Making Clothes for Short Men Is a Tall Order

Can Ash & Anvil succeed at it?

Ash & Anvil is marketing its casual button-downs to men between 5-foot-2 and 5-foot-8.

Courtesy of Ash & Anvil

For years, I lied about my height—I didn’t mean to, but I did. Though my medical records indicate that I come in just under 5-foot-8, I somehow spent most of my 20s convinced that I was an inch taller. Can you blame me? Shortness—as Napoleon knew too well—gets a bad rap.

That may be why there are so few clothing options for shorter men: Most of us are unwilling to admit that we fall below the norm, even when the truth is unavoidable. But that means we’re often stuck wearing pants with ragged cuffs and shirts that drape awkwardly below our waists, with expensive trips to the tailor as our only option if we want even the most casual clothes to fit well. And it’s not entirely our fault. Men’s clothes are generally designed to fit a taller customer, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves. And though custom options are available for some, they’re too pricy and inconvenient for most.

Mainstream clothing companies have done little to allay this dilemma. Though womenswear manufacturers have long produced petite lines, there’s no real equivalent for men. Some companies sell “big and tall” lines—and businesses like Casual Male XL cater directly to a larger clientele—but few, if any at all, explicitly accommodate their more miniscule male customers. To some extent, they’re probably motivated by practical considerations. The Davids of the world may look silly in garments that are too big, but at least they won’t burst out of them. Our Goliaths, on the other hand, need larger apparel if they’re going to clothe themselves at all.

Steven Mazur, co-founder of a new company called Ash & Anvil, has another solution. “Shortness has a bad brand,” he told me. “A lot of companies don’t want to be associated with it when they’re going after the average, middle-of-the-road guy.” Even if the term isn’t entirely positive, “big and tall” still connotes strength and power, but short just invites mockery. This may be why even smaller companies have declined to reach out to this market, despite the significant portion of the population that falls within it.

Mazur and his business partner Eric Huang hope to change that with Ash & Anvil, marketing casual button-down shirts to men between 5-foot-2 and 5-foot-8. They began to ship those shirts—priced at less than $70—last week. Eventually they hope to expand their line to include pants, polos, and more, always unapologetically identifying these products as “shorter guy clothes.”

Theirs is the kind of business that could only thrive in and through the commercial Internet as it exists today. Mazur acknowledges as much, telling me, “five or 10 years ago we probably wouldn’t be able to have the business.” Thanks to targeted advertising and the normalization of small online communities, it’s increasingly easy to reach highly specific, widely disseminated audiences. Simultaneously, crowdfunding platforms—which have facilitated the success of men’s clothing brands like Flint and Tinder—have provided new companies with capital while helping them convince consumers that they have a stake in a new brand’s success. Both of these strands have been important to Ash & Anvil, which invited potential customers to preorder shirts through an Indiegogo campaign that concluded in September.

When I asked Huang and Mazur about other companies that had influenced them, however, they didn’t point to their KickStarted compatriots, instead referencing two other sources of inspiration. First was the formerly online-only menswear retailer Bonobos, which, Mazur told me, had built its Web presence around the dual tenets of fit and service. But Bonobos still caters to men in general, initially promising pants that “just fit,” meaning that the company is still targeting the industry’s mythical “average” guy. Appropriately, then, Ash & Anvil’s second inspiration came from outside the menswear market altogether. “No. 2 would be looking at a lot of plus-size women’s lines,” Mazur said, explaining that women’s brands had more successfully targeted niche audiences. Because so few menswear companies have attempted anything like what Ash & Anvil wants to do—selling to a traditionally maligned and ignored demographic—Huang and Mazur had to look elsewhere to find business models that would work for them.

As a small brand for small guys, Ash & Anvil will live or die on its ability to sell garments that meet its promises of a better fit. To that end, Huang and Mazur hosted “over a hundred fit sessions” while they were developing their first shirts, testing out both their competitors’ clothes and their own prototypes on men of all shapes that fell within their height range. This allowed them, they told me, to dial in dimensions and details that would better accommodate their ideal customer.

Nevertheless, this method still means that Ash & Anvil is making clothes for a group of average guys, albeit a more specific one. There may be many short men, but not all of those men have dimensions that scale at the same rates. Like a men’s suit manufacturer, the company’s fit guide uses chest size as a primary metric, but a large chest doesn’t necessarily mean a large stomach and vice-versa. Likewise, Ash & Anvil can only account in the most typical terms for issues like shoulder and bicep width. If and as it expands, Ash & Anvil may be able to provide more specific fits, but for now its shirts are never going to be precisely right for all of its customers.

As anyone who’s played darts knows, aiming for the bull’s-eye sometimes makes it harder to hit the target at all. There is, to put it simply, a significant difference between a 5-foot-2 man with 38-inch chest and one of an otherwise similar build who’s 5-foot-8. The more specific you claim to make your measurements, the more meaningful those distinctions become. This may be the paradox of online marketing: It’s increasingly easy to reach specific customers, but that specificity encourages companies to make promises that are hard to keep. If the Internet has given niche companies ground in which to sprout, then, it may still make it difficult for them to grow. Nevertheless, for truly neglected demographics like the one Ash & Anvil wants to serve, just doing a little better may be a step forward.

Eric Huang and Steven Mazur, founders of Ash & Anvil.

Courtesy of Ash & Anvil

Mazur said as much to me, admitting he and Huang are aware that their business model—like their model customer—has limitations, despite their desire to remain flexible. “We’re excited about our fit, but at the end of the day we’re not making custom clothes,” he said. There are, of course, other brands, such as Indochino and Tailor Store, that provide literally made-to-measure options for men online. Ash & Anvil, however, wants to offer men something more like an off-the-rack shopping experience, but one that’s less frustrating than its customers are likely to find in brick-and-mortar stores.

To show me what they had in mind, they sent two of their shirts to review, one in blue gingham, the other in a slubby pink cotton that was pleasant to the touch. Though neither was luxurious, neither was meant to be. Made in Vietnam (Huang and Mazur, whose company is based in Detroit, explained that U.S. production was prohibitively steep for them), both shirts were well-constructed, their small details charming without making a scene of themselves. I wasn’t alone in this sentiment: Though she wasn’t aware of its source, my fashion-conscious girlfriend praised the gingham shirt when she spotted me in it.

As a man at the edge of Ash & Anvil’s height range, I worried that the shirts would prove too short for me, and I wasn’t entirely wrong. Though one was a size small and the other a medium, neither was long enough to tuck in. Given that the company intends its clothes for casual wear, this may be deliberate, but their length left me feeling slightly awkward and compacted, especially at first. As several of my co-workers quickly noted, however, this may have been because I was unaccustomed to wearing clothes built for someone with my general shape. Indeed, the longer I wore the shirts, the more natural they felt—and the less alien my reflection seemed when I glimpsed myself in the mirror.

Though the shirts ultimately offered a more pleasant fit than many that I’ve worn, some of my other measurements were off as well. Where the small was just that in the chest, and ever so slightly too short in the arms, the medium bloused out a bit at the waist. I might not have noticed these issues quite so much had they not fit well elsewhere, offering an unfortunate reminder that there’s rarely such a thing as a truly ideal fit. A colleague with self-described “T. rex arms” noted similar issues, finding that though they weren’t entirely ideal they fell better on his wrists than many of the other shirts he’s struggled with. That alone, he suggested, might be enough to make him give the company a chance.

In the end, this may be Ash & Anvil’s real strength. Their clothes will never be uniformly perfect—how could they be?—but they can still meet needs that no other company has bothered to consider.