Tailoring a Niche

The designer-clothing store has turned “the most ignored segment of clothing in the entire fashion industry” into a profitable niche. The store will, on average, fit more short men in a year than most custom tailors might in a lifetime.

The passionate father-and-son team behind Jimmy Au’s For Men 5’8’’ and Under, Inc., the nation’s first and only designer-clothing store exclusively for short men, have found their calling dressing this overlooked market

On Jimmy Au’s first day as a custom-suit salesman, he sold three suits for $60. It was 1959 and Jimmy had recently moved from Hong Kong to Hawaii to pursue a business degree at the Church College of Hawaii. Jimmy, a born salesman, started his business out of the trunk of his car, selling door-to-door a single style of suit he offered in multiple fabrics. It wasn’t long before Jimmy noticed a trend: the men who needed custom suits the most were men below 5’8”, a size retailers, department stores, and designers had overlooked.

Beyond just designing clothes that fit great, Jimmy Au, founder and president, and his son, Alan, vice president, focus on also providing the kind of marketing and customer service that empowers their clients. Professional service isn't enough if a salesperson doesn't understand maintaining a customer's dignity," Alan says.

Before long, Jimmy had made a name for himself creating custom suits for some of the world’s premier jockeys and horsemen, a group known for their petite stature and need to look sharp off the track. “The fashion industry for shorter men was and is the most ignored segment of clothing in the entire industry,” says Au’s son, Alan Au, vice president of Jimmy Au. “Short sizes feel like an afterthought and extra short sizes are nonexistent.” Until Jimmy opened Jimmy Au’s Tailors and Fashions in 1971, which carried both short and standard sizes, it was not uncommon for shorter men to shop for suits in the children’s department.

Jimmy, who at 5’2” knew personally how difficult it was to find clothing that fit, dropped the regular-sized clothing from his store in 1975 and changed the store’s name to better suit it’s primary customer. Jimmy Au’s Small and Short: Tailors and Fashions brought together Jimmy’s desire to cater to a select group and his passion for serving them better. “We worked on the dual focus of designing and developing clothing that fits properly and marketing in a way that isn’t demeaning but empowering,” Alan says. “Fit alone can’t work if it doesn’t feel stylish. Professional service isn’t enough if a salesperson doesn’t understand maintaining a customer’s dignity.”

One of the unique needs addressed by the Au collection is the shoppers’ goal to not just have clothes that fit properly, but clothes that aid them in looking taller. “Our designs are not only proportioned to not look short, but can also be slightly disproportioned to the effect of looking taller,” explains Jimmy of his work. “That is also further emphasized with choosing patterns that best enhance height.”

Au has also worked over the years to make his customers comfortable during the shopping experience; the store is specifically designed with the shorter clientele in mind and includes touches such as lowered fixtures, shelves and racks, as well as custom 5’8″ mannequins to better display their collections. Even the chairs in Jimmy Au’s are custom-made to a shorter height.

As time went on, Au condensed the name of his store to Jimmy Au’s Small and Short, and then in 1995 once again to Jimmy Au’s For Men 5’8″ and Under. “As a student at USC [University of Southern California], I was working on a marketing experiment in order to prove that men didn’t like the subjective or negative terms ‘small’ and ‘short’ and therefore deterred them from walking in the store,” Alan explains. “Over the course of a one-month study, using the new name, foot traffic quadrupled. The pragmatic nature of the name left no doubt who the store was for and the negative connotations were nowhere to be found.”

Today, Jimmy Au is the nation’s leader in the design and development of short men’s clothing and Au’s 3,200-square-foot Beverly Hills store remains the only designer-clothing store exclusively for short men. By maintaining his leadership in this niche, the store will, on average, fit more short men in a year than most custom tailors might in a lifetime. “Because there isn’t anyone doing what we do, our collection is very broad in style in relation to age and trend,” says Jimmy, who launched his own line of clothing designed to his exact specifications in 2008. “I started this business because our group wasn’t being addressed. Designers and tailors were creating for the big-and-tall business, but no one was doing what I did. Plus, at 5’2″, it was always easier for me to fit shorter men.”

Finding success in an untapped market, Jimmy Au has come a long way from selling suits from his car's trunk. "Plus, at 5'2", it was always easier for me to fit shorter men,” Jimmy says.

 

Q&A WITH JIMMY AU

Did you always think you would go into fashion? 
I had planned to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps and be a businessman. Not necessarily fashion at the time, but general merchandise. Jimmy Au evolved from a business plan I submitted my sophomore year in college to make custom suits out of Hong Kong.

What do you enjoy about your particular niche in the fashion industry? 
I love to make people happy with the designs I’m able to make and develop. I enjoy the challenge of making clothes fit better for shorter men. I also get great satisfaction in making something meaningful that positively affects the lives of those who wear my clothing.

Anything you don’t like about the fashion industry? 
I dislike how the menswear industry largely ignores short men and their clothing needs. And because the group is ignored, there’s a lack of understanding on how to fit shorter men.

Who is your favorite designer? 
Without hesitation, Giorgio Armani.

What is your favorite piece from the Jimmy Au line? 
My favorite piece in the collection would be the suit. Most of my career has been spent developing the right fit and proportion of a good suit for shorter men. A perfect suit combines a well-fitting jacket and well-fitting pants. Together they make the right look; you can’t beat that.

Q&A WITH ALAN AU

“My dad focuses on taking care of customers when they come in the store; I focus on getting customers in the store," says vice president Alan Au.

As a child, what did you want to be when you were older? How do you see that reflected in your current work?
As a child I always wanted to be a superhero or any career that meant saving lives. Short men’s clothing is a niche largely ignored by the general retail world. When I help a new customer I feel like a superhero saving parts of a man’s career and social life by providing him with clothing that will help have others take him seriously.

Tell me about your work at Jimmy Au. What does your day-to-day entail?
Of the many hats my dad and I wear, we share few. I think that is what keeps us together in reliance and sanity. I am the vice president of the company. My dad and I complement each other well—he in fashion design and [myself] in fashion merchandising. My dad focuses on taking care of customers when they come in the store;
I focus on getting customers in the store.

Who are your favorite designers?
My favorite designers include Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, and Dolce & Gabbana.

What is your favorite piece of clothing you own?
A cashmere polo that I only wear when it’s cold; so I actually wear it very little. It’s a favorite because of how much my wife loves it when I wear it. It has a very high cuddle factor.