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What Universal Standard’s SoHo Store Means for the Size-Inclusive Movement

Where in SoHo, among the world’s trendiest destinations for fashion retail, can a size 40 woman shop for clothing?

On Saturday, Universal Standard (US), the brand that launched three years ago to give larger-sized women the elevated essentials so easily available to straight-size peers, opened the doors to its 11-month SoHo pop-up store at 65 Greene St., nestled between the likes of Halston Heritage, Hermès, The Arrivals and Burton.

It’s a significant step forward for the direct-to-consumer brand that outgrew its Garment District showroom, not to mention a momentous milestone in a city known as a fashion capital but where options for the 67 percent of women larger than sample size have shrunk, as evidenced by the disappearance of plus-size stalwart Lane Bryant’s 34th Street flagship store and the conversion of its Harlem store on 125th Street into an outlet shop carrying a limited selection, much of which is marked-down merchandise. Emblazoned on the 65 Greene St. storefront window, overlaying the diversely sized and diaphanously clad mannequins within, is US’s new brand messaging: “All of US. As we are.”

Given their relatively few and often undesirable options for browsing apparel in person, plus-size women have been a dominant force in driving the e-commerce revolution, in large part because they felt so unwelcome in many clothing stores “that they made their living room the dressing room,” US co-founder and creative director Alexandra Waldman told Sourcing Journal. “Why shouldn’t we have a store to walk into and feel not like this is a specialty store? This is not a specialty store—it’s just a brand.”

Inside the 2,300-square-foot SoHo store kitted out with seven dressing rooms and a private space for personal styling appointments, shoppers can browse US’s new Foundation collection of wardrobe-staple “layering basics” ranging from long-sleeved ribbed tees to silky-soft turtlenecks in classic, easy neutral shades. Most remarkable, however, is that Foundation pieces run the gamut from a 00 up to size 40, unprecedented in fashion and a world first, US claims.

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“We wanted the girls who have everything available to them in the world to want these clothes, regardless of the size,” Waldman said. By May of next year, every piece US carries will follow in the Foundation’s footsteps with inclusive sizing across the 00-40 spectrum.

Over the years, US’s initial focus on plus gave way to greater sizing inclusion, especially on the higher end. The brand wielded its influence as among the foremost experts in fit for fuller figures to join forces with J.Crew on a collaboration that featured the classic American brand’s signature preppy ginghams and stripes on timeless styles available in sizes XS through 5X. Waldman credits J.Crew for being one of the few fashion brands that’s making thoughtful moves in size inclusion after years of ignoring women wearing a dress size deemed too large. “They removed the barrier rather than making more stuff” strictly for plus-size shoppers, she added. “I often joke, ‘if J.Crew made my size, I probably would not have started Universal Standard.’”

Consumers have long lobbied for greater fashion choices in larger sizes, and castigated brands that charge more for the same styles in plus than they do in standard missy sizes or petites. But Waldman is quick to acknowledge that making clothing in bigger sizes is expensive—a reality most people don’t quite grasp. “It’s not just about the fabric,” she explained. “It’s also the way the pattern lies on the fabric.” That means if a pattern can’t fit width-wise on the fabric, it must be oriented across the length of the material—generating more wastage, which drives up costs.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to charge different prices for different sizes, but it presents a problem,” Waldman explained.

One of the very first challenges of launching US was finding factories that could execute large-size apparel. “Nobody knows how to make clothes for plus-size women,” Waldman said. “There’s no infrastructure, and quite often the looms aren’t big enough to make sweaters that are a certain size.” US had to find people who were “interested enough in this larger-size space to want to learn with us and create something that didn’t exist,” she added.

“You should see some of the samples that we got,” Waldman said. Among those “ridiculous” one-offs were “coats where the sleeves were touching the floor” because pattern makers would grade according to a formula instead of considering the garment holistically and proportionally. Waldman said other factory contacts would respond to emails suggesting US had “made a mistake” because the size the brand was asking for was “impossible.”

US tackles the typical grading challenge by engaging in what it calls “micro grading,” or grading between each size differently and trialing garments on fit models of every single size it carries. A skirt should fall to the same place on a size 12 as a size 24, Waldman explained, instead of resulting in cartoonish proportions.

The brand said it’s excited to bring its wares to a larger space where shoppers of all sizes can check out the same quality clothing. “The retail space is an extension of our showroom experience, which we have been perfecting for the past two years,” co-founder and CEO Polina Veksler said in an emailed statement. “We wanted to create a space for consumers to interact with the product while keeping the one-on-one component of a showroom visit. The SoHo retail space allows us to do both.”

Though the store has been open just for a few days, it’s already proving its value as a vehicle for customer acquisition, with Veksler noting that 45 percent of customers who purchased at the pop-up during opening weekend were new to the brand. “It is a great location for brand discovery,” she added.

When US raised $7 million in a Series A funding round in February—with Gwyneth Paltrow and MatchesFashion founders Tom and Ruth Chapman among the investors—some of those dollars were earmarked for a greater expansion into retail. The brand will regularly introduce new products into the SoHo store to keep the pop-up experience fresh. In addition to the Foundation collection, October will bring the latest sweaters, including a V-neck jumper in a cashmere-wool blend, and seasonally appropriate outerwear, followed by a denim drop in November in addition to a holiday-themed selection. In December shoppers will find the store stocked with the latest loungewear and gifting items, Veksler said.

To critics who try to delegitimize Universal Standard’s mantle of inclusivity because of prices that reach $260 for the Adena Cover Coat and $130 for tuxedo track pants, Waldman said the real problem lies in how people choose to think about what it means to be inclusive. For starters, most of the options available to plus-size shoppers for many years were disposable, cheaply made fast fashion.

“If your T-shirt cost as much as a sandwich, there’s a reason for that,” Waldman said. “Price and style and size are different things, and they will form a different nexus. I think that a lot of people confuse access with ‘something that everyone can have access to.’ And I think access is about having a variety of things to choose from.”

At US, where bestsellers include the stylish, easy-wearing Geneva dress and Seine jeans, “access” comes with important perks envisioned to reduce the anxiety of shopping when waistlines fluctuate. Universal Fit Liberty allows customers to swap out a purchase for a new size if their original purchase no longer fits, and the old garment gets donated. Online, the “See My Size” feature shows shoppers what each garment looks like on a model whose size mimics their own, rather than having to settle for seeing the smallest size and use their imaginations from there.

Mindful that fashion is the second-biggest polluter behind Big Oil, US encourages consumers to “choose well, buy less,” Waldman said, noting that the brand is just beginning to highlight its use of second-life materials like recycled polyester, which is just finding its way, in limited quantities, into new styles.

As of 2016, the plus-size market potential stood at more than $46 billion, per Euromonitor International data, leaving billions up for grabs for the brands that could be inspired by US and J.Crew to embrace inclusivity on the size tag. Going down that road isn’t an easy decision to make for apparel companies comfortable with “business as usual,” though a tough few years for the industry could be the “incentive” brands need to change.

“It’s a harder switch to turn off than you think, to stop thinking in terms of size,” Waldman said.

In a perfect world, Waldman ultimately wants to take size out of the fashion conversation. “Nobody cares,” she said, before quickly correcting herself: “Nobody should care.”

US sees itself not just as yet another fashion brand but tasked with a greater mission. “This was our North Star from the very beginning: We want to change this industry,” Waldman said. “It’s not about just making clothes, it’s about making great clothes and setting an example. We really wanted to become a beacon and say, ‘Here’s how it can be done to the benefit of everyone on both sides.’”