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Universal Standard wants clothing equality. That means everyone — from size 00 to 40 — should have access to a wide selection of chic and functional items that make them not only look fantastic but feel that way too. The company’s founders, Polina Veksler and Alex Waldman, use this charge to guide everything they do, whether that’s making blouses that don’t pucker for those wearing plus sizes or creating an inclusive e-commerce experience.
“Inclusivity doesn't just impact our business, it is our business,” Waldman tells MAKERS. “We exist in the world because we saw people being left out and it just didn't make any sense to us. So, we just wanted to create a brand that removed the exclusivity that remains so calcified in the fashion industry and actually open the concept of what is beautiful because it is a much larger spectrum than we have been led to believe.”
Waldman spoke with MAKERS about diversity being in Universal Standard’s DNA, admiring her business partner and influencing the fashion industry.
How do you support women in the workplace? Benefits, perks, hiring, etc.
Alex Waldman: The most important thing is that you’re always looking for the most qualified person. So far, it’s been an overwhelming amount of women, which is really lovely, and we are working to develop the next generation of female leaders who feel safe and heard at the workplace. We want to represent the new normal. We want to give opportunity where no opportunity or little opportunity had been before. So we see it as our duty to recognize this because, actually, the talent’s always been there. So for us, the most natural thing in the world is to invite women into the company and into leadership roles because they’re most qualified and most empathetic to the new normal that we’re trying to build.
From a practical perspective, of course, we have paid maternity and paternity leave, and we give free clothing to all our staff annually. We have full health coverage at the highest level with everything absolutely included. These are the essential workplace things that we think are necessary for a thriving environment where women can really showcase their talents.
How do you promote diversity within your business?
It’s kind of been in our DNA from the very beginning. We look at everything like a new country. It’s like we’re starting something from scratch. What should it be? What should be our north star? Who do we want to be in the world? And for us, obviously, we represent diversity. We are nothing if not about diversity, whether it’s size, weight, gender, age or ability. We just really wanted to show the richness and the diversity of women as they exist in the world, and we really try to concentrate on the company that we want to be in the world. We want to set an example of that new normal and not just displaying pictures of people who are different sizes, races or different ages, we actually want to hire people who are different sizes, ages, races, sexualities and abilities. We want their representation behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera.
Universal Standard's ethos is all about size acceptance. Why is inclusivity so important to you? How has it impacted your business?
Well I think that should be important to everyone. Inclusivity doesn't just impact our business, it is our business. We exist in the world because we saw people being left out and it just didn't make any sense to us. So we just wanted to create a brand that removed the exclusivity that remains so calcified in the fashion industry and actually open the concept of what is beautiful because it is a much larger spectrum than we have been led to believe.
Who are some women that you have looked up to and who continue to inspire you today?
The first person that comes to my mind is Polina, my business partner. She's an extraordinary person and leader, and when I think of someone that personifies everything that we're trying to be, I think of her. I'm very lucky to have her as a business partner.
I have worked with a lot of wonderful people male or female. I suppose that some women I have admired most are women that didn’t feel like they had to behave like men to be successful. They leaned into all the wonderful things that make women, women: the empathy, the ability to be supportive and the ability to help someone along. I worked in a corporate environment where I saw women that pulled up the ladder as soon as they climbed up and I saw the opposite as well; I saw true mentorship and true leadership, and just great example setting. I’ve learned a lot from the people I’ve worked with that were female leaders.
What do you hope people take away from Universal Standard and the impact it has had on women's fashion over the last four years?
I hope that the industry walks away knowing that there is so much to be gained from diversity and inclusivity. I think this is a win, win, win for everyone because when you treat people with respect and you make them feel welcomed and included, I think they show their love back and that is the benefit for the industry itself, which we all know has been suffering tremendously.
From the perspective of social example, I think the idea that the unicorns that we see on the billboards right now are just that; they’re extraordinarily beautiful women and I definitely root for them, but love seeing women of all sizes represented. There is so much gorgeousness and the only way that it’s really going to be accepted is if it’s represented over and over and over. You have to see it and it has to be in your face all the time before society starts thinking of it as beautiful, and that’s one of the things that we really want to do.
We think that we are on the first step into a new way of looking at the world and we’re doing what I think anybody would do if they found themselves in our position. But I think that there are a lot of amazing people out there that are just starting to think about how to evolve and the fashion industry is going to be a really interesting space in the next decade because necessity is the mother of invention and when things are really bad, perhaps you’ll consider taking a risk that you didn’t before.