The items recommended by GQ magazine's style editors in a recent post as their top fashion picks for the week — aside from a few hats, sneakers, a watch and an incense burner — are unavailable to men who wear a size larger than XL.
Not even the Ralph Lauren x Opening Ceremony English Bear polo top in pink flagged by GQ can be found for a larger size, even though polo shirts remain, by necessity, a staple in any bigger guy's closet.
"Fashion so heavily markets to women, so plus size men haven’t seen themselves represented in fashion typically," ethical fashion stylist Kat Eves, who began her career helping bigger men find things to wear, told Retail Dive in an interview. "If they're not an athlete or don't see themselves so vibrantly stylish it can be difficult. It’s very hard to express your style when all the options you have is T-shirts, plaid shirts and polo shirts. It’s taken longer than I would like to see higher quality fabrics and cuts and interesting patterns that are not just for the general customer."
That remains true for women, too, but men have even fewer opportunities and the dearth of options doesn't reflect pent-up demand, experts say. Even the brands that are attempting to expand their sizes aren't going far enough, according to Keisha Holmes, a former apparel buyer who in 2016 founded her own women's plus-size fashion label, Curvy Sense, and is mulling an entry into men's.
"Watching my husband and my dad getting dressed every day — so many polo shirts! I know there are really cool fabrics and prints and silhouettes out there that thinner men can have, while larger men have to stay in a box," Holmes told Retail Dive in an interview. "If they want to get out of that box it can get really expensive. Even Target, their Goodfellow brand stops at 2X. If you’re going to do it — go for it! It’s such an untapped market right now."
The situation has allowed DXL, the major chain catering exclusively to the "big and tall" market, to dominate, although online retailers like Stitch Fix, Bonobos and Asos also have begun expanding assortments. DXL SVP, General Merchandise Manager Allison Surette says that her team sees rising interest in what's in vogue.
"More than ever, the big and tall customer is looking to be on-trend with today’s styles so we’re seeing demand for trimmer fits across all categories," she told Retail Dive in an email. "In bottoms, slim-fit joggers have become a staple in our Activewear/Athleisure assortment and we’re adding more styles into tapered fit denim at every price point. We’re also adding trimmer fits in knits, sportshirts and dress shirts to create head-to-toe, trend-right looks. Most importantly, we have in house technical designers that focus solely on the big and tall customer, so we’re obsessed with how to execute slim fits that look great on big guys."
DXL, with 225 retail and outlet stores, sells mostly through brick and mortar and features a lot of high-end labels like Ralph Lauren. J.C. Penney and Bonobos keep their special sizes in separate areas. Few men's apparel retailers offer a wide range. Stitch Fix, however, says its approach doesn't depend on separate web pages because its offerings are personalized for each client, big, husky, tall or short, using data and feedback. A 30-inch inseam was in demand, for example, but some customers said the pants were too long, so Stitch Fix created shorter options. Similarly, the styling service adjusted sleeve and shirt lengths for bigger men who aren't necessarily tall.
That attention to detail nudges plus menswear toward the inclusivity ideal that women are demanding — and that is making its way to the upper echelons of women's fashion. But it's a tricky business. Design and manufacture of extended sizing for most any apparel requires extra attention and work with suppliers. In menswear, production takes pattern grading and knowledge about neck size, sleeve size, shoulder span, waist and all-around fit. Using creativity in patterns and fabric cutting, it’s doable without charging more, according to Holmes. And Eves sees it as a socially appropriate gesture that also reaps benefits for the brands that make it.
Phillip White, who works in the oil business and not fashion, is proving that it is doable. He took matters into his own hands after being unable to find stylish activewear in a large enough size. Without previous experience, he tapped his own savings and credit cards, crashed textile and apparel conferences and brought his sketches to manufacturers. Within two years he launched his label, Phit Clothing, an inclusive line — from XS to 4XL — of activewear, swim and a jacket, with plans to add denim.
He's had to work closely with factories in order to make items across so many sizes, sometimes going back and forth to get them to understand his requirements. "There's more work to be done in grading tights into 4X," he said of his effort making running legwear in such a large range. "When factories came with their version in 'extra large' — that took a lot of revisions."
But he remains adamant about inclusivity and says social media is helping men of all sizes bypass the likes of GQ to find the brands, including his, making the nicer, more current items they want to wear. "My message is not just catering to the plus size community — I think fashion and style doesn’t really have a size," he told Retail Dive in an interview. "I’ve heard stories from guys who are tall and skinny who have trouble finding clothes. Hopefully, I can tackle different pain points because I know that there’s nothing worse than going into a store and not finding something that fits you."
He also hopes that men will have the kind of fashion hero that plus model Ashley Graham, an activist and body-diversity trail-blazer (in 2016 she was the first plus model to appear on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue), has been for women.
"I think for women that conversation was really pushed over the edge with Ashley Graham. This is America, we have different bodies and different sizes, and she really pushed that movement farther," he said. "On the men’s side there hasn’t been that Ashley Graham yet, but I feel that it’s coming. I think that there are more men of all shapes and sizes interested in fashion. Not everybody’s going to look the same — it’s practically impossible."