Polina Veksler and Alexandra Waldman launched size-inclusive clothing brand Universal Standard three years ago, but the idea had been there long before 2015, and was born out of their belief that style preference, not body type, should be the only filter when it comes to choosing a wardrobe. Their first collection sold out in a heartbeat – the demand was clearly there, and now the hope is that industry peers will follow suit, providing a wide range of size options to consumers. For now, Universal Standard is the leader of the pack on this front, and we wanted to find out more about the process of taking a simple yet revolutionary concept and making it a reality. Waldman spoke to me over the phone about the brand’s trajectory, its values, the learning curves they’ve faced, and what it’s like to work with a friend in a business venture of this scale:
BYT: When did you start seriously thinking about the Universal Standard concept?
Waldman: The idea started probably about fifteen years ago, but the actual beginning of the business was in 2015 – that’s when we had a little light bulb moment and decided to actually do this.
BYT: And I know you’ve said you were both involved in marketing and finance careers prior to this venture, but what (specifically) did those involve?
Waldman: Well, Polina was in private equity – I believe she was doing commodities and real estate and agriculture in Africa, across the African continent. So it actually had nothing to do with anything apparel-related. And I’d been a fashion journalist, but for years and years I’d been working in a finance company on the marketing side of things, overseeing the whole marketing arm.
BYT: What was the biggest learning curve for you in making the career shift, then?
Waldman: Oh god, there were so many. Strangely enough, it was our lack of knowledge that served us best. We didn’t come into this with any preconceived notions of how things are supposed to work. We just kind of came in completely blind as kittens, went about doing things in a way that made sense to us, and in a way that we didn’t see already existing. We didn’t rely on anyone else’s experience, so we didn’t see a need for things like seasons, you know? We didn’t see a reason for the segregation of sizes, which was really the impetus for making the brand in the first place. We didn’t see a reason why we couldn’t come up with the kind of forward-thinking and leading initiatives like Fit Liberty, that can be adopted by the entire industry. We don’t see a reason for “plus size” to exist – we just kind of thought the time has come for us to rejoin women, especially since the tipping of the scales is 70% on the larger size and 30% on the smaller. So why not offer that to all women? And sort of join them, to make them have their style preference and their tastes be the only filters in choosing their wardrobe, which is basically your armor – it’s how you present yourself to the world. So it’s important.
And learning how to do this was a very steep learning curve, because the industry is not equipped to make these things. And we’re talking from the most basic, infrastructural side of things, like looms that aren’t big enough to weave sweaters for larger women, or the width of fabrics that have to be cut lengthwise instead of width-wise – we have a lot of wastage, which means it’s much more expensive, not to mention the idea of making sizes that are much, much bigger than the smaller sizes, therefore there are costs attached to that. All of that was a huge learning curve, and we started with sizes 10-28. So we knew from the very beginning that we’d be a brand of all sizes for all women, but we had to start somewhere, and we decided to start with the most under-served part of the population, and also the most difficult in terms of fit and cut and quality. And we kind of learned our trade on the harder side of things, and then scaled down and up. So it was a lot of learning, a lot of head scratching, like, “How do we get around this? What do we need in order for this to happen? Who’s going to make a good partner, to perhaps have the tools that aren’t needed in the market yet, but who’s willing to develop them because they see the writing on the wall, and they want to be part of the big change that’s happening in the apparel industry?” All of that took a lot of time and effort.
BYT: Has there ever been any negative feedback or criticism from your peers in the industry who maybe feel shook up about your divergence from the norm?
Waldman: For the most part it’s been overwhelmingly positive. I don’t think any industry people…you know, if they have any negative feelings about it, no one’s taken the time to make it obvious to us. But this is a shift that’s happening. You’re always going to have some people on the wrong side of things, and I do believe it’s the wrong side of things, because this is the right thing to do, it’s the right direction to take. But it is an adjustment, and there are people who are going to need a little bit of time to rethink how they do things, and why they’re valuable. When designers for womenswear say things like they hate breasts because breasts get in the way, you know, we have a fundamental problem. Women have curves, and those curves are incredibly varied. If a huge percentage of women can’t find clothes that fit them, or that look stylish on them, it’s not their fault, it’s the industry’s fault.
BYT: Absolutely. Similarly, have you had many people consulting you about how they can get on board with this movement, either directly with Universal Standard or in their own way?
