Today, Universal Standard is introducing an extended range of clothes, making all of its items available in sizes 6 to 32, with a goal of scaling them from 0 to 40 in the next few years. The effort is part of cofounders Alexandra Waldman and Polina Veksler’s larger mission to break down the barriers separating women of different sizes. “Plus-size women read all the same fashion magazines that straight size women do,” says Waldman. “They just haven’t seen themselves represented in them.”
Over the past few years, high-end fashion designers such as Marchesa, Christian Siriano, Zac Posen, Cynthia Rowley, and Michael Kors have started making clothes in larger sizes. Mall brands such as J. Crew, Loft, and NYCo have been expanding as well. For many plus-size women, this has been a huge leap forward: Finally, the fashion industry is acknowledging the full 67% of American women who are size 14 and over.[Photo: courtesy of Universal Standard]But such inclusivity rarely goes the other way. There hasn’t been much demand for plus-size brands to move into smaller sizes. This makes sense: Despite recent efforts by a crop of fashionable startups that includes clothing brand Eloquii and subscription service Gwynnie Bee, the plus-size industry has a reputation for clothes that are not particularly stylish or well-made. “It’s like the industry thinks that plus-size women want to look like we’re perpetually on the way to a baby shower,” jokes Waldman, who launched Universal Standard to give women like herself better options. “And you always have to be careful because there’s a good chance that you’ll burst into flames running down Fifth Avenue, just from your thighs rubbing together,” she says, referring the fact that many of these garments are made from cheap, flammable polyester.
Universal Standard’s ability to break through with a new audience rests on its founders’ fixation with achieving the perfect fit, regardless of size. Waldman and Veksler, who previously worked in finance and had no prior fashion experience, first saw the opportunity for a high-end, plus-size brand four years ago. They pooled their savings and spent the next year carefully designing eight garments that Waldman had long dreamed of finding: well-made jeans, asymmetrical dresses with the perfect fall, and simple sweaters made with top-shelf wool, among them. They built out a supply chain, identifying factories where they could pick their ideal fabrics, and took the time to fit each item to real women of all sizes, making tweaks to the cut and drape–an expensive and labor-intensive process–to ensure that the garments were flattering on all body types.
When the first inventory came in, they stored it in Waldman’s one-bedroom apartment in New York City. “We had to learn everything from scratch,” Waldman says. “The fact that we didn’t know anything really helped us because many brands experience pitfalls when they try to do what everyone else is already doing. We had to be inventive.”
That initial eight-piece collection sold out within a week. Since then, Waldman and Veksler have expanded the collection to 100 pieces, with weekly drops, and pushed into workwear, activewear, and petites (for women under 5-foot-4 who wear size 12 and up). Their clothes are now sold on both the company’s website and at Nordstrom.com. After discovering that many plus-size women don’t invest in expensive clothes because they expect to lose weight, the founders also created a groundbreaking return policy called Universal Fit Liberty, which allows shoppers to get replacement sizes within a year of purchase if their weight fluctuates.