It’s a battle of the big men.
In less than a month, Shaquille O’Neal will face off against Michael Strahan on the men’s floors at J.C. Penney when the retailer launches a new line of big & tall tailored clothing for O’Neal that will join Strahan’s collection of all sizes that has been carried there exclusively since 2015.
Penney’s tapped O’Neal in March to serve as the company’s exclusive Big & Tall style ambassador and the new brand, Shaquille O’Neal XLG, is an extension of that relationship.
“It can be a very friendly competition,” said James Starke, senior vice president and head of merchandising for J.C. Penney, with a chuckle.
O’Neal wouldn’t be goaded into predicting which line would win at the register, saying graciously instead: “Michael is a friend of mine,” and adding that he believes there’s room for both celebrity collections at the store.
O’Neal’s collection, which will hit 350 stores and online on Sept. 12, will be exclusively targeted to the big & tall market while Strahan’s offers a wider range of sizes.
“We identified special sizes across the country as an underserved market, especially in men’s and kids,” Starke said. “As we were starting to formulate our strategy, we knew we needed someone who was highly identifiable with that customer.” And the conversation soon turned to O’Neal.
“His name rose quickly and we knew there was no one more identifiable than him,” Starke added.
He said he expects the Shaq collection “will be incremental” to that of Strahan. “I don’t see it cannibilizing business,” Starke said.
“Big & tall has always been a core competency of ours, but we’re redoubling our efforts,” he added. “Up to 34 percent of the male population in the U.S. is considered big or tall but it represents less than 8 percent of sales. So this sets us apart from the department store competition.”
O’Neal is among the best known players to have ever worn a uniform within the National Basketball Association. He is a four-time NBA champion and three-time Finals MVP. Since retiring, he serves as a basketball analyst for TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” has appeared in films and television shows and is also an entrepreneur and successful businessman with 14.6 million followers on Twitter and nearly 9 million on Instagram. Most recently, he appeared in the film,” Uncle Drew,” where he dropped his drawers on screen. “I did not use a butt double. That was my butt,” he said proudly.
He was also in the news for nearly being attacked by a shark when he was submerged in a metal cage during a “Shaq Does Shark Week” special on the Discovery Channel last month.
“It was real,” O’Neal said of the close encounter. He said he studied up on sharks before agreeing to participate in the program and realized, “they only attack if they think you’re food.” So he stayed very still until a small shark actually managed to get through the metal barricade into the cage, at which point O’Neal quickly exited the water. Terrifying at the time, he’s able to joke about it now. “If he bit me, I was going to bite him back,” he said. “Really, I think I was too big for him. But now I can say I survived my first shark attack.”
Perhaps it was O’Neal’s 7-foot 1-inch, 325-pound frame that scared off the predator, but it’s exactly his size that appealed to Penney’s when it was searching for a face for its big & tall department.
Starke said Penney’s currently has the number-one market share in department stores in men’s and kids big & tall. And Shaq’s “passion” for the business made him the right fit. “He tells a lot of stories about the struggles he has to find clothes that fit,” Starke said.
O’Neal added: “Big guy fashion is boring and bland. I want to do whatever it takes for people to look and feel good.” That means creating “sexy jackets and blazers” that will enhance a guy’s physique, no matter his size.
“Big guys are forgotten,” he said. “Look at all the models out there. As a big guy, I don’t just want to wear a plain black suit, so I created a line that is sexy and fashionable.”
The initial collection encompasses some 60 styles of suit separates, dress shirts, ties and belts in sizes that go up to 5XL in stores and 6XL online in tops and up to size 64 in suit separates. Belts will be offered in sizes up to 4XL and ties will be extra-long.
Designs are contemporary and feature a classic fit that can work in the office or out at night. The suit separates will come in solids as well as a blue plaid. Sport coats will come in navy/burgundy check, gray plaid, gray/blue window, black floral texture and brown. Dress shirt colors include ultra blue, jet black, white, burnished lilac and others. Ties will be available in solid, pin dot, striped and tonal floral. The more contemporary patterns in each category will be available exclusively online.
The collection will also feature performance attributes such as temperature regulation, stretch and flex collars, Starke said. “The whole men’s business today is about comfort and performance,” he said.
Prices will be $199.99 for suits, $114.99 for sport coats and $32.50 for dress shirts. The line will be displayed on three to five fixtures in stores and promoted heavily online as well.
Starke said the initial launch will be for tailored clothing and furnishings only, but if successful, “we’re open to adding categories.” He said the Strahan collection initially started as strictly a tailored line and has now expanded into athleisure, luggage and other categories.
O’Neal is already on board with that. “Eventually, I’d like to also have jeans, polos, shorts,” he said.
But for now, he’s happy with how the initial collection turned out. “My mother always told me to dress like I’m meeting a ceo. And this is like a sexy business meeting suit,” he said. He pointed to Barack Obama as his inspiration for the line with his “clean-cut suits and distinguishable ties.”
Starke said that since Penney’s brought O’Neal on board as the big & tall ambassador, the business in that category was “dramatically accelerated in the second quarter.” And that was while O’Neal was wearing pieces from Penney’s private label collection and other national brands. “Items we showed him in our marketing have had twice the sellthroughs as other pieces. We need to use him more.”
And now that he’s starting to wear pieces from his own line, Starke believes sales will increase even further. The two will host a launch event in New York City on Aug. 21 to introduce the collection, which should help give it even more buzz, Starke believes.
Overall, Starke said the men’s business at Penney’s continues to be strong and consistent. “We’re pleased with what we saw in the first half and for the past few years, it’s been one of the best-performing businesses in the building,” he said.
Despite Penney’s high expectations for the Shaq line, this is actually not O’Neal’s first attempt to break into the men’s big & tall market. Four years ago, he launched a line exclusively with Macy’s that included regular as well as big & tall sizes.
“That was a different collection,” O’Neal said. “This is just big & tall. The mistake we made at Macy’s is that we found out if you’re a little guy, why would you wear a big guy’s suit. I realized I can’t compete with the big fashion designers in a little man’s world, but working with J.C. Penney has been great.”
When he’s not in department store boot camp — O’Neal said he spent a week “interning” at J.C. Penney and working on the line — “I would get up and bring people donuts,” — he’s gearing up for the next season of “Inside the NBA,” which starts in mid-October. And he’s also working on opening his own restaurant in Las Vegas that he said will be a “big chicken, fast food” concept. It will be called, appropriately, Big Chicken, and will be in the Hard Rock Hotel. It is expected to open this fall.
But O’Neal’s got to be careful sampling the menu from the restaurant if he wants to look good in the Penney’s ads for his new collection. “I want to take my shirt off,” he said. “I have a two-pack now, but I want an eight-pack.”