Waldman: Yeah, we have, actually. We recently launched a collaboration with J.Crew, who approached us for this very reason and said, “Look, we think this is the right direction to take, and we want to do it properly. We want to make a permanent change, and we’d like to learn from what you learned.” And we collaborated on a collection, and also helped them scale their entire offerings. So there are people who are very interested. There’s a tremendous amount of interest in doing this well, and doing this in the way that we’ve been doing it. We’ve developed all kinds of innovations, I guess you could call them – I call it micrograding, because we didn’t want to grade since we have such a huge range and knew we’d be heading toward this broad range of sizes. We didn’t want to grade between sizes with a formula, because using a formula across a broad spectrum of sizing is like making photocopies of photocopies of photocopies – you know, by the time you get to the tenth one, you can’t even read what the original said. So it’s the same with clothing – if you want to have a knee-length skirt, by the time you got to a large size, the formula that you used to grade it without giving it any thought would result in an ankle-length skirt, just because it got bigger in the waist and then got longer. We really wanted to be very conscious about how we grade our sizing, and we actually developed this idea of micrograding, which is to grade differently between each size, and then to actually fit it on a model of every single size. So this is something that we do that I don’t think anyone else does. We actually use fit models of the entire size spectrum to ensure that, you know, if a skirt is meant to stop at the knee, then it stops at the knee for all sizes.
BYT: That’s amazing. Do you wear your own designs every day? Or are there other brands and designers that you’re also into?
Waldman: I wear Universal Standard every single day – I know what it is and I designed it and I love it, and obviously it’s my personal taste. But I always say that as much as I love it, I don’t want to just be wearing Universal Standard for the rest of my life. I would really hope that other designers and other brands go into furthering their size range and size offerings, because I’d love to be able to walk into any store I want and buy whatever my budget will allow, with my taste as really the only filter.
BYT: You sold out that first collection so quickly, and there was obviously a huge demand for this gap in the market to be filled, but aside from that demand, how did you build brand awareness at the outset? Was your marketing background useful to that at all?
Waldman: The marketing background didn’t really come into play. [Laughs] I’ll be honest with you, everything e-commerce was brand new. So that was a huge learning curve as well. The silver-lining, let’s say, for brands that are taking the larger consumer into account is that those consumers are actively searching for them as well. They’re not like straight size customers who are chased by brands, they’re running towards the brands as much as the brands are running to them. So there’s a lot of activity, and a lot of grassroots information exchange, a lot of organic growth. And this is what we really sort of benefited from – when people tried things, or had heard of the brand, or saw the way we were presenting, the idea of all women and diversity kind of started to spread on its own. We just turned three, so we’re still babies, and we have a long, long way to grow, but it’s been very much propelled by our customers and the consumers themselves.
BYT: And what’s it like to partner with Polina on the brand? Do you have any advice for people who are considering working with a friend (as opposed to someone with less emotional or social ties to you) on a business venture?
Waldman: It’s funny you should ask, because no one really ever asks that question. When we first started, a lot of people were very worried, because a personal relationship can be a bond, but it can also be something that complicates things. The great thing that we have is that we’ve got completely different skills. Polina is the CEO in every sense of the word, because a ship can only have one captain when it comes to running a business. It’s too complicated otherwise. And I always say that Polina is the human equivalent of an Excel spreadsheet, and I’m the human equivalent of Photoshop. [Laughs] We could not be more different in terms of our skills and our abilities, but the one thing we have in common that we’re absolutely on the same page with is our values. So we both work out strategy and where the company is going, but as far as business and creative go, there’s a very clear separation of roles. And it works out well.
BYT: That sounds like a good system. What does a typical day look like for you? Or if one doesn’t exist, do you have any daily rituals that help you feel like there’s a bit of a routine?
Waldman: There’s no typical day in a startup. You’re everything from the cleaner to the person speaking to the press. There are a million things, and every day is very, very different. The one ritual that I have is that I like to give myself time in the morning to really step into the day. I need that hour and a half in the morning to be at home before my day starts. I can’t speak for Polina, but she has two little kids and two dogs and a husband, and a very active life outside the business, so she’s incredibly busy. But this is a person who’s also really into working out, and she finds the time to do it all.
BYT: And if you could go back in time and whisper a bit of advice to yourself about how to expedite your success with this brand, what would you say, if anything? Or what advice might you offer to someone who wants to pursue a dream job?
Waldman: It’s very easy to speak in lofty ideals, because here we are doing this thing, and I could say, “Hey, dream your dreams!” But honestly, somehow this found us. It found me. It’s something that’s always been a passion of mine, and maybe it was just the right time, but certainly the confluence of the time in the apparel industry and the time in my meeting with Polina here in New York…there was a nexus of things that had to come together in order for things to go the way they have. But I can say one thing in terms of encouragement – absolutely nothing is impossible. There’s just no such thing as impossible. If you have the right people working with you, and you have an idea that needs to live in the world and needs to exist because there are people who absolutely need to have it, there’s a way to bind those things organically together into a dream job.
Photos by Lexie Moreland