The co-founder of Universal Standard shares how she’s shattering the size barrier for stylish clothing.
After a shopping trip together, friends Polina Veksler and Alexandra Waldman teamed up to tackle the size divide in the fashion industry. Started in 2015, their clothing company Universal Standard caters to women size 10-28, with plans to expand the range to sizes 6-32. Recently the company announced its launch of plus petites and that the brand’s clothing will be sold alongside other designers at Christian Siriano’s new boutique in New York City. Washington Life caught up with Waldman to talk all things fashion.
Washington Life: You’ve had an interesting career path. How did you wind up at Universal Standard?
Alexandra Waldman: I worked both as a freelance journalist in Japan, and I was also an editor at a daily newspaper, The Japan Times. Then I moved over to marketing. I started working in a very different sphere in the finance world and eventually wound up, after living in Paris and Tokyo, living in Moscow and working for a large financial conglomerate. Polina worked for another division. We worked in the same sphere and knew of each other, but didn’t know one another personally. We both left and came to New York where former colleagues of ours reintroduced us. We got reconnected.
WL: How did Universal Standard happen?
AW: I’m a plus size woman. Polina is not. We lived in very different worlds without her even realizing. Unless you’re suffering from the lack of access to clothing, you wouldn’t know it exists. Why would you? We had been invited to attend an event, and because we knew no one but each other, Polina was like, “Yes, we are going to go.” I said, “I’m not going. I have nothing to wear.” She looked at me like I’m insane. She said I lived two blocks from Fifth Avenue, and then it was my turn to look at her like she’s insane. I told her there’s not a single store on Fifth Avenue for me to shop at. She thought I was exaggerating, so I took her to a department store. It had this little corner of plus size, and it was heartbreaking.
I think when she actually saw that, the penny dropped. I asked her, “What would you think of putting our heads together?” I obviously knew a little bit about fashion because I wrote about fashion and was a lifelong fan of it. We decided to give it a go and created an eight-piece collection. Refinery29 wrote one article on us, and we sold out in six days.
WL: Describe Universal Standard’s style in three words.
AW: Modern, Elevated. Essential.
WL: Who came up with the name?
AW: We both did. We were determined to come up with a name not euphemistically attached to larger sizes and size extension. We wanted something that sounded architectural. We sat down for three days and just went back and forth and back and forth and finally uttered the words. For us it just made so much sense for what we wanted to build. The idea was to create a universal standard instead of a standard for small sizes and one for larger sizes. It was a bit of a thunder-clap.
WL: What has been the best part of the job so far?
AW: Honestly, the most satisfying part is the love letters we get from our customers. I know it sounds hokey, but you cannot imagine the beauty of these letters. They bring us to tears. They are really sort of incredibly emotional and touching. It just fuels our fire. It’s not easy to build something from scratch. [The letters] are the best feeling part of it all, aside from a new wardrobe.
WL: And the most challenging?
AW: A lot of things. The whole concept is challenging. To do plus size well is like an entirely different science. When you go from size 2 to size 8, you scale up. Once you get past size 14 there are differences in body topography, You’re using way more fabric. Costs go up. You have to be clever. You have to really understand how to grade clothing and find manufacturers willing to learn infrastructure problems with looms and fabric widths that aren’t wide enough.
WL: Now for some quick, fun questions. What’s your favorite article of clothing from the brand?
AW: My absolute favorites are the jeans, which are a bit of a legend already in the plus size jeans world. They do not look like jeggings. They don’t wear out between the thighs.
WL: What’s your fashion inspiration?
AW: It would have to be street fashion and real fashion you find around you. Store windows. Everything that influences us – doesn’t matter if you’re size 6 or 26. We want the same styles. I design for myself. I want to head out into the world looking like my peers.
WL: What’s the brand’s soundtrack for fashion shoots?
AW: It can be anything from Cardi B to Willie Nelson.
WL: What’s next?
AW: We are actually very keen on becoming a fully articulated lifestyle brand. I know what’s beautiful, and my taste is no worse than anyone else. A size 6 never had better taste. She just had better options.
Waldman added one way that Universal Standard sets an example for the fashion industry with its Universal Fit Liberty policy, which lets customers replace clothing from the core collection once for free for up to one year with a new size. The returned clothes get donated to two charities that help dress women getting back into the workforce. She said women with larger bodies often don’t want to spend money on clothing, because it means committing to their current size. “It’s been very popular,” Waldman said. “You can hear a collective sigh. The changes you are hoping for happen when you feel the best.”
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.