Inside Retail: Tell me about how you and Polina came up with the idea for Universal Standard.
Alex Waldman: It came out of necessity and personal experience. Basically, I’m a woman who’s lived in a larger body my entire adult life and it’s been very difficult for me to feel on par with my peers. I used to be a fashion editor at a national newspaper, and presenting myself in a way I felt I wanted to present myself was never an option. It was always a huge pain point. It was hard for me to feel shoulder-to-shoulder and to really be respected by my peers for my eye and style when I was constantly in a position of choosing the best of the worst. I lived in Asia for nine years, and that made it so much more difficult. It was a lifetime of experiences which shape the way you view the world – and especially for someone who is interested in design, it was always a sore point.
I’d been thinking about this for a million years as, I dare say, are a lot of women who live in bigger bodies. We’re bred-in-the-bone designers in one way or another, because we buy men’s stuff and we change it, or we buy clothes that are meant to be like this and we change them to be like that, so we can express ourselves in some way other than what we’re being forced into.
The other thing that’s always bothered me is we were seen as some sort of separate category. It was the plus-size people and then the ‘normal’ people. You grow up with it, but it was always somewhere in my mind that I was not allowed to participate in the mainstream because I somehow segregated due to the way that I looked and it’s a constant white noise. You get used to it, but it’s always there, so I thought, ‘Why should it be so? Why should there be this segregation of the 30 per cent, who have absolutely everything to choose from, and the 70 per cent of American women who are choosing from a tiny pool of very disinterested design and fast fashion retailers with very few options?’
When I moved to New York, old colleagues connected me with Polina, who came from a finance background. At the time, we were strangers and we sat down for a wine and became friends at first.
There was a pivotal moment. We were supposed to go to an event and I had nothing to wear, so I said, ‘I’m not going.’ Polina said, ‘You live two blocks from Fifth Avenue, let’s get you something.’ I said, ‘You don’t understand, there’s not a single store there where I can buy clothes for myself.’ It was such an absurd thing for her to hear, she actually didn’t believe me at first.
I took her to a very famous department store and we went past all these beautifully merchandised floors with special lighting, music and salespeople, then we got to the furniture floor, where the plus-size department was in the northeast corner, next to the bikinis that were on sale and the pots and pans, and I said, ‘This corner right is here is where I get to choose how to present myself to the world. This little tiny corner is where I have to go and I’m fortunate because I can afford these prices!’
That’s when the penny dropped, so we sat down and took stock of the tools we have in our toolbox. Having lived in this body, I knew what was needed and what was missing. Having written about fashion, I understood what was possible. That was what I brought to the table – and Polina brought a tremendous knowledge and experience from the business side. We started in my one-bedroom apartment, trying to make jeans on the floor.
IR: How do you think the plus-size fashion landscape has changed in the last few years since you launched Universal Standard?
AW: I think more people are paying attention for a myriad of reasons. I think society is changing. Money, which apparently wasn’t enough to tempt the avarice of American businesses before (which is saying something), is now starting to pay attention because the apparel industry is in trouble. No one is doing well and there’s this distant bell ringing, ‘Seventy per cent of women aren’t being catered to.’ Something, somewhere doesn’t make sense.
It is a confluence of all these different things, so it’s starting to change. But I’ll be honest with you, anyone who is starting a business today in the plus-size category is really woefully behind the times. It’s like a band trying to release a cassette in the age of downloads. Fashion cannot be segregated into groups based on anything anymore; and if you’re starting a business now, you have to think carefully and make sure the clothes you make for a size 26 are the same thing that a size 6 would want to try on – and that’s the difference.
I’m pretty sure that if all the biggest plus-size-only labels pushed their designs onto the smaller sizes tomorrow, there wouldn’t be a lineup around the block. There’s a big difference – not just in the sizing, but in terms of what’s on offer in terms of quality, variety and design. It’s like night and day.
IRW: Is there a gap of understanding when it comes to mainstream brands understanding what larger-sized women want to wear?
