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 eight-item 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 Nordstrom.com, 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 top-grade 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.”
How eight brands managed (or mismanaged) their efforts to appeal to new demographics.
1. Bevel: Though its system of razors and creams are specifically designed for—and marketed to—African-American men, five-year-old Bevel has been embraced by Caucasian men, confirming founder Tristan Walker’s thesis that “global culture is led by American culture, which is led by black culture.”
2. Patagonia: How does an outdoor-clothing pioneer sustain the nickname Patagucci without losing its street cred? By never straying from its purpose-driven marketing.
3. Apple: By dressing its powerful iMac in daring candy-colored plastic in 1998, the once-geeky brand made a consumer product with mass-market appeal—and baked great design into its corporate ethos.
4. JetBlue: The budget airline for the vacationing masses rolled out a business-class cabin, called Mint, in 2014. Rather than alienate no-frills fliers, it gave them something to aspire to.
5. Canada Goose: Known for creating ultrafunctional parkas for ultrapractical Northerners, the Toronto brand became a status symbol for people in milder climes by dressing visiting film crews and celebs.
6. Shea Moisture: The personal-care brand made its name by catering to African-American women with formulations for thick, curly hair. But a 2016 campaign featuring white women—an effort to attract a wider audience—led to threats of a boycott. The company apologized, saying it “really f—ed this one up.”
7. Coach: The luxury handbag maker lowered prices (and quality) to appeal to a wider audience in the early 2000s. The effort boosted revenue temporarily but diluted the brand, which is still trying to regain status.
8. ABC: After championing diverse sitcoms such as Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, the network decided to go after the “heartland” by rebooting Roseanne earlier this year. The strategy backfired—and the show was canceled—when its star and cocreator fired off a (not entirely unexpected) racist tweet. The network has since picked up a Roseanne-free spin-off show.