Polina Veksler and Alexandra Waldman had no experience in retail or manufacturing before starting a clothing company from scratch, which proved to be one of their greatest assets in challenging the status quo of current fashion. Together, Waldman and Veksler created Universal Standard (US) – a clothing company built on inclusivity, providing options to an often neglected group of consumers. Here, the brand’s founders share how they’re leading this fashion movement and their latest venture into free-access, community-centric retail spaces.
Adweek: Why did you start Universal Standard?
Polina Veksler: One night, Alex told me she wouldn’t come to an event we were invited to because she didn’t have anything to wear. I suggested what I thought was an easy fix, and said we’d go shopping. That shopping trip opened my eyes. It was the first time I realized that millions of women don’t have the same experience I do when they enter a store; they don’t have the same options or the same freedom to express their style and taste. It was the first time I saw that a glaring change needed to be made.
Alex Waldman: Polina was introduced to a truth I had known for a long time, which is that the options available for straight-sized women just don’t exist for women my size. Fashion was built on the premise of exclusivity, and for years we have been denying nearly 70% of American women access to great style and variety. We started Universal Standard to fight that. We are on a mission to create a new normal where size isn’t part of the equation, and all women can shop together in one place – using style as their only filter.
What defining characteristics make Universal Standard a Challenger?
Waldman: When we started Universal Standard, we didn’t have any background in retail or manufacturing. It was scary, but actually I think our lack of experience was an asset – we were trying to bring something new to the world and it allowed us to approach the business from a fresh direction. We were thinking ‘whatever is here is not working, so what do we need to do to break it and make something better?’
You recently opened a new experiential retail space in NYC, the fourth of its kind for the brand. What was the thinking behind the 1:1 concept?
"Now, shopping in a physical space needs to be about much more than the purchase transaction."
Waldman: Now, shopping in a physical space needs to be about much more than the purchase transaction. We wanted to create a space our customers felt was theirs as well...Of course, there is the private, bespoke styling experience, but there are also amazing events hosted by US and... the 1:1 spaces themselves are available to our customers for their own private events, absolutely for free. There are no rental fees, no membership fees–because we have learned that generosity is never wasted on our customers.
How are you leveraging partnerships to further the US mission and message?
Waldman: Earlier this month, we launched adidas | Universal Standard, a performance collection created with inclusivity in mind. We have already worked with household brands like J.Crew to help them extend their sizing, and brought high-fashion brands like Rodarte to millions of women who never dreamed they could own their beautiful pieces. The collaboration with adidas was the next step in our continued commitment to ushering in fashion freedom and sparking an industry-wide revolution, making sure millions of women are included and seen.
What's the most exciting thing happening in marketing right now and how is it changing the future?
Veksler: Representation. The industry is waking up to the idea that beauty is a much broader concept than we have been corralled into believing. To find something attractive, you have to see it represented over and over. As a brand, we don’t ask you to change. We want to represent and see all of us, as we are.
What’s one major challenge you’ve had to overcome as entrepreneurs?
Veksler: From the practical side of things, we face some infrastructural challenges when it comes to the range of products and sizes we offer. There are no looms or machines big enough to create a few of our pieces normally. We are lucky to have found manufacturing partners who are interested in exploring new ways of doing things and are really willing to go there with us.
"To be perfectly honest, ... it has been clear that not everyone is ready for this conversation."
Waldman: This topic is emotional, and it can be very personal. To be perfectly honest, at more than a few points, it has been clear that not everyone is ready for this conversation. While it’s challenging, we believe fiercely in this new normal. We think access should be the baseline and we want to bring the rest of the industry along on this journey and empower them to stand with us to make it a reality.
What advice can you share with fellow marketers and entrepreneurs?
Veksler: One of the most important things that I’ve learned is that you can do anything if you set your mind to it. There have been times when I've felt like I'm biting off more than I can chew and everything seems impossible, but being persistent and staying positive has helped me get through all the challenges that we've experienced so far.
Waldman: Trust your instincts and don’t let the fear of failure freeze you out of what’s worth taking a risk for.