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Louie Anderson brings experience to his big-and-tall shirt line

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LAS VEGAS — For 6-feet-tall, 390-pound comedian Louie Anderson, finding stylish clothes that fit is no laughing matter — which is why he's collaborating on a new line of shirts for the big-and-tall man that he hopes to roll out to retail outlets early next year.

"The journey for me started as a fat kid going to Robert Hall [Clothes] on 8th Street" in downtown St. Paul, Minn., Anderson said, referring to the warehouse-type chain that flourished in the mid-20th century. "Our family was so poor we'd get these vouchers for school clothes from the welfare department. We'd go into the top men's store in town and the guy would yell out: 'Bill, I've got another husky!'"

Anderson, now 59, says he learned at a young age that wardrobe options were limited by his size. "There were three different pants, a shirt and a jacket I could choose from," he recalls. "When all the kids from the projects lined up [at school], all the fat kids were wearing the same clothes because there were only three choices.

"I remember thinking: 'Why can't I have what's on that other rack?' My whole life, when I've gone shopping I've wondered why they didn't make that in my size?"

Then, in March of this year, Anderson's manager introduced him to Will Hoover, a 25-year veteran of the apparel industry, whose CV includes a five-year stint with the Cypress-based Vans action sports brand. And the quest for a more stylish big man's shirt began.

"Our research found that when it came to bigger guys, the clothes seemed like simply an afterthought," Hoover said. "Or like they just took pieces out of their main line and just up-sized them," a practice that doesn't necessarily lead to the best or most flattering fit.

So Hoover, who designed the line along with assistant designer Ana Safazada with creative input from Anderson, was determined not to fall into the cliché of the Hawaiian florals and awning stripes that frequently manifest themselves in the larger man's wardrobe.

They started by raiding Anderson's own closet. The comedian pulled a couple of his favorite shirts, including a 10-year-old black Perry Ellis short-sleeve shirt that he says was the starting point for the fit and feel. "Here's what I love about it," Anderson explained later, holding the Perry Ellis shirt aloft, "I like the way it looks, I like the way it hangs on me, it's got these buttons that are very substantial and it's got two [breast] pockets that just sort of disappear."

By late August, sample pieces of the just-completed Louie's Big n' Easy line were hanging on a rolling rack in the back of the Louie Anderson Theater at the Palace Station Casino in Las Vegas. Although the Las Vegas apparel trade shows were in full swing across town, Anderson debuted his full collection to a press audience of one — in the same theater where he makes audiences laugh five nights a week.

It was the first time Anderson had a chance to see the entire collection, and as he looked through the rack of shirts, a proud smile crossed his face and it seemed for a brief moment as if the professional funny man had left the building, trading places with that husky kid from long-ago St. Paul, Minn., who, at long last, has more than three options.

In the debut collection alone he's got 12 different styles, ranging from informal, short-sleeve shirts to dressier silhouettes that would look right under a blazer in a restaurant or, in Anderson's case, onstage.

The most laid-back of the bunch is a short-sleeve shirt in red and blue color-blocked seersucker that would bring the right dash of panache to the backyard barbecue scene (not surprisingly, it's called Texas Barbecue). The dressiest is a long-sleeve silhouette called Baroque, which has a barely noticeable jacquard pattern weave and comes in a variety of colors, including navy blue, mustard yellow and burgundy.

It's the level of detail that makes the line feel like anything but an afterthought. The vertical red-white-and-blue grosgrain ribbon on the breast pocket of one shirt evokes military badging ("Definitely the kind of shirt I'd wear on my yacht — if I had a yacht," Anderson quips). Others are shot through with contrast taping inside shirt cuffs, batik-print side panels and contrast stitching that arcs from rib cage to hip.

"We've taken a few style cues that you don't usually see in a big man's shirt — like this slimming effect," Hoover says, pointing to the contrast stitching.

Anderson's influences on the look of the line are as subtle as the details. Several of the shirts have a distinct Mid-Century Modern vibe to them because Hoover knew Anderson was a fan of the aesthetic. The line's embroidered logo, a bullhead catfish that appears on shirt cuffs, breast pockets and labels, is a reference to Anderson's fond memories of fishing with his father. Another childhood memory manifests itself in a pocket detail found on many of the shirts.

"When I was a kid and my family would go to the service station to fill up with gas, it was always full service," Anderson says. "And gas station attendants always had these really nice shirts with their names on them and that little pocket for the tire gauge. So I thought it would be cool to have a pen pocket inside that reminded me of the tire gauge pocket."

Initially the line is to be offered in sizes L to 6X. Retail accounts for the proposed spring 2013 debut of Louie's Big n' Easy aren't locked in yet, but the hope is that Anderson's name recognition will make the line appealing not only to men's big-and-tall shops but also to big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target. "Which would be great because I really want everybody to have a chance to get the shirts," Anderson said.

That's also, he says, why it was important for the shirts to retail in the $65 to $79 range. "Everybody who already does a big men's shirt has a certain price range," Anderson said. "Robert Graham has a $300 shirt, and Tommy Bahama has a $150 shirt. I come from a background where $150 is a lot of money for a shirt. When I was growing up you could've bought a car for that."

adam.tschorn@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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