In 2019 Universal Standard took on the cost and logistics of becoming one of the most inclusive brands in the industry. This summer the company brought a new way to shop to Seattle.
By Rachel Gallaher
The new Universal Standard store in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood.
I have never gone into a clothing store and had trouble finding something to wear.
I don’t say that to brag or to make anyone else feel bad—it’s just a fact of the body I was born with… and the standards set up by the fashion industry that, for decades, have force-fed women the lie that the thinness equals beauty. For every person like me, there is someone (or more than one person) who goes into 10 stores and can’t find a single thing that fits, someone whose only choice is between loudly patterned muumuus and huge, draping sweater wraps meant to hide, not flatter, the body. In fact, there are a lot of people in that position. According to a November 2018 Reuters’ article, the global plus-size women’s clothing market (its words, not mine) is valued in the hundred-billion-dollar range. Yes, you read that right. Billion. So, why aren’t more companies stepping up to the plate and catering to this market?
“There has been this weird segregation that has been the accepted norm for so long,” says Alex Waldman, cofounder of Universal Standard, a New York-based clothing company that, as of 2019, has become one of the most inclusive clothing brands in the industry. “A size six doesn’t have better taste than a size 20. She just has better options.”
Earlier this summer, Universal Standard opened the first of its 1:1 concept stores in Seattle (since the June opening, it has also opened a location in Chicago, with stores in Houston, Portland, and New York coming soon). An upper-floor space in the Belltown neighborhood, the bright, modern studio provides customers with free personal styling, and a place to have a coffee and hang out, as well as fosters community through events such as movie nights and yoga sessions. Ironically, Waldman notes that for the company, which she launched in 2015 with business partner Polina Veksler, things aren’t actually all about size.
Photograph courtesy Universal Standard
“We decided to build this brand because we wanted to take size out of the conversation,” she explains. “We thought the only way to actually be the change that we want to be is to just level the playing field and make clothes for everyone. Let’s talk about the clothes, not the sizes.”
Known for its mix of standard basics (jeans, T-shirts, pants, and skirts) and more elevated pieces (the company has partnered with high-end designers such as Rodarte, as well as J.Crew and Goop), Universal Standard has adopted an aesthetic that blurs the lines between casual and professional, classic and trendy. Fits flatter the body, materials such as linen blends and super-soft jersey are high quality, and style options are many.
“When I sat down to really think about the aesthetic I was being completely selfish,” admits Waldman, who says she has been on the bigger end of the scale for most of her life. “I was thinking, what do I want to wear? This is my chance to make my own wardrobe.” She notes that she doesn’t use focus groups or source outside input when she designs because she wanted to retain the line’s current aesthetic, and encourage other designers and companies to follow suit in expanding their size offerings.
Universal Standard isn’t the only inclusive clothing brand on the market (there’s Girlfriend Collective, Alice Alexander, And Comfort, to name a few), but it’s the only brand offering every single garment in its collections in every single size from 00 to 40. And they don’t just use a generic formula of averages to scale their sizing—Universal Standard has taken on an expensive, time-consuming sizing process that favors the customer in spite of the bottom line.
“Most brands use one fit model, then scale all of the garments by a few inches up or down using a formula,” Waldman explains, “but we decided to use a fit model for every size we offer so that the fit would be more accurate. When you’re using a formula, by the time you go from a size four to a 24, those shorts you were working with have suddenly become pants.”
Waldman notes that just because Universal Standard makes its clothes available in all sizes, it doesn’t mean that every single item is going to look good on every single person. The point here is access and availability. Any person can go onto the Universal Standard website or into one of its stores and have options. In a market where a large slice of women above a certain size are often presented with very limited options—a rack or two in the back of the store, boring items in all black or printed with childish graphics, cheap material—to be able to enter into a store and not worry about being told, “Oh, we don’t have your size” is revolutionary. And, as exciting as that is, it is also a sad statement. Women’s access to clothing should not be limited based on the size or shape of their bodies.
In a world where money talks, good design has power. And with a still fairly untapped market (at least by most major brands), the opportunity to jump into the inclusively sized market is wide open. Of course, entering into the space solely for profit is just another form of exploiting women’s bodies, so I, of course, am not advocating for that. But come on, it’s 2019, shouldn’t all women have the option to dress in a way that not only allows them to express their personal style, but also makes them feel confident as they go through their day?
“You can’t just lump a group of 115 million women together and say ‘here’s what you want to wear,’” says Waldman. “Giving people the choice to define themselves is powerful.” After all, women have companies to run, families to take care of, and politics to stand for. Who has time to worry about what to wear when there’s a whole, wide world out there to conquer?