One brand fits all

Univer­sal Stan­dard gained a cult fol­low­ing for its plus-size cloth­ing. It’s now push­ing into smaller sizes, up­end­ing the in­dus­try and test­ing its fan base.

Fast Company - - Cotents - By El­iz­a­beth Se­gran Pho­to­graph by Ben Sk­lar

Fash­ion com­pany Univer­sal Stan­dard, known for its plus-size clothes, is con­tro­ver­sially go­ing all-in­clu­sive.

Con­sider the pencil skirt, a wardrobe sta­ple for work­ing women. The ideal ver­sion should sit snugly at the waist, hug the hips, and taper down to the wearer’s knees, while still al­low­ing her enough room to stride (rather than wad­dle) across a board­room. A good pencil skirt, in other words, re­quires the right fit, which is pre­cisely what’s be­dev­il­ing Alexan­dra Waldman on a re­cent morn­ing at the New York head­quar­ters of up­start fash­ion brand Univer­sal Stan­dard. The com­pany’s co­founder and cre­ative di­rec­tor is scru­ti­niz­ing a line of seven mod­els, sizes 6 to 32, all wear­ing a ver­sion of a black pencil skirt with an el­e­gant geo­met­ric pat­tern. “The width needs to be wider on the size 6 so she can walk com­fort­ably,” Waldman says, mak­ing notes for the fac­tory, which will start pro­duc­ing the gar­ment in a week. “The pat­tern is bunch­ing up on size 18. What can we do to flat­ten it?” Most brands de­ter­mine the fit of a piece of cloth­ing on a sin­gle model, and then simply in­crease or de­crease it pro­por­tion­ally for other sizes. But when you spe­cial­ize in mak­ing clothes for the 67% of Amer­i­can women who wear a size 14 or higher, this ap­proach doesn’t work: Sleeves that reach a woman’s wrist in a size 6, for ex­am­ple, would touch the floor in a size 30. Waldman and Polina Vek­sler, Univer­sal Stan­dard’s co­founder and CEO, de­cided to cre­ate a new play­book, one that re­quires unique ad­just­ments in each size for ev­ery new item they pro­duce. In the three years since the com­pany launched, with an eight­item line in sizes 10 to 28, Univer­sal Stan­dard has rock­eted to pop­u­lar­ity within the plus-size com­mu­nity, which has been starved for choice. The brand, known for its high-end fab­rics and min­i­mal­ist aes­thetic, now in­cludes more than 100 items (usu­ally priced be­tween $30 and $160), and re­leases new styles each week. Items are sold

through Univer­sal Stan­dard’s web­site, show­rooms in Seat­tle and New York (with three more on the way), Spring, and Nord­, and the com­pany is on track to triple rev­enue this year. It has also cap­tured the at­ten­tion of some prom­i­nent back­ers: Net-a-porter founder Natalie Massenet’s new Imag­i­nary Ven­tures fund re­cently led Univer­sal Stan­dard’s $7 mil­lion Se­ries A, which was joined by Match­es­fash­ion founders Tom and Ruth Chap­man, and Gwyneth Pal­trow.

Last May, Univer­sal Stan­dard did some­thing that was once con­sid­ered un­think­able for a plus-size la­bel: it be­gan mak­ing clothes as small as a size 6 (and up to a 32), with the ultimate goal of cre­at­ing gar­ments from size 0 to 40—and be­com­ing a truly in­clu­sive fash­ion brand. “I don’t think the world needs an­other plus-size brand,” Waldman says. “It’s time that brands take it upon them­selves to cre­ate one lane and al­low ev­ery­body to have ac­cess.” Whether her fans share this vi­sion is an­other story.

Waldman and Vek­sler came up with the idea for Univer­sal Stan­dard dur­ing a shop­ping ex­pe­di­tion. Waldman, who wears a size 22, kept hav­ing to peel off from the size 6 Vek­sler to lo­cate ap­pro­pri­ate clothes—and even then, the pick­ings were slim. This chasm be­tween plus-size and so-called straight-size fash­ion, Waldman says, re­in­forces the idea that larger women are not as stylish or at­trac­tive. “You buy into the idea that has been thrown at you from day one that you shouldn’t be this size.” Though they both worked in fi­nance and knew lit­tle about the fash­ion in­dus­try, Waldman and Vek­sler de­cided to bring down the bar­ri­ers them­selves.

The co­founders poured $150,000 each into their startup. Waldman con­ceived of eight gar­ments that she had al­ways wanted to find, in­clud­ing dis­tressed high-waisted jeans, sweaters made from top­grade wool, an al­paca coat, and an asym­met­ri­cal dress. Vek­sler sought out the fac­to­ries be­hind such high-qual­ity brands as The­ory and Hel­mut Lang. She per­suaded the own­ers to try man­u­fac­tur­ing clothes in larger sizes. “Ev­ery­thing is eas­ier and more cost-ef­fec­tive when you go to­ward the smaller sizes,” Waldman says.

