Big guys dont want to be treated like freaks: the plus-sized menswear revolution

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British men are getting taller, larger and broader and the high street is finally catching up

The energy at online clothing store Asos hits you as soon as you enter its art deco London headquarters. The place is youthful, noisy, overwhelming. It is also proudly democratic in the sense that it wants to offer fashionable clothes for everyone. Not, I suspect, because it is on some great mission to change the world, but because its not just perfectly honed young men and women who will pay to look good.

I am getting a guided tour from the companys brand creative director, John Mooney. He is spearheading Asoss drive to improve its offering to what might euphemistically be called the bigger man. I am keen on this euphemism because I am one of those bigger men: 6ft 4in tall; 40in-plus waist; carrying a lot of extra poundage. My mother kindly describes me as big-boned; others would say fat.

Either way, for me shopping has always been an unpleasant and often pointless experience a procession of garments that, even though they proclaimed themselves large, came nowhere near fitting me. I gave up shopping for clothes about 20 years ago, apart from the occasional desperate foray to find something that would just about do. If I did find something (a pair of M&S XL stretch jeans, a black XL top from Lands End) I would buy half a dozen and hope theyd see me through. They were, in every sense, distress purchases, and I had adopted a uniform: all black, uninspired, unchanging, shapeless, boring.

Hence this visit to Asos, which over the past couple of months has been extending its menswear ranges up to 6XL, to reflect the size that many blokes actually are, rather than what high-end designers might prefer them to be. Its been catering for bigger women for the past five years (the curve sector accounts for 20% of Asoss womenswear sales) but now bigger men are getting the same treatment. The key, says head of menswear design Nick Eley, is to offer plus-sized buyers exactly what is available to everyone else, but cut in such a way that it caters for different body shapes tall and skinny, broad and athletic, big and tubby. Its amazing how badly this market has been catered for in the past, he says.

One problem has been finding models for the new sizes. Were having to train model agencies eyes, says Jordan Shiel, who books the menswear models at Asos. We also have to go out there and find our own.

One of its models, 23-year-old Nemar Parchment, was spotted in-house working as a buyers administrative assistant. Parchment initially hated the idea of modelling, but eventually came round, and has now switched careers. He reckons he is part of a major shift in showing mens bodies as they are, rather than as designers fetishise them, and says that can only be for the good: Seeing other big and tall guys might help people accept themselves more.

Another Asos plus-sized model, Scott Bayliss, was spotted by Shiel at a music festival in Bristol. We saw him from afar, says Shiel. He had a really cool outfit on and was personable and confident, and that always translates into sales. Bayliss, who was acting before suddenly being pitched into modelling, has now been signed up by a plus-sized agency in Germany, where the curve market is ahead of the UKs.

One UK agency has already got the message Bridge, which has made plus-sized models its USP. We launched two and a half years ago, initially just for the curve market, says director Charlotte Griffiths. A year ago it introduced a mens division, with chunky, bearded personal trainer Ben Whit as its first model. Ben is incredibly healthy, but he has a bit of a tummy and a broad chest, says Griffiths. He represents the 21st-century man who wants to shop for clothes and doesnt want to have to go into a different section to buy them. Bridge has just signed up Olympic discus thrower Brett Morse, who competed for Team GB at London 2012.

There is an acceptance now that bigger guys can also be cool, says Mooney, at Asos. Its a terrible thing to have to say, because why werent they allowed to celebrate it before? You need people out there as figureheads to be able to say, Its OK to wear clothes like this. You can also look good. He mentions Brit award-winner RagnBone Man and singer MNEK as big guys who dress stylishly. You dont have to look like Harry Styles any more to get a break in music or, indeed, fashion.

In truth, I probably wont be wearing Asos, despite its admirable commitment to dressing all shapes and sizes: the hoodies, sweatshirts, ripped jeans and floral shirts are targeted at twentysomethings, and I left my 20s behind some time deep in the past century. But I can (just about) imagine myself wearing River Island, where I once bought some XL T-shirts that almost fitted. In future, I will have more choice, because last month it also launched a Big and Tall range, extending its sizes across 117 lines. It will offer every size up to 4XL, which equates to a 55in chest and a 48in waist, more than big enough even for me.

There have been retailers offering plus sizes, but what is available is quite dull, says Nick Tahir, River Islands head of menswear buying. Where we see the opportunity is to offer fashion. Research suggests that one in five men are looking for a broader offer of bigger sizes.

The average male waist size in the UK has been rising over the past few decades and is currently just under 38in. If that is the average, quite a few men will be well above it, but you wouldnt know that when you shop. At Bentalls department store there is a large section housing designer clothes for men, but finding any waist sizes above 38in in jeans or moderately trendy trousers is well-nigh impossible.

