“Everyone wants to be seen,” Alexandra Waldman tells COOLS before discussing Foundation, the latest collection for Universal Standard, the minimalist and casually-luxe label she co-founded with friend Polina Veksler in 2015. Foundation is exactly what it sounds like: beautiful, tried-and-true staples of a woman’s wardrobe that she can keep forever and build her closet around. What sets apart this collection of clothing basics from other options is that the pieces are offered in sizes 00-40, a veritable watershed moment for the fashion industry.
Waldman, who is also Universal Standard’s creative director, explained that the label’s conception was born out of necessity — she couldn’t find any clothes that were made with her in mind. Options in her size were few and far between both in terms of fit and style. That’s when Waldman decided to take matters into her own hands, with the idea that the nearly 70% of American women who were a size 14 and above (a size that is commonly thought of being plus-size) deserved to have access to as many options and styles as available to smaller sizes.
In the three years since the e-commerce label’s launch, they’ve disrupted the fashion industry, landing collaborations with J. Crew and actress Danielle Brooks. Now, with Foundation, Universal Standard is looking to help women build their wardrobes, starting with beautiful, well-made basics: a camisole, a turtleneck, and a bandeau, all ranging from $35 – $200, are just a few of the offerings of the latest launch, which is available at their NYC-based pop up store and their website. Following the launch of Foundation, we caught up with Waldman to talk inclusivity, fashion freedom, and why Universal Standard’s clothing can help you live in the present.
COOLS: What were the elements you wanted to focus on with Universal Standard that you felt weren’t being met in the fashion industry that you wanted to address?
Alexandra Waldman: “This is going to sound very basic and maybe surprising, but I couldn’t find any clothes for myself. It was as simple as that. I wear a size 20 (I sort of oscillated between a 16 and a 20 my entire adult life), and the choices available to me were abysmal. When people think about size inclusivity, they focus on the word “size.” But the real problem is actually in the styles that are available to women in double-digit sizing. It could not be more different than what’s available to women in single-digits. There’s just no comparison. There’s very little available and what is available is completely different in terms of quality and selection. I hate to use the word “trend,” but you’re perpetually two years behind the most obvious fashion trends and that’s kind of the pool that you have to choose from as a plus-size woman.”
COOLS: Universal Standard recently launched the Foundation Collection, which was created with the intent for all women to have really beautiful, high quality staples for their wardrobe. What about the original values of the company did you also bring into creating this collection?
AW: “We wanted to say: ‘It’s time to re-evaluate the access that 70% of American women, of the 100 million women alone, have had to great clothing and apparel.’ We wanted to start with something called a Foundation because it had several meanings for us. This is where you start when you’re redoing your wardrobe and you’re turning a page.
“These are great layering pieces, they’re comfortable, they’re the sort of things you will reach for on a daily basis. For us, it was also a question of coverage. From bandeau to turtleneck and everything in between, we wanted to give people the foundational pieces that would allow their existing wardrobe to click together more easily. Also from the perspective of how we brought this into the world and into the public eye, we worked with a lot of people who were the foundation for the brand and helped us as we were coming up.”
COOLS: What sets Universal Standard apart from other retailers that make and carry plus-size lines?
AW: “There aren’t any retailers that have offerings for all sizes. I mean, there are some retailers that offer extended sizes, but there are no brands out there that offer the full range. There are brands that are doing standard sizing, which is like a 0-12, that have extended to maybe a 16 or an 18. There are plus-size brands that start at a 16 and go to a 24 or 28, but you will not find a lot of brands that offer the fullest possible range of larger sizes. And you certainly won’t find a lot of brands that don’t segregate the two.”
COOLS: Universal Standard also has a really unique company policy for their customers called the Fit Liberty, where they can trade them in for another size within a year. Why did you decide to implement this?
AW: “We’re a native digital, e-commerce brand, so most of our interactions through the interface of the computer. But we do have two showrooms and a store in Soho, and when we started having these in-real-life experiences with our customers, we saw how they were interacting with both the clothing and themselves in the mirror.
“It was like an audible sigh of relief; there was this kind of realization that “Oh, there’s no risk to my pocketbook, there’s no risk to my ego, I can actually wear something that fits me right now.” Our slogan is “All of us, as we are,” because that’s the reality. Embracing yourself as you are and whatever your future plans may be.”
COOLS: Another thing I noticed while going through the Foundation collection was that it was all at a relatively accessible price point. Was that an important factor in creating this collection?
