An End to Tall Women’s Shopping Nightmares

Stefanie Drew wants a pair of leather pants. “I saw some at Zara a while ago and was like, ‘Oh, my God, these are beautiful,’ ” she says. “But I can’t wear them.” That’s not something you’d expect to hear from Drew, who’s 27, a size 6, and dresses like someone who can tell you a lot of stories about going to Coachella. In other words, she’s Zara’s ideal customer. Except for one thing: Drew is 6 feet 2. That sizes her out of pretty much everything in the store, as it does at other retailers she wants to shop at, such as H&M, Forever 21, American Apparel, and even the small boutique where she works in Toronto. “If I bought pants there, I’d just look like I was walking around waiting for it to flood,” she says.

Most discussions about fashion’s refusal to acknowledge diverse body types focus on plus-size women, who struggle to find brands willing to cater to their frames. But tall women may be even more underserved. “You wouldn’t think so, because models are all so tall,” says Clary Hilliard Gray (6'1"), who runs a fitness studio in Charlotte. “But most stores don’t sell that many clothes to supermodels.” Or to tall women who don’t walk runways: Women who are 5'8" and taller make up only 5 percent of the U.S. female population, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. And making clothes to fit them takes more than just adding a few extra inches to existing patterns. Buttons need to be moved. Jean pockets may need resizing. “A cute flair may look good on a petite blouse, whereas on me it’ll look like I’m wearing a dust ruffle,” Hilliard Gray says. For most brands, changing designs for such a small pool of potential shoppers isn’t worth the effort. “When everything got tough during the recession, retailers took a step back from ‘tall.’ Now you almost never see it in stores,” says Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for NPD Group.

A few months ago, frustrated by her lack of options, Drew searched online for what she calls “tall-girl shops.” Up popped the name of U.K. retailer Long Tall Sally, which has one of its few North American stores in Toronto. Drew visited and tried on a few pieces - the kind of simple shopping trip that’s usually impossible for her. “I was like, ‘What? Clothes that actually fit? This is fantastic!’ ” Now she owns her first pair of overalls.

“Clothes that actually fit” towering women are Long Tall Sally’s specialty. The company, which is named after the 1956 Little Richard hit, sells a lot of T-shirts, long skirts, and cotton blouses - stripes and polka dots are popular, as are flower patterns - at prices higher than the Gap’s, but not as costly as Banana Republic’s, to those 5'8" and taller, though 75 percent of sales are to women above 5'11". The clothier has long relied on brick-and-mortar sales in Britain, but now it’s making a push online and in the U.S., mostly in the Midwest. This expansion has helped sales rise about 30 percent in the past 12 months, and Sally expects to bring in about $80 million in revenue this year. “We’re serving a surprisingly small customer niche,” says Andrew Shapin, Sally’s chief executive officer. “But if you can reach people all over the world, suddenly that niche doesn’t seem so small anymore.”

Judy Rich, an American expat living in London, founded Long Tall Sally in 1976, when she couldn’t find pants long enough to fit her 5'11" frame. “I used to have to go to men’s clothing shops,” Rich says. “Who wants to do that?” She ran the company for almost three decades, until the early 2000s, when Sally, unable to stay competitive in the digital age, went into administration (the British version of bankruptcy). It was purchased in 2005 by Amery Capital, a retail investment firm backed by brothers Maurice and Michael Bennett, who’d made a fortune decades earlier selling floral-print dresses and frilly tops to the British masses through Warehouse, Oasis, Phase Eight, and Coast stores, which they’ve since sold.

Shapin became Sally’s CEO in 2007. He knew how to sell online - he’d co-founded the Cotswold Co., an online furniture retailer, in 1997 - but he had a couple of shortcomings: He wasn’t a woman, he wasn’t tall, and he didn’t know fashion. “I had zero awareness,” says Shapin, who’s about 5'8". “There is no lower level of awareness that I could’ve had about this industry before I started.” He spent six months sitting in on “at least 30” focus groups, he says, listening to hundreds of women talk about how hard it was to find clothes. They told him about being gangly, awkward teenagers, and about slouching so they wouldn’t be taller than men. “One thing that surprised me was how many tall women said they don’t like shopping,” he says. “It becomes a very emotional experience because they can’t find anything that fits.” Instead, they buy clothing that’s too small and MacGyverit so it appears to fit. Jeans too short? Hide them with tall boots!