Nemar
Asoss Nemar Parchment was spotted in-house working as a buyers admin assistant. Photograph: Asos plus at Asos.com

I wander down Regent Street in central London one evening to see what I can find in my size in some well-known stores. In H&M, where I feel like an alien, there is nothing bigger than XL. In Desigual I do find an XXL shirt, which is white, semi-transparent, has an ugly pattern, barely fits and makes me feel like a third-rate crooner on a cruise ship. Gap has nothing bigger than an XL; an assistant tells me I should look online. In the Levis store I do, to my surprise, find jeans up to a 44in waist, but they are horribly wide in the leg bearing out the point made by Eley that clothes for larger men have to be carefully tailored. In J Crew the biggest waist size is 38in and the biggest chest size 46in; again, an assistant says I should go online for bigger sizes (up to 40in waist and 50in chest). Calvin Klein has nothing bigger than a 38in waist in jeans and an XL in sweatshirts. An assistant goes forlornly in search of an XXL sweatshirt, which at least gives me time to watch thin, pale models writhing around on a huge TV screen set into the wall of the store.

Despite the reluctance of some retailers to change, something is definitely stirring. The buzzword now is inclusivity: big guys dont want to be treated like freaks. It is symptomatic of the way the market is moving that the N Brown Group is putting resources into its Jacamo brand which caters for all sizes but is best known for clothes for bigger men, and is modelled by former cricketer Freddie Flintoff rather than its long-established specialist store High And Mighty, which is saddled with a fusty, older-man image. I am the only customer in High And Mightys flagship store when I visit Discover stylish clothes in hard-to-find sizes, proclaims a sign in the window and you wonder whether it has any long-term future.

We try to make fashion easy and enjoyable regardless of size or shape, says Ed Watson, communications director at Jacamo. We will go from small right up to 5XL. Previously youd have to have gone to a specialist retailer for those sizes. In many cases a plus-sized shop would be hidden away, or the clothes were in the back of the store and people would be a bit embarrassed about it, or theyd only be available online. Its about being as inclusive as possible, providing an offer where someone who is small and someone who is a 5XL can shop in the same place.

Shopping should be as friendly and stress-free for a taller or broader guy as it is for any other, agrees Dave Binns, M&Ss head of design. The chain is also extending its Big & Tall range, and using the tree-like England rugby player George Kruis as its public face. But why, I protest, have bigger sizes at M&S traditionally been confined to online? Thats something we are becoming more aware of, says Binns, without quite promising it will change. I will only believe it when trousers with a 35in leg are routinely available in stores. I dont want to have to operate a sub-post office to buy clothes.

I am at M&Ss HQ in Paddington in part because its dark-blue XXL jeans are the cornerstone of my own personal makeover, guided by Helen Seamons, menswear editor at the Guardian and Observer. She has called in lots of clothes for me in these new, bigger sizes denim jackets, striped T-shirts, trendy shoes, neat coats with furry collars. She is big on colour, layers, panache. Clothes maketh the man even the big, rather ungainly man.

Stephen
Before: Stephen Moss in his usual outfit. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Guardian

The M&S XXL jeans just about big enough in the waist but narrow in the leg make me feel briefly stylish, and Im inspired to snap up two pairs from the store in Marble Arch. There is just one problem: they shrink when I wash them. Its possible they will stretch again when I wear them, but for the moment, sitting down is painful.This deals a major blow to my fashion drive, forcing me back into my traditional black stretch jeans (also M&S). My XXL buttoned-down shirt from River Island also proves a little tight in the arms, which means I have to revert to the Lands End black top. A fortnight into the new me, I am back in the terrible uniform of the old me.

Seamons gives me some useful style tips, one of which is, A well-tailored coat pulls a look together. I would always spend more on a coat than the jumper/shirt underneath. I take this to heart and spend 500 on an Aquascutum camel-hair coat. Initially I feel really good about this the sheer act of spending a lot of money does give you an ego boost but then I catch sight of myself in profile in a mirror, and feel I bear an uncanny resemblance to Oscar Wilde, but after his spell in jail: barrel-shaped and worryingly clapped out. I also invest in an expensive pair of pointy black suede shoes from Russell & Bromley, but when I wear them they rub my heels and I end up hobbling around looking ridiculous. This fashion business is not easy.

Prospects are improving for bigger men, and in fact all men are showing a greater interest in fashion, leading to more demand. Menswear is now growing at a faster rate than womenswear, says Tamara Sender, senior fashion analyst at Mintel. A lot of retailers are expanding their menswear offer, theres more choice, and as part of that choice plus sizes are now being added.

Stephen
After: Stephen Moss wears jacket by Folk, from mrporter.com; sweatshirt, asos.com; shirt, riverisland.com; trousers, asos.com; boots, dunelondon.com. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Guardian

Sender says obesity is also increasing faster among men than women, especially among young men. Her research suggests 40% of young men are overweight or obese. You wonder where they were shopping before, she says. In womenswear we started seeing this change a couple of years ago, and now menswear is catching up.

