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How Alexandra Waldman Is Creating a More Inclusive Fashion Future

How Alexandra Waldman Is Creating a More Inclusive Fashion Future

portrait of Tricia Ismail
Tricia Ismail
Senior Editor

The goal was to create something that wasn’t in existence, a shopping experience that was the same from size 00 to 40. The result? Universal Standard. A fashion brand that promises equal style opportunity for every size, Co-Founder Alexandra Waldman is starting a retail revolution with her business partner Polina Veksler. A retailer that is dedicated to their customers (see Fit Liberty), Universal Standard is paving the way for a brighter, more inclusive, fashion future. 

Alexandra Waldman and Polina Veksler, co-founders of inclusive clothing brand Universal Standard, sitting at a table with magazines on top.
Alexandra Waldman and Polina Veksler, Co-founders of inclusive clothing brand Universal Standard.

 

When did you start your company/work?

2015 was the year Universal Standard went from being an idea, to being a business. 

Why did you start this work/company? 

Polina and I really just wanted to shop together. When we’d try on clothes, she had so many options, and in some stores, I could only buy a candle — none of the actual clothing came in my size. The only places I could shop were plus-size stores, and of course, Polina couldn’t find anything there, either. 

We realized that the world needed a brand where both of us could shop for the same exact clothing. We wanted to do something different and build a brand that didn’t exist, a brand that includes everyone. The whole idea was to erase the line between “us” and “them.” 

Tell us about yourself.

I am the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Universal Standard, and dog lover! My career path has been diverse. Before Universal Standard, I worked as a fashion editor in Japan for many years, and then moved over to financial marketing for a large financial conglomerate. These roles enabled me to live in some of the most exciting cities in the world — Tokyo, Paris, Moscow, and New York. In my experience, a career path is not something set in stone, and it’s always possible to make a switch to something you’re passionate about. 

What was one challenge you overcame during the early days of your company/work?

There are a lot of obstacles when you try to do something that nobody has done before. The thing we were embarking on was not just to make clothes in a broader spectrum of sizes — we wanted to change the way fashion looks at people, and the way people look at fashion. We had no experience working in any sort of manufacturing, so the initial learning curve was very steep. For example, we faced some infrastructural challenges because of the breadth of our 00-40 size range. For some pieces, there were no looms or machines big enough to do what we needed to do. There were people who thought we were crazy, but we were pretty unyielding. Fortunately, we were also very lucky to find partners who were very interested in exploring new ways of doing things along with us.

Was there anyone who helped pave the way for your business or career?

At first it was just the two of us, and we thought our own way out of problems. When we met others in the industry, we leaned on founders and entrepreneurs who were also irreverent thinkers, and who provided invaluable advice. I had a deep understanding of the struggles women like me had when it came to apparel. When we applied that very personal insight to the things we were learning, it felt like we were on the right track.

What are some of the ways women today can help raise and inspire the next generation of ambitious females?

We can help each other by sharing knowledge and learnings. When you see someone getting on the same path that you’ve already travelled, help them with what you learned. The more you share, the better everything turns out. We’ve had all kinds of experiences building the brand this far, and we promised ourselves that we would always try to help others, knowing how difficult it can be.

Why is it important for established women to put time into helping the next generation of women who are looking to shake up industries and even start their own companies?

Because it helps build a better life experience for all of us. I generate my best ideas when I’m working with others and when you’re faced with as many obstacles as we were, the kindness and experience of others is what you really need for success. 

If you do things right, others will depend on you. It is a privilege and a huge responsibility.

How would you describe yourself in three words?

Observer, creative, protective.

What’s something most people might not assume about you at first glance?

That the city I lived in the longest in my life is Tokyo.

What quality do you love most about yourself?

My ability to empathize with others.

When do you feel most beautiful and/or confident?

After a solid eight hours of sleep.

When and where are you happiest?

Vatican Museum, bookstores, and at home with my dog.

If you could give your younger self advice, what would you tell her?

Don’t forget to be good to yourself.

What’s the top song on your playlist right now?

Lately by Celeste

What is your motto?

Anything can be understood if it’s explained properly.

What are the advantages or benefits of being outside of the traditional workplace environment that many people may not realize or know about?

The freedom to dream things up and bring them into being is an enormous privilege. In the early days of our business, it felt like stepping into pitch darkness every step of the way. But the fact that we had no preconceived notions of anything, served us well in the end. We tried things that more experienced manufacturers or retailers may have talked us out of. It would have impeded our creativity and not allowed us to be as fearless and as imaginative as we needed to be in order to launch Universal Standard.

Why is it important to understand both the challenges and benefits of being outside the traditional workplace environment?

If you do things right, others will depend on you. It is a privilege and a huge responsibility.

Do you think founders/disruptors/creators should take time to reflect on the pros, even if they’re constantly putting out fires?

Absolutely! Nothing we do is ever easy or straightforward, but we truly want to stand for something. We hope that by representing all types of people over time, we can influence current norms and establish new standards of beauty that celebrate everyone, as they are.

What did success mean to you when you first started your company/work? How has your definition of success changed since then?

Our first collection sold out in six days, and then there was a 1,700 person waitlist for our denim. For a young brand, with two founders who did not have a background in fashion, that sort of response so early on was simply unimaginable and a huge confidence booster. Now, we want to look beyond ourselves and empower the industry to find ways to bridge the divide between plus-size and straight-size. Every time a brand expands their size range, it feels like a win. 

The whole idea was to erase the line between “us” and “them.”

Based on your experience, what do you believe is one of the most challenging hurdles women have to overcome when it comes to creating changes in their industry and/or workplace?

Worrying about the preconceived notions of others. We may not have started Universal Standard if we listened to nay-saying veterans in the fashion industry. Just because something has always been a certain way does not mean it shouldn’t be challenged and changed for the better.

Can you share what happened when you finally felt like you were on the other side of the struggle?

I don’t think we’ve reached that stage yet. But it will be the day society has expanded its ideas of beauty across races, genders, sizes, sexual orientations, abilities, and ages! A society where everyone feels seen and included is the future, and it is the new normal we are building. 

Looking back, what would you have done differently?

I would have trusted my instincts sooner, and more often.

What does your morning routine look like?

Dog, shower, coffee, taxi to work.

What motivates you to keep going in the toughest of times?

The love letters we get from our customers.

What are your favorite ways to practice self-care?

Having my phone off; Hercule Poirot on Netflix; my puppy asleep near me; and knowing I can sleep in the next day.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. – Maya Angelou

What’s the most fulfilling part of your job?

Each time we get a letter from a customer who tells us that we’ve affected their life by allowing them to exercise their own style and feel part of the fashion conversation. It reminds me of why we’re doing what we do, and why we must continue to provide access to all of us, as we are.

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