In an era when the industry appears to be witnessing the breakdown of fashion, the founders and designers at Universal Standard still believe in its power.
And at a time when plus-size retailers are struggling, they aren't shedding a tear.
"We're not a body positive brand," Alexandra Waldman, co-founder and creative director, said in an interview with Retail Dive, sitting just beyond the brand's shop floor in the back of its SoHo location in New York. "We just think you shouldn't make an emotional payment when you buy clothes. Whatever the conversation is in fashion, it really should not be about size. Let's not talk about it anymore."
That's the ideal. Along the way to its realization, though, Waldman, co-founder and CEO Polina Veksler and their team must talk about size a lot. They're working to dismantle the notion that apparel for those who don't happen to fit within the industry's narrow range of sizes must be corralled into some separate production and retail zone.
The work at Universal Standard entails not only creating its own assortment of casual, active, denim and dressy styles in sizes 00 to 40, but also partnering with outside brands to achieve, or at least approach, that level of inclusion. It's hardly a side gig: To date, those partners have included J. Crew, Rodarte, Adidas and Goop — and a host of others, working behind the scenes and off the record, that are tapping the company's expertise in grading patterns, a complex process for such a diverse set of customers.
As a retailer, Universal Standard brings that ethos to its own imagery and operations as well. The company keeps it simple, employing its concepts of "Fashion Freedom" and "All of us, as we are" throughout its website and other materials. But simplicity isn't always easy.
It means presenting its clothing on a diverse set of body types, and, given the lack of diversity among models, that hasn't been a slam dunk. Despite some progress in the modeling world, there remains a dearth of those who can showcase Universal Standard's clothing to its target market, which is, essentially, everybody.
To remedy that, the company in August cast more than two dozen women, recruited during their commute on the New York City subway, who are "diverse in age, gender identity, race and sexual orientation," for an advertising campaign. To help women shop on its site, the company features "See It In Your Size," which shows how each item looks in various fits — and entails shooting images of women wearing every item in the entire size range. For that, Universal Standard said it found some models on Instagram and otherwise has pushed the modeling agencies it works with to sign new talent to their rosters.
Along with offering the "bespoke experience" of checking out looks in various sizes, the company has introduced "Fit Liberty," a select assortment that allows customers to exchange items when their size changes. The collection and its policies, (the latest developed with actor Danielle Brooks, of "Orange is the New Black," around her pregnancy), include maternity wear — but apply to anyone whose body undergoes changes that warrant a wardrobe adjustment. If a customer's size shifts up or down within a year of purchase from that collection, Universal Standard will replace it in their new size for free and donate the gently-worn clothing.
While it sells mostly online (and offers virtual styling guidance), the company also runs brick-and-mortar locations in New York, Houston, Chicago, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, now with "1:1 spaces," where customers can book in-real-life styling appointments and attend events like workshops. Those are also available to the community for private events like book clubs at no charge, and plans are to expand to 10 cities across the U.S. over the next year.
"We want to be the point of the spear, and say, 'This is the way it could be, this is the way it should be,'" Waldman said. "To be comfortable with what you're wearing and know you look cool is what fashion is supposed to do."