The struggle is real. Diana Runkle, 5'11", Sydney: “I typically wear a long tank top under all my tops to keep my stomach from showing.” Jessica Brommelhoff, 6', Los Angeles: “I pretty much do not own any tops with full-length sleeves that actually go the full length of my arm.” Claire Burns, 6'1", New York: “I actually used to own two petite-sized, floor-length skirts that hit the base of my kneecap.” Tasha Watt, 6'1", Southaven, Miss.: “I can’t wear cocktail dresses because the waist hits me in my stomach area.” Says Shapin: “When I talked to women, I realized this was something that had the potential to go way beyond the U.K. market.” Instead of just moving Sally online, he thought, why not move it overseas?

How to tap into such a fashion-starved niche seems like it would be a case study taught in Marketing 101. (“Too tall for other stores? Go see Sally!”) But the company’s customers are more diverse than a typical retailer’s. They range in age from teenagers to grandmothers, have all sorts of jobs, live in all sorts of places, and have nothing in common with one another aside from their height. “We’ll hear from women who say, ‘I’m 6 foot 2, what do I need high heels for?’ Then women who say, ‘Why don’t you make more high heels? Just because I’m 6 foot 2 doesn’t mean I want to wear flats,’ ” Shapin says. Older women complain that Sally’s styles skew too young; young women write to ask for specific trends. “It’s a real challenge,” he says. “We try to focus on that sweet spot: women between 25 and 55. Middle class.” Some of the more popular offerings are supersoft legging jeans ($79), the crinkle tiered maxi skirt ($89), high superskinny jeans ($109), and the relaxed-fit pocket tee ($27). It’s not groundbreaking fashion, but at least the sleeves are long enough.

When Drew first visited Long Tall Sally in Toronto, she says she may have been more excited by the prospect of clothes that fit than by the actual clothes. She saw mainly work-appropriate skirts for women who commute to desk jobs in sneakers. “I like them now, but I was kind of discouraged when I first found them,” Drew says. Online, though, she says things are sleeker and more contemporary. The work skirts are still there - but so are skinny jeans, floppy hats, and gray tees that she’s more likely to buy. The company has teamed up with British designer Irene Agbontaen’s TTYA (Taller Than Your Average) label; last year the brands collaborated on a line of silk maxi dresses and, yes, leather pants, which sold out before Drew could snag a pair. “Long Tall Sally ... hasn’t always been the most fashion-forward name,” Glamour’s U.K. edition wrote about the collection. “But that’s all changed now!” Shapin is more reserved in praise of his accomplishments. “We’re trying,” he says.

In 2009, Sally started acquiring North American competitors, such as Tall Girl, Long Elegant Legs, Long Fashion, and large-size shoe seller Barefoot Tess, which had all somehow managed to sell clothes to women despite names that seem straight out of a 1992 Sears catalog. Sally also opened seven stores in Canada and four in the U.S., in Chicago, Denver, Detroit, and at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. (There are 26 in total, including in Europe.) But it’s still not a well-known name here. To drum up awareness, the company has hosted pop-ups in 40 cities, from Boston to San Francisco. Online, it advertises mainly through sponsored ads on Google and social media. About 7 percent of people who see its posts on Facebook click on them, which Shapin says is a higher engagement rate than those of J.Crew, Nordstrom, or most other retailers, who average anywhere from 0.2 percent to 4 percent. So far, Shapin’s tactics have worked; almost 65 percent of the company’s sales are from people outside the U.K. who are shopping online, often in places where Sally doesn’t have a physical store.

Long Tall Sally has another major marketing hurdle: its name. On the one hand, having “long” and “tall” built into its brand makes it easily searchable online; it’s the fourth-highest Google result for tall women’s clothing, after the much larger retailers Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, and New York & Co., which offer limited selections. But women don’t always want to broadcast that they shop at a specialty store. “Men can go to big-and-tall stores, and it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m big! I’m virile!’ But I don’t want to carry around a Long Tall Sally shopping bag,” Hilliard Gray says. Shapin says he’s aware of this problem, but so far he finds the Google-able pros outweigh the cons and has no plans to change it.

Long Tall Sally intends to open more stores in the U.S. and is also making a push into Germany, where the average height of a woman is 5'6" - 2 inches taller than in the U.S. After that comes the Netherlands, whose average height of 5'7" makes it the tallest country in the world. Currently there are no plans to expand into plus sizes for women, or into clothes for tall men. Although who’s to say Long Tall Stan’s leather pants wouldn’t be a hit?

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