A year af­ter their fate­ful shop­ping trip, Waldman and Vek­sler ner­vously launched their col­lec­tion on the Univer­sal Stan­dard web­site, pub­li­ciz­ing the de­but with lit­tle more than an In­sta­gram ac­count. They had pro­duced 3,000 pieces—and sold out within six days. Plus-size women, Waldman ex­plains, are al­ways on the look­out for the rare, fash­ion­able brand that fits them. Univer­sal Stan­dard quickly re­stocked and be­gan in­tro­duc­ing new styles; a year later, the first show­room opened, in New York.

“By re­ally un­der­stand­ing [their] cus­tomer, they were able to fast-track de­vel­op­ing a prod­uct that res­onated,” says Massenet, who points to Univer­sal Stan­dard’s pi­o­neer­ing re­turn pol­icy, Fit Lib­erty, as an ex­am­ple. Waldman and Vek­sler in­tro­duced it in 2017 af­ter ob­serv­ing women in their show­rooms hes­i­tat­ing to invest in cloth­ing be­cause they were hop­ing to lose weight. Cus­tomers can now ex­change gar­ments for a new size within a year of pur­chase—even af­ter they’re worn.

The com­pany has fur­ther cul­ti­vated its fol­low­ing through glam­orous pho­tog­ra­phy of plus-size women and col­lab­o­ra­tions with in­flu­encers like Or­ange Is the New Black ac­tress Danielle Brooks and de­signer and model Ge­or­gia Pratt. “Let’s be the ones start­ing the


trends,” says Brooks, who cre­ated three pieces for Univer­sal Stan­dard last Novem­ber, “and not al­ways let­ting straight sizes take over”—a sen­ti­ment that makes push­ing into new sizes so risky.

When Univer­sal Stan­dard de­buted its smaller-size gar­ments in May—and promptly sold out of many of them—it demon­strated that a plus-size brand could at­tract any woman. But many loy­al­ists saw the move as a be­trayal. “I’m so sad at this,” one In­sta­gram user wrote in re­sponse to Univer­sal Stan­dard’s post an­nounc­ing its new sizes. “[The brand] was some­thing the plus-size com­mu­nity had all to our­selves, ac­tual stylish clothes made of ac­tual good ma­te­ri­als, ac­tu­ally tai­lored for us.” Other users ex­pressed fear that Univer­sal Stan­dard would in­evitably start de­pri­or­i­tiz­ing its orig­i­nal fan base. “If ‘plus size’ women are not the first women I see on your site,” one woman wrote, “I’m over it.”

Marie De­nee, a mar­keter who writes the pop­u­lar Curvy Fash­ion­ista blog, ac­knowl­edges that “plus-size fash­ion is emo­tion­ally charged. There’s a po­lit­i­cal side to it. You have to be so­cially aware of what’s hap­pen­ing and where the cus­tomer is when you start mak­ing these changes, or else you’re go­ing to lose her.” She ex­plains that mem­bers of the plus-size com­mu­nity were put off by the blunt­ness of Univer­sal Stan­dard’s an­nounce­ment of its ex­tended range: “Plus-size fash­ion is over,” the com­pany de­clared on In­sta­gram. Oth­ers are con­cerned about the in­vest­ment by Pal­trow, whose life­style brand Goop is not known for size in­clu­siv­ity. Many are watch­ing the la­bel’s next moves war­ily. “So­cial me­dia was the fuel that am­pli­fied the growth of plus-size fash­ion,” De­nee notes. The co­hort that helped Univer­sal Stan­dard grow could turn against it.

The founders are sym­pa­thetic but firm. “When­ever you take on some­thing big, you have to ex­pect re­sis­tance,” Vek­sler says. “In some ways re­sis­tance is a good thing be­cause it shows that what you’re do­ing is rev­o­lu­tion­ary.” Waldman notes that the brand has also pushed up into larger sizes that aren’t of­fered by many plus-size brands—a tes­ta­ment to her com­pany’s com­mit­ment to in­clu­siv­ity. In a sign that their plan is work­ing, J.crew re­cently be­gan sell­ing a Univer­sal Stan­dard cap­sule col­lec­tion in sizes 0 to 32 at all of its stores and on­line.

Massenet, who has spent her ca­reer in lux­ury fash­ion, sees op­por­tu­nity in the move to smaller sizes, es­pe­cially if other re­tail­ers be­gin car­ry­ing Univer­sal Stan­dard: “By cre­at­ing a brand that can be sold along­side ev­ery other de­signer brand and be size in­clu­sive, that’s ul­ti­mately the great­est gift [the founders] can give their orig­i­nal cus­tomer base.”

De­signer Chris­tian Siri­ano, who is known for his plus-size red-car­pet dresses, shares this view. He re­cently opened a New York con­cept store, called the Cu­rated, where he sells Univer­sal Stan­dard along­side his cou­ture gowns—with no dis­tinc­tion be­tween size cat­e­gories. “In my world, there’s a rack of dresses, one is a 6 and one is a size 18,” he says. “What­ever size you are, if you want to buy a dress, you should be able to buy a dress.”

Univer­sal co­founders Stan­dard Alexan­dra Waldman (left) and Polina Vek­sler want to bring down the bar­ri­ers be­tween plus- and straight­size cloth­ing.

Univer­sal Stan­dard uses a wide range of mod­els, in­clud­ing ac­tress Danielle Brooks (top left), to show­case its at­ten­tion to fit and high-qual­ity fab­rics.

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