the founder of Unity Marketing, a retail consulting firm in Stevens, Pa. “There are so many clothing companies out there, and one of the few ways new ones can have any leverage is by tapping into niches,” she said.

One reason such brands are thriving, according to Danziger and Cohen, is that unlike most shoppers who are overwhelmed by choice, the consumers who buy them have limited options and tend to be loyalists.

George Stephanopoulos, for example, the co-anchor of “Good Morning America” who is 5-foot-6 and weighs about 150 pounds, said that Manning’s sweaters, khakis, sport shirts and shorts were now his weekend staples.

“Before, I would buy pants, and the waist might work but the length had to be taken up, or with shirts, the neck was a perfect fit but the sleeves were too long,” he said. “Peter’s clothes have it right without any tailoring, and they look good, too.”

Jaden Lam – based in New York with the tagline “Because Life Is Short” – is another new alternative.

On the other end of the spectrum, Kevin Willis, a former National Basketball Association player, knows that finding clothes when you are tall is no cakewalk. His company, Willis & Walker, is an upscale line for men ranging in height from 6-foot-3 to 7-foot-7 and in waist sizes from 34 to 54 inches (this includes New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is almost 6-foot-6).

Denim for tall women

When it comes to fashion, choice tends to matter more to women than to men, and having the ability to pick from an entire store instead of a few pieces is what draws Jenelle Fraser, 26, to Fashion to Figure, a chain of 20 trendy, low-cost stores for women size 12 to 26.

Then, in an update of the old P.S. Gitano brand, there is the line Frame Denim has for tall women, founded by Jens Grede and Erik Torstensson in 2012 as simply a line of fashionable jeans.

They began to specialize after a conversation with the model Karlie Kloss over a dinner in Paris. In an email interview, they said that Kloss, a friend, had told them she could not wear most denim because of her height, 6-foot-1, and they decided to collaborate on a line that they named Forever Karlie (Kloss has no financial investment in the line).

The two styles, skinny and flare, have a 40-inch inseam compared with the industry average of 30 to 32 inches, and cost around $200 on Net-a-Porter, Barneys New York and Nordstrom. They have become a staple among that subset of fashion-forward women who resemble models.

Chelsea Zalopany, 26, the market editor for Vogue.com, is close to 6 feet tall; she said that until she discovered Frame, every pair of jeans used to hit her ankle. “I love to wear denim, and this is the first pair I’ve worn where there is no compromise in fit and aesthetic,” she said.

Everyone profits

To be sure, these types of niche companies still made up an insignificant part of the $355 billion that Americans spent on clothes last year, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be profitable. “Even a 2 percent market share represents lots of opportunity for these companies to make money,” Cohen said.

Eric Jennings, the men’s fashion director for Saks, has faith that Willis & Walker will make money for the department store, too. It is the only niche name the store carries for men, although other brands offer long and short sizing and it performs “especially well” when there is an event for it that Willis attends, Jennings said.

But beyond the bottom line, at issue is what effect these clothes have for the people who wear them.

Zalopany says that the Frame jeans have given her a newfound fashion freedom. “They are long enough that I can wear them with heels or roll up the bottoms for a more laid-back look, which used to be nonexistent options,” she said.

Garry Shaw, 43, a multimedia content creator in Greensboro, N.C., said that Manning’s clothes had significantly improved his self-esteem, saved him hundreds of dollars in tailoring and won admiration from his wife.

“Fashion has never been a priority for me, because I couldn’t play the game,” Shaw said. “Now for the first time, I feel confident and sexy. These were words that have never been in my vocabulary until now.”

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