Challenger to Watch 2019: Universal Standard

For fighting for fashion freedom


The fashion industry is one we all agree is in need of change, and over the last few years we’ve seen a generation of brands emerging with new approaches to right our fast-fashion wrongs. But, much as I applaud the new challengers like Everlane and Reformation for their commitment to ethical production and a much-needed transparency in supply chain, if your largest size is a 12 and 68% of American women wear a size 14 or above, it’s safe to say you aren’t the holy grail for the majority of the market.  

But, after a marked increase in debate around representation and inclusivity, forged by the activists, style-bloggers and writers of the body positivity movement, the fashion industry finally seems to be waking up to the opportunity of those 68% (and their expendable income – the plus size category is considered to be worth around $21Bn). 

However, while choice has increased in recent years, the brands catering to this market are still mostly either plus-size specific brands like Eloquii (recently acquired by Walmart), extensions of ‘straight-size’ brands such as Asos Curve or Mango’s Violeta, or an afterthought relegated to a dark corner of the store (or not even available in the store at all). So, things are getting better, but it’s not exactly a level playing field on the high street just yet.

Enter Universal Standard, a US-based brand on a mission to make the term ‘plus-size’ obsolete through a completely new size-inclusive approach – offering high quality well-designed wardrobe essentials to all women no matter their dress size. As the name suggests, this isn’t a brand catering for a niche - if you’re a woman who wears clothes, Universal Standard wants your business.

Founders - Polina Veksler and Alex Waldman. Credit: Universal Standard

Founders - Polina Veksler and Alex Waldman. Credit: Universal Standard

To challenge as a democratizer, be it democratizing by price or inclusivity or access, requires a real commitment to new ideas by necessity – widening access and changing perceptions requires new thinking, new models, new partnerships and new processes. In this context, Universal Standard is definitely deserving of its inclusion in Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies 2018 list - from the ‘see it in your size’ feature on its website, negating the need to imagine how design might scale up or down, to its ‘fit liberty’ promise where certain investment items can be exchanged for free if you change size in future, the company is implementing innovative solutions to break down traditional barriers to purchase.

We set out to create a brand for all of US. As we are.

And it is making an impact and growing fast, in fact I wish I’d picked Universal Standard as a Challenger to Watch this time last year, because as they say themselves, they had “a monumental” 2018.  Here’s a brief overview of the highlights…

  • Raised $7m in series A funding from a number of high profile investors including Natalie Massenet, Gwyneth Paltrow and Blake Mycoskie.

  • Partnered with J-Crew to design a capsule collection and help them scale up their range.

  • Expanded their own size range to 6-32.

  • Launched their ‘fashion freedom’ mission.

  • Moved into workwear and activewear.

  • Opened their first bricks-and-mortar store in New York - the “most size inclusive store ever” according to Vogue.

The year culminated in the launch of their flagship Foundation collection – 7 everyday basics for sizes 00-40 – a range which acts as both an entry level collection for new customers, and a piece of thought-leadership that showcases the brand’s broader mission.

“Everything we’ve done so far has led to this moment. We set out to create a brand for all of US. As we are. In its simplest iteration FOUNDATION is just that - the start, our groundwork, a promise of what’s to come.”

Perhaps their success will be judged on how and when the rest of the industry chases them to catch up, but Universal Standard is only three years old and it has the ideas, the momentum and the intention to make real change. 

One to watch.

Helen Redstone is Head of Production at eatbigfish.