AW: I really don’t think it’s a misunderstanding; I think it’s an absolutely crippling apathy that has been exacerbated by the fact that there’s been a captive audience for so long. It was like a money-printing machine. Why would you bother with different fabrics and designs when you have a massive captive audience that will pay for it? What are plus-size women going to do, walk around naked? It’s not a misunderstanding. What do bigger women want versus smaller? We walk past the same windows, we watch the TV shows, we read the same magazines, we’re steeped in the same culture [as smaller-sized women].
It doesn’t make any sense to assume that because I’ve crossed some threshold and gone from a size 12 to 16 that my entire taste has changed and that I suddenly deserve so much less.
IRW: Tell me about Universal Standard’s process and how fit is taken into account along the way.
AW: Fit was something I always had trouble with when I was shopping. It was absolutely crazy, then we realised why when we started making our own clothes. The way clothes are graded or changed from size to size is usually by formula and it’s completely different. It’s an absolutely insane way of doing it because if you go from a size 4 pair of shorts, you’re going to have pants by the time you get to size 24 because it grades differently. It gets bigger this way, that way and that way.
We started wanting to make jackets in China and we basically got back a jacket that was approximately the right size in terms of the body, but the sleeves were on the ground. So, people were like, ‘We don’t understand these sizes, we don’t get it.’
There was no expertise because people just weren’t used to making a range of sizes, so we invented something called micro grading. We decided we were going to take measurements between each size set and to make sure that if a dress is meant to end at the knees, it will end at the knees on a size 8, a size 20 and a size 22. They will all look the way they should look.
We also use every single size model whenever we launch a new category. We line everyone up and because they’re approximately the same height and instantly, you can see what does not look right on what body. People want to see someone other than a tiny girl representing a style.
IR: How did you come up with the idea for the Fit Liberty program?
AW: We’re primarily an e-commerce brand, but we had opened some showrooms and we started to see customers coming in and we noticed that quite often, women don’t see themselves in the mirror as a representation of who they actually are.
They always think there’s a better version of them that’s just around the corner because they started a diet or because they started running yesterday, or they became a vegan last week. So, the version of themselves that they saw in the mirror is not really them. There was a better ‘them’ that deserved the nice clothes; so, they’d either buy clothes that were too small or they would defer the joy of buying because the ‘other’ me deserves it, not ‘this’ me. We thought, ‘How can we shut this down? How can we shut this bully up who lives in everybody’s head?’
So, we thought, ‘Buy for exactly the size that you are now, then take a year, lose weight, gain weight, grow a fifth limb, whatever. Come back to us and say, “This no longer fits me, I’m now a different size” and we will replace it for you absolutely for free with a brand new one of the same thing.’
You could see the relief, not just from the emotional perspective, but from a financial perspective – they wouldn’t have to rebuy the clothes that they love. These are great clothes, it’s not fast fashion, it’s high quality. If it comes back to us and it’s in good shape, we launder it and work with two amazing organisations, Dress for Success and First Step, which is part of the Coalition for the Homeless. So, we keep the clothes out of landfill, creating a perfect circular economy.
IR: You and Polina started Universal Standard as a plus-size company and then went into smaller sizes. I don’t think I’ve spoken to a brand that caters to the smaller-size side of the spectrum. Can you tell me about the thinking behind that?
AW: We knew from the beginning we were going to straddle both spaces. The whole idea behind the brand is to get rid of the conversation that is concerned with size. I don’t care what size you are and neither should you, you should be able to walk into a store, say, ‘I like that. Can I please have it in my size?’ It should be absolutely ‘Yes, here you go.’
We started from a size 10 and went up to a size 28. Size 10 was not considered plus-size, and at the time, size 28 was considered outside the normal plus-size range – it usually ended at 24. We planted flags on either side of those sizes to let people know that we were going to learn our trade, cut our teeth on the hard parts of design and understand how to make clothes that fit on bigger bodies, because nobody does this well.
Then we went from size 6 to 32, and eventually 00 to 40 and now every single thing we make comes in the full-size range, so now we don’t need to talk about size. That was the idea behind it.
