Universal Standard is a challenger breaking down barriers to access
with a new, size-inclusive approach to womenswear.
In its first three years the brand has gained impressive momentum,
raising funding from high-profile investors like Natalie Massanet,
Blake Mycoskie and Gwyneth Paltrow, and partnering with J.Crew
on a successful capsule collection. Vogue called its first bricks-andmortar
store in New York ‘the most size-inclusive store ever’.
We spoke to its founders about what it means to be a Democratiser
fighting for ‘Freedom Fashion’, fixing a broken industry, and setting
the new normal.
Why did you create Universal Standard?
ALEXANDRA: I used to write about fashion, so I got to sit and watch
these incredible designs walking the runway, knowing that I was not
able to participate in any of it. I could write about it and tell other
people about it, but none of those things were for me – I was just
not welcome to participate.
When we sat down to think about what it means to democratise
fashion, the idea was that brands probably should be size-agnostic,
because fashion should be about creating beautiful things for anyone
who wants to buy them. Whatever barriers you have, they should be
about taste or maybe budget. But they should never be ‘I’m going to
start with what brands cater to my size, and then out of that I will pick
how I present myself in the world.’
We just thought that it was completely backwards. It was the
established way, the historical way for fashion, and we just thought,
‘This has got to go.’ We need to realign some pretty big ways of
thinking in order to create a new space for all women.
Why is it so important that the brand offers all sizes?
POLINA: We see it as unifying fashion. There is an arbitrary segregation
that has been so ingrained in the fashion industry that it has simply
been accepted as the norm – nobody even questions it anymore.
So, when we came to the space and really looked at it with our bright,
naïve minds we just thought, ‘Why is this line here, and who decided
it should be here? And why does it even exist at all?’ To us, it was not
about making another plus-size brand; that’s antithetical to what we
wanted to create in the world. We wanted to start building a world
where there is no plus size because size is simply not relevant to
the fashion and style conversation.
ALEXANDRA: There’s a very messy truth behind plus-size fashion
in general that people don’t realise. It’s not about the size alone, it’s
about what is on offer in that size. What you have on offer in straightsize
versus the plus-size world is completely different. You’re stepping
down fathoms in terms of what is modern, what is interesting, what
is cool. It’s always at least a year and a half to two years behind trend.
It’s made as fast fashion, so the cheapest kinds of material. You’re not
allowed to be on a par with your peers who have a smaller body, and
that affects a lot of things in your life. It’s not just about the dress you
throw on your back. It has a knock-on effect that runs very deep, both
externally and internally.
Our slogan is ‘All of us. As we are.’ So you are the archetype. No matter
who you are, you should have great clothes that fit beautifully, that
extend beyond a single lifespan within your wardrobe. They should
be good enough to be hand-me-downs. They should be democratically
priced. And we believe that any woman should be able to interpret our clothes on her body and into her personal style, and be the best
version of herself that she can be.
How do you make decisions about where to overcommit
POLINA: I think that we always look at it from the perspective of the
customer and investing in the customer. So most of the things that
we do up front are much more expensive than the investment that
most brands make, be it photographing each item on every size that
we offer, or fitting each item on every single size that we offer and
making micro-adjustments, rather than grading by formula. Or it’s
investing in the quality of fabrics, and making sure that we develop
our fabrics from scratch, and find factories that are skilled and willing
to invest and work with us. Because a lot of these factories have never
had to manufacture clothing in such a large size range or consider
The way we always get around investment is we know that by investing
in our customer there are benefits on the other side. We look at our
repeat purchase rates, and we know that if we continue exceeding
our customers’ expectations, they’re going to continue exceeding our
expectations and will buy consistently from us. We look at our return
rates and know that because we’re investing so much into fit up front
that our return rates are much lower than the industry average,
because the customer gets a consistent fit.
I do think it’s difficult to calculate in the beginning, but you almost
have to take a gamble, and know that if a customer feels like we have
their back, as with the Fit Liberty programme, they’re more likely
to buy from us again than from another brand. So from a financial
perspective it still makes sense.
Partnerships are a key strategy for challengers – can you tell
us more about your partnership with J.Crew?
ALEXANDRA: I was speaking on a CFDA (Council of Fashion
Designers of America) panel, the first panel ever on plus sizes
that they’d held. J.Crew was in the audience, and they approached
us afterwards and said, ‘Look, we really like what you had to say.
We want to be much more inclusive. We want to show our desire
for diversity, but we really want to do this right, and we would love
to learn from your experiences. Can you take us through the process
with a capsule collection, and also in terms of helping us grade
across our existing merchandise?’
Honestly, as somebody who has always had a really hard time
finding what to wear, my first thought was not, ‘This is going to
be great for Universal Standard’. Instead, it was how amazing it
was that a household brand, a household Americana name like J.Crew,
will suddenly open its door to 70% of women who have never had
access to its stuff before. We just thought in terms of changing the
mindset that we exist to change. We thought it was a really amazing
opportunity to go in there and start showing the whole industry that
it’s doable. You can do it well. You can do it beautifully. You’re going
to get accolades. It’s going to be welcome. We just thought it was
a really terrific way to present the whole concept to the world.
Polina once said, ‘If J.Crew had been making my size, we probably
wouldn’t have started Universal Standard’, and so we saw it from that
perspective – how wonderful for all those people who will suddenly
have the chance to shop a brand that they’ve always coveted, and
couldn’t participate in before.
As a challenger brand with a very broad target, how do you approach
media and communications? How do you reach ‘every woman’
without the budget for a Super Bowl ad?
POLINA: We view customer service as the best form of marketing.
We want anyone who has ever had any interaction with us to go away
and tell people, because they expected something from our customer
service team and they blew their minds with how they were treated.
So that has been our approach to getting the word out thus far.
For the majority of acquisition, it has been earned media. So, part
of this is that the tide is moving in the right direction and that people
are interested in this space. And, because we are doing something
new and different, we are being approached for these types of
conversations. Part of it is us going out and doing everything
possible to shout our story from the rooftops.
What is the ambition for Universal Standard?
ALEXANDRA: When I try to think to myself, ‘What is it that we’re
doing?’, it sounds very lofty, but it is nothing short of really changing
the way this broken industry has been operating. It’s broken, and it’s
broken for a reason. I think that we’re going to pull it on to a different
track and really create something that is overdue and accessible to a
lot more people. The knock-on effect of that is that it changes people’s
minds about what is beautiful, who is deserving and what is worthy
POLINA: We want to set the new normal, plain and simple. So, in
five years or less people won’t even remember the other way of doing
things, because this is the way they’ll think it should be and always