Universal Standard's New York perma-pop-up location fits well in the heart of Manhattan's retail-heavy Soho neighborhood, nestled comfortably between storefronts occupied by luxury players like Celine, Gucci and Isabel Marant. It's Universal Standard's hope, too, that its physical proximity to luxury retailers might be met with a step towards deeper relationships with the fashion industry at large.
When Universal Standard launched in 2016, its goals included creating visibility for the oft-ignored plus-size shopper — a market that was worth an estimated $21.4 billion in 2016, and encompasses the two-thirds of American women who are above a size 14. Today, that goal includes empowering the rest of the fashion industry to do the same, through ongoing working relationships between high- and low-end brands and acting as a standard bearer for what inclusive fashion looks like, both in store and online.
The brand's active steps towards inclusivity comes first in the form of extending its sizing, first from sizes US 10 to 28 and then US six to 32, to now include sizes US 00 to 40. But what's more: Every single one of those sizes is available to view, on fit models in each size, on Universal Standard's website, with a feature called "see your size," the first of its kind across what the brand calls the industry's most inclusive size range.
The feature, which went live site-wide on Universal Standard last week, shows the brand's entire inventory of products on models across their available size range, and also includes comparative features allowing consumers to compare sequentially what a size 10 might look like next to a size 12 and a size 14 in the same garment, culminating in a digital shopping experience which is completely "bespoke to your size," says co-founder Alexandra Waldman.
"This is a project we're hoping the industry will adopt, and we want to make ourselves available to the industry," Waldman tells Fashionista. "As much as I love Universal Standard, I want to be able to wear other things as well, and we want [inclusivity] to be the normal thing."
As much as the new site feature is about visibility, it's also about sales. While it's important to prioritize imagery on e-commerce sites for any retailer, using quality detail shots and front-facing imagery using models to communicate a brand's story, successful e-commerce features are vital to the survival of direct-to-consumer brands like Universal Standard. The journey to create the "see your size" feature on Universal Standard's site was a logistically and financially intensive one, and took about three months (and a sizeable investment) to complete from concept to beta testing, the brand's co-founders explained, though declined to give any figures surrounding the process. Universal Standard completed beta testing for the digital feature in February with its denim offerings, and saw a 65 percent conversion to sales rate (declining to disclose their initial digital conversion rate) encouraging the brand to expand the feature site- and inventory-wide.
Though Universal Standard may be the first to launch such a comprehensive digital effort towards inclusivity, its goal is not to be the only company to do so. Waldman and co-founder Polina Veksler say they have begun working in a consultative role for other industry brands, in part thanks to the overwhelmingly positive reception to Universal Standard's Rodarte collaboration which launched in April.
The Universal Standard-Rodarte partnership, for its part, acted effectively as a landmark for luxury players realizing they, too, can launch a successful body positive line. Other brands across the industry have approached Universal Standard for partnerships, and though its founders declined to name names, Waldman says, "there will be a moment soon when we hope to raise and wave the flag to say this is what the future looks like, and it's with a big global brand."
Nowhere is the plus-size fashion problem more evident than in the luxury space, where brand imagery and runways might communicate inclusivity (though even runways are slowing on their progress towards being truly size-inclusive) but the efforts are in many cases performative at best, with product inventory across the space hardly entering double-digit sizing. For its part, the CFDA and size-inclusive digital native Dia & Co. partnered in September to fund plus-size education programs across the country's top fashion schools, an attempt at addressing the industry's systemic issues.
Of course, Universal Standard has other ideas for the industry on how to destigmatize size-centric shopping that they've implemented successfully themselves. The company's "Fit Liberty" program, for example, allows shoppers to exchange any Universal Standard garment purchased within a year for the same garment in a different size, the goal being to make shopping less about size (i.e., "I'll buy the smaller size as a reward for when I lose weight") and more about clothes that bring you joy. In turn, the brand upcycles the clothing and donates it to programs like Dress for Success and the Coalition for the Homeless, outfitting people in well-made garments who could otherwise not afford them.
Universal Standard is still a three-year-old, privately owned upstart (granted, with more than $7 million in funding backed by the likes of Imaginary Ventures' Natalie Massenet and MatchesFashion founders Tom and Ruth Chapman), with more goals than they have resources to accomplish — at least for the time being. Veksler says the brand plans to expand its physical retail presence, for now limited to New York and Seattle, across the country with 10 to 13 permanent showroom spaces in the next year. Eventually it would like to enter the footwear and accessories spaces, too, which Veksler sees as a natural fit for the Universal Standard brand. (If you've ever fallen in love with a pair of knee-high boots that didn't fit over your calves, perhaps some future version of Universal Standard could solve that problem.)
"It's not enough for us to be 00 to 40 and reach this revolutionary inclusivity we've wanted to reach from the start, rather the commitment is to help others in the industry to be able to do the same," Veksler says. "This is about really committing to talking about it and helping and encouraging other brands to do what we think is not just the right thing from a business perspective, but from a human perspective."