AW: “It was very important for us to be democratically priced. That is why we decided to go the direct-to-consumer route, because there’s no wholesale markup. We knew we could create something that would give our consumers a break from all the crap that comes with fast-fashion in terms of poor quality and what it does to the environment. How can we make great clothes that have a long lifespan and that we can incorporate into Fit Liberty, so when people return clothes, we can donate them to women who are trying to get back on their feet, through charity? We wanted to create a sort of circular economy around it, and the way we saw that happening was by creating great clothes at very democratic prices.
“The problem, however, is that most of the plus-size consumer’s options are in fast-fashion, which comes at fast-fashion price tags. For the plus-size consumer, our prices may feel more like luxury, but this is all part of the change that is happening where women are starting to understand that they can expect more and that they deserve more and that they don’t have to look at fast-fashion as the one thing they get to wear. We think there’s enough fast-fashion out there; there’s more than enough that we need to change our purchasing habits for the sake of the people who make fast-fashion, for the sake of the environment, and for the sake of the consumer. You should be able to wear something 40 times and still have it be in great shape. We really believe in buying less, but buying great stuff.”
COOLS: Because Universal Standard has made prioritized making their products available to everyone, have you faced any unique challenges in getting your clothes made?
AW: “It has less to do with the ultimate price tag of the apparel, and more about the expertise and the infrastructure that exists (or rather, doesn’t exist) to support the larger sizes. We had to learn ourselves how to create a broader size offering, and the people we are fortunate enough to hold hands with to manufacture these pieces also saw the writing on the wall and wanted to do this. They wanted to raise the level of expertise, so we learned together. There are actually very real obstacles to entering the space; although they’re totally surmountable, it does take partnerships with manufacturers who are willing to change the way they make things, some of the machinery they use, and who are willing to look at how patterns are cut, because when you’re making a dress in a size two and you’re making a dress in a size 32, there’s a different level of expertise and a different cost. And figuring all of that out needs a bit of attention.”
COOLS: How do you think Universal Standard is impacting the fashion industry?
AW: “I’m going to be very honest with you—this may sound a little immodest, or a funny thing to say because it sounds so lofty for a start-up to have these kinds of goals, but we really were thinking beyond the brand. We saw not really an opportunity but a desperate need to change the way the apparel industry has been interacting with the consumer. It just doesn’t make any sense to have an industry in such turmoil and financial distress and yet have this completely starved consumer base not be attended to. It don’t make any sense.
“What we wanted to do was build a brand that not only offered something to this woman that she’s never had before, but we also wanted to set an example to the industry, to show them that you can do this and it can be done well and to the benefit of your business, to the benefit of the consumer, to the benefit of everyone involved. You can lead from the front and come up with new, innovative approaches like Liberty, and break down the size barriers that are arbitrarily posed. We thought: ‘If we can do this well, people will pay attention and will see that this can be done.’ That was our aim from the very start.”
COOLS: What would you say your top priorities are with the company?
AW: “Fashion freedom. The idea that everyone has the right, the reach, and the ability to dress themselves and present themselves to the world the way they would like. Clothing is the armor we wear for life, and when you’re not allowed to choose how you present yourself, it compromises a lot of other things. We want women to feel free from being pigeonholed in the tropes that have existed for decades, and we want to allow women to use their taste and style as the first filter, rather than their size, for the clothes that they live in.”
COOLS: The beautiful editorial campaign for Foundation was widely spread and featured a really diverse cast of models. What was the concept behind it and the process of bringing it to life?
AW: “It’s about visibility; it’s about representation. There are reasons why people think certain things are really beautiful and certain things are not, and part of that is the constant reiteration in the public eye of ‘this is pretty, this is pretty, this is what you should be aiming for’—and to the detriment of all other iterations. We thought: ‘Enough of that, let’s just dress everyone.’ And the whole idea of the freedom to exist in the world as you are was the concept behind it. We cast a lot of different women of different ages, different sexual orientations, different races, and different body sizes that are all part of this great universal mix that we wanted to bring into the world as the norm.”
COOLS: How do you stay inspired to continue doing the work that you’ve been doing for Universal Standard?
AW: “There’s so much to be done that we’re excited by the runway ahead of and in front of us. We work very, very hard. Every single person on our team works incredibly hard because they believe in what we’re doing. It’s not just a brand—it’s what’s behind the brand, and I think that when we get letters from our consumers, it brings us to tears, it brings us to laughter. That is great fuel for the fire. You just know that you’re doing the right thing.”
COOLS: What can we expect from Universal Standard in the future?
AW: “Everything. We are really keen to explore the whole universe, the whole lifestyle idea. The freedom to have things and have access to things is a universal concept. We really are not putting any limitations on the brand right now; we’re growing really quickly and we’re getting great feedback. This is important; this is worth doing, and it’s worth doing well. Everyone wants to be seen. The ultimate goal of our brand is to let everyone shine.”