When Steven H. Adler decided to double his size, he wasn't talking about his suits. But then again, maybe he was.

Last year, after seeing his big and tall men's clothing store grow into a chain of nine successful retail outlets in suburban Washington and beyond over the past six years, Adler went back to his old stomping grounds. And he bought them.

Adler in April acquired George and Co., the oldest retailer of big and tall men's apparel in the Washington area, perhaps in the country. Adler had worked at George and Co. for 14 years before opening the first Steven H. Adler Big and Tall Men's Apparel store in Timonium, Md., in 1984. His father worked for George and Co. for 35 years before retiring last year.

The acquisition combines two of the three biggest players in the local big and tall men's clothing market. With 18 stores from Virginia Beach to Pennsylvania and combined annual sales of about $11 million, Steven H. Adler/George and Co. will be one of the largest retailers of its kind on the East Coast.

Adler, 38, who wears a Size 40 regular, has worked in large-size men's clothing stores since he was a boy, when he would accompany his father to work at George and Co. The younger Adler worked part time for George and Co. in high school and full time during and after college.

"When you work for someone ... you always find things you think would make the company more efficient," Adler said. George and Co. was owned and operated in Rochester, N.Y., by Eli Sokol, who had never worked in a big and tall men's store, he said. "{Sokol} was making decisions with no practical experience. At times it was like the tail wagging the dog."

When Adler decided to "open up one nice little neighborhood big and tall men's store," he said, he made a few fundamental changes from the George and Co. stores, adding upscale suits and clothing to a stock of mid-range items and leaving many of the buying decisions to those who ran the individual stores.

The big-and-tall segment of the men's clothing industry traditionally has been dominated by catalogues that sold poor-quality clothes, said Ken Gassman, a retail analyst with Wheat First Securities in Richmond who also, as it happens, is 6 feet 8 inches tall.

"In the early days the mail-order retailers would ship almost anything -- and I can attest to that. But if it fit, you wore it," Gassman said. "But the cataloguers found that they can't ship just anything."

The quality problems also have plagued the few commercial retailers that cater exclusively to a small market of about 5 percent to 7 percent of the male population, Adler said. There is a general attitude in the large-size clothing business, he said, that those customers do not want to invest in the most expensive, upscale wardrobes.

"But that's not right -- there are people out there that want nice things," Adler said. "The bigger man, other than his size, is no different than the guys who buy a Size 40 regular."

Big and tall stores generally carry suits in sizes ranging from 46 to 70 regular, long, portly, portly long and extra long, Adler said.

From 1984 to 1989, Adler opened nine stores from suburban Washington to Pennsylvania and Delaware, all of which sell suits that range in price from $300 to $600. Before the acquisition, he said, the annual sales volume at each Adler store averaged about $750,000.

The decision to acquire George and Co. was a natural one, Adler said. Sokol had owned the company for 42 years and had known Adler since he was a boy.

"He had no family that was interested in the business, and {his} absentee situation ... in recent years didn't work," Adler said. "The toughest hurdle to overcome was for him to see that he was dealing with a peer as opposed to someone he had to teach."

Adler, who did not disclose the terms of the agreement but said the purchase price was less than $5 million, said he has no plans to expand the company in the immediate future. His main concern is ensuring an easy transition in management style.

From the customer's perspective, however, Gassman said the major problem in the big and tall branch of the retail industry is high prices. These stores "generally can charge premium prices because there's not much competition," he said.

"It's much better than it used to be, but when you stop and think about it, there are very few shops that cater to these folks. And you're talking 15 million Americans."