Some might wonder whether retailers should be catering for people like me, given the rampant rise in obesity the Peterborough-based company Bad Rhino proudly goes up to 8XL and specialist suppliers in the US go up to 15XL. Are they acting like fizzy drinks manufacturers and feeding our addiction? All are adamant that it isnt their job to nudge people into diet regimes; they are just filling a gap in the market.

It is a good thing that suppliers are offering larger sizes for men, says Lesley McCormack, founder of the charity Hoop (Helping Overcome Obesity Problems). Obese people face being stigmatised and fat-shamed on a daily basis. This can negatively impact a persons wellbeing and in many cases lead to low confidence, anxiety, depression and social exclusion. By offering larger sizes and providing choice, suppliers are not normalising obesity but enabling obese people to wear fashionable, well-fitting clothes and to feel better about themselves.

In any case, much of the increase in mens size is either natural the response to better diet or the result of men bulking up. Eric Down, senior style editor at Mens Health magazine, says gym culture is forcing fashion retailers to increase sizes and to introduce ranges specifically targeted at young men who work out. He also believes social media is changing attitudes. Its given people an opportunity to speak to brands in real time, he explains, and to say, Ive just been in your store and you dont have anything to fit me. The flow of information now is very immediate, and with online shopping you can see instantly whats selling. Its a lot more customer-focused. Nobody wants to feel excluded. Just because a man has size 15 feet doesnt mean he doesnt want a nice pair of shoes.

In terms of social media encouraging retailers to offer more choice, the UK is following the pattern in the US. In 2010 Bruce Sturgell founded Chubstr, a website that aims to help big men dress well and feel good about themselves. When I set up Chubstr I was living in the midwest and there just werent a lot of options for bigger men, says the bearded, boundlessly upbeat Sturgell. You could go to the big and tall stores, but they didnt offer much choice.

Ben
Personal trainer Ben Whit was the first model for the mens division of the agency Bridge. Photograph: Bridgemodels.co.uk

He set out to find places where big men could shop fashionably and put them online, alongside tips for confident living.

Sturgell, who is not scared to embrace the word fat (Im a fat guy and thats OK, he says) reckons he is winning the battle for acceptance. The landscape is changing. Companies are popping up that offer extended-size clothing that people actually want to wear. What began as a consumer blog has become something close to a crusade. We recently had our sixth anniversary party, he recalls, and it was interesting to talk to people to get their take on how the community has helped them deal with the prejudices they get in everyday life. I feel really lucky that this thing that started out as a blog to call out brands for not offering bigger sizes turned into something useful.

For the moment, the new me is on hold. As well as fatness, I realise, part of my problem has been laziness, about both looking in stores and being willing to browse online. It is hard for bigger men to dress well, and only those willing to work at it will succeed. My distress purchases were in part a rationalisation of my own indolence.

I had asked Seamons for 10 tips, but it was pretty obvious to me what the 11th should be: make a bleedin effort. In the past, the market has let big blokes down, but this particular big bloke used that as an excuse to give up completely. The transformation begins today. Possibly.

Stephen
Stephen Moss wears jacket, T-shirt, both by PS By Paul Smith from mrporter.com; Jeans, marksandspencer.com; boots, zara.com. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Guardian

Helen Seamons fashion tips for bigger blokes

1 Put aside a morning to go into shops and try things on. Start with a department store that stocks a wide range of brands, from high street to designer. Its useful for identifying brands you do and dont like; this will help you filter faster when you shop online. If the store doesnt have a certain size, the internet probably will. Think of this as the groundwork to a long-term operation.

2 Be prepared to return stuff you buy online. If youre trying a new brand, buy two sizes to ensure the best fit: you may think youre XXXL but perhaps XXL fits better. The extra admin is offset by the saving on delivery (often higher spends equal free delivery).

3 Dont be afraid of colour. A bold T-shirt or sweatshirt breaks up black. Wearing all black wont convince anyone that you are a generous medium.

4 Stripes dont need to be avoided.

5 Its a fashion cliche but its true: spend the most you can afford on the things you wear the most coat, jeans, boots/shoes. You can tell the difference.

6 Layering is a useful styling trick and practical in a climate like ours. Overshirts are great at this time of year; heavier than a shirt but less structured than a jacket, they work over jersey, shirts and thin knits and under a denim jacket. Wear open (ideal if something is slightly too snug).

7 Tonal dressing (wearing the same shade head-to-toe) makes for an easy, smart look. Navy blue always looks chic, whatever size you wear.

8 Get good jeans. Choose a dark wash, on a selvedge denim. No faux-faded worn patches: they dont make anyones thighs look slimmer. A straight leg is more slimming (never bootcut). Skinny is out. And to avoid shrinkage, dont wash them for the first three months (an overnight spell in the freezer kills odour, or spritz with Mr Black denim refresh spray).

9 A well-tailored coat pulls a look together. I would always spend more on a coat than on the jumper/shirt underneath.

10 Learn to enjoy shopping. Check out the latest fashions, spend time browsing, and dont just buy the first item that almost fits. Bigger men have never had more options.

Read more here: http://www.theguardian.com/us