It was also a litmus test. A size 26 is often a captive audience and will buy something out of desperation, because she has no other option, but a size 6 doesn’t need to do that. She can go anywhere and get anything. So, it was like a built-in litmus test. This girl can buy anything she wants, so we needed to make something that would be attractive and coveted by her, and then sizing wouldn’t matter because we cover the vast majority of women.
IR: I know that when you started offering even smaller sizes, there was some consumer backlash from the larger-sized women.
AW: It’s such an emotionally charged customer base because it’s more than just clothes to them. I feel like there are a lot of women who felt a sense of betrayal.
It was not unexpected, it was a little bit disappointing, but completely understandable. It’s an emotional minefield and it’s not just about you as an individual; it’s what society throws on you. There are a lot of emotions around yourself and your image, the idea of attractiveness and how and where you fit on that ‘totem pole’. A lot of the response was, ‘I found this brand and now I have to share it with them? Why?’ A lot of people accused us of doing just plus-size when what we really wanted to do was smaller sizes – and that now we’re doing smaller sizes, we’re going to forget about plus-size, which was never going to happen.
But time is a great healer and people have been convinced by what’s happened in the last five years where we leaned even more into inclusion in terms of sizing and went to the broadest size range in the world and really paid a size 40 the same attention in quality and design as we did in a size 4. After a while, you don’t have to convince anyone because whatever their initial reaction was, it fades away in the face of reality.
IR: Last year, Universal Standard collaborated with high fashion label Rodarte. I feel like luxury and plus-size have never gone hand in hand. Why did you decide to partner with them and what did the partnership involve?
AW: It’s something I wanted to do, precisely for the reason you mentioned. When it comes to luxury and couture, they seem to be so far away from catering to women beyond size 6. You won’t find a lot of couture in a size 8. You won’t find a lot of high fashion beyond a size 8. If we’re going to break some eggs to make an omelette, we have to destroy some preconceived notions of what we are allowed to participate in, and all those notions that bigger women don’t have the taste or desire to dress nicely. I don’t know who put that into anyone’s head, but it’s absolute nonsense.
We were looking for collaborators who agreed with our values. We made a very short list of interesting designers who we think are doing amazing things and Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters who created Rodarte, were very high on that list. They immediately responded to us and said they’d love to do this. Our precondition was we’d do [the pieces] in every single size, from 00 to 40 and we were going to do it without all the [sizing] fanfare. It was just a capsule collection for everyone.
Then Goop, J Crew and Adidas called us and we did collections with them, too.
IR: If you look at the current inclusive fashion landscape, what are some of the greatest challenges?
AW: It’s a really good question. It seems so simple but it’s so tricky. The challenge is to convince people who see the apparel industry in those two pieces – straight and plus – that you have to consolidate them. It’s ingrained, calcified in our brains that this is the way things are, but it’s not normal. What’s normal is wearing clothes for everyone and letting them decide what they want to wear.
It’s about convincing people on the business end that it can be done and it can be done well to the benefit of everyone involved, certainly the consumer and the industry, there’s so much benefit to doing it that way. And instead of talking about it, use us as a litmus test. We’ll be the one to take all the risk and do all these things and show you it can be done.
I think that convincing people that fashion should be desegregated is probably the most challenging thing, because there are real obstacles. And in order to overcome them, you have to want to overcome them, be ready to pay the money, train the people and it can be done to the benefit of everybody, but you have to want to do it.
IR: If we look at the business in the coming year beyond the pandemic, what are your plans?
AW: We’re an ambitious lot. This may sound like an incredibly boastful thing to say, but I’m going to say it anyway: I think Universal Standard can be one of the most important brands in the world, and it’s not because I’m beating my own drum but because I think people are finally starting to look up and say, ‘Huh, this can be done and it’s possible.’
We’re very happy to be at the point of the spear and help. J Crew came to us and said, ‘We want to do it across all our offerings, can you show us how to do the micro grading?’ We will help you. The idea was that this is really and truly a new normal that precedes Covid and all the turmoil of the world. It’s an opportunity for us to leverage this openness that’s coming in with the new generation, and access to so much information and diversity and beauty. Things are way more beautiful when they’re inclusive than when they’re exclusive