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Podcast: Quality, style and respect for all women

A universal standard for all women

 

Alexandra Waldman was in the heart of New York City, and she couldn’t find a single thing to wear. Not in a single store on all of Fifth Avenue, home to so many of the iconic brands in the world of fashion — nothing for a woman of her size.

Faced with those prospects, she wanted to skip an event with her friend, Polina Veