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Startups that aim to change the way people buy clothes: Universal Standard

By Marjorie van Elven


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This week, FashionUnited introduces five startups that aim to change the way people buy clothing and accessories. As Millennials and Generation Z consumers demonstrate a growing interest in sustainability, social justice, and personalization, and new technologies have the potential to revolutionize fashion retail, a number of business ideas combining some of these trends are popping up all over the world.

Today, FashionUnited interviews Alexandra Waldman and Polina Veksler, from Universal Standard, an American fashion brand offering womenswear in sizes 10-28. In addition to selling plus size clothing in stylish materials and designs, Universal Standard also offers an innovative exchange service called Universal Fit Liberty, which works as follows: in case a customer’s size goes up or down within a year, she can exchange the item for another one that fits, free of charge. The used item is then donated to charities like Dress for Success, which often lack clothing in bigger sizes.

Last year, Universal Standard secured 7 million US dollars in funding from Imaginary Ventures (the venture capital company led by Natalie Massenet, founder of Net-a-Porter), Red Sea Ventures, Gwyneth Paltrow, Blake Mysocosie (Toms founder), and Elizabeth Cutler (co-founder of SoulCycle), among others.

Waldman and Veksler talked to FashionUnited about their business, which in three years went from being headquartered at Waldman’s apartment to employing 25 people in two offices in Seattle and New York.

Can you tell us a little bit about your brand’s story?

Veksler: "We were friends first. One day, Alex and I were discussing going to an event over the weekend, and I didn't believe her when she told me that there was not a single store on all of 5th Avenue where she could go and buy clothes. So, she told me that she'd show me the world she lives in as a size 18 woman. We walked to a nearby department store, where she led me to the furniture floor. There, nestled among the non-stick pans and throw pillows, was the plus-size department. That’s when I realized this was a huge problem.

Not long after that, we left our jobs (Alex in marketing, and me in finance) and made her New York City apartment the Universal Standard HQ. We created our first eight-piece collection of modern essentials, with a chic, downtown but classic aesthetic and it sold out in six days."

You founded Universal Standard in 2015. Since then, it seems that the plus size market is gaining momentum, with some brands expanding their size range and inclusive brands, like Rihanna’s Save X lingerie line, flying off the (online) shelves. Do you think we’ll see more inclusiveness in the fashion industry in the future?

Waldman: "I honestly hope that it’s not about the ‘plus-size niche gaining momentum’. The idea of ‘plus size’ as a separate category, and as ‘niche’ has got to go! Some 67 percent of American women are over size 14, and the average size of women in the US is 16-18. That is not a niche - that is a vast majority. If you think about it for a moment, the fact that women are separated into two streams of accessibility to style and fashion, is a really strange notion. Why should I be locked out of the beautiful things made available to Polina? Who decided where to draw that line, and why does that line still exist this day and age? I think if anyone is waking up to anything, it’s to the idea that inclusivity and diversity should apply to everything – including fashion. Our entire reason for being is to show that this can be done beautifully."

“The idea of ‘plus size’ as a separate category, and as ‘niche’ has got to go!”

How did the idea for Universal Fit Liberty come about? At first sight, the idea doesn’t look profitable for the company, because clients can get two items for the price of one. How do you cover these extra costs?

Veksler: "We saw that women were having a difficult relationship with their reflection in the mirror. They seemed to think of their size as a temporary condition. They were either buying things too small, or deferring the pleasure of getting something they really loved because they wanted a ‘better’ version of themselves to have that pleasure. We just wanted to shut up that bully in their head, the one that is always saying “you are not good as you are. So we decided to take the anxiety out of the shopping experience by telling them we had their back. We invest in our customers, and they have in turn invested in us."

Why do you think other brands lack stylish plus size options?

Waldman: "That’s kind of a sweeping statement. I am sure that some plus-size brands have their ardent fans. I wanted to create something that I didn’t see in this space; something that spoke to my personal taste. Floral camouflage and peplum skirts were not for me. Neither was the quality of the fast fashion which is so prevalent in the plus-size space.

"It always felt to me like the style decision being made on behalf of size 14+ women were not being made by people who paid attention to what was happening in the world of fashion. The design decision felt driven by financial margins, and broad generalizations about ‘the plus-size woman.’ There is no such thing. We are lumping together 100 million women in the US alone. These are women with different tastes, and different wallet sizes. The only thing that binds them in terms of style is the lack of access to a variety of design.

"The short answer is that no one really cared. There was a massive captive audience and a hand full of brands to churned out apparel for that audience. Mainstream brands didn’t want the extra cost of manufacturing bigger sizes, nor could they be bothered with the learning curve in terms of grading and manufacturing. Luxury brands saw bigger women as antithetical to style and beauty. Harsh, but true.

“Luxury brands saw bigger women as antithetical to style and beauty. Harsh, but true”

Your brand has received a 7 million dollar investment, from big names like Gwyneth Paltrow and Toms founder Blake Mysocosie. What are your plans for the future? How do you intend to use the investment?

Waldman: ”We are growing very quickly. Our focus is on creating more options for women when it comes to choice of style, and quality. We want to champion inclusivity and lead from the front with new initiatives like Fit Liberty, and See It In Your Size – which allows you to see how every piece of our clothing looks on every size body we cater to. We plan to invest in people, R&D, showroom experiences, and new categories.”

You have appointment-based showrooms in New York and Seattle. Any plans on opening more? Any plans for a brick and mortar store, or making the brand available at more retailers?

Veksler: "Absolutely! We plan on three more showrooms before the end of the year, eventually a store... Or at least some pop up stores. As for wholesale… Maybe.

Tomorrow: Finery and Save your Wardrobe -- can artificial intelligence help us wear more than just 20 percent of our wardrobes? Stay tuned!

Pictures: courtesy of Universal Standard, Universal Standard Facebook page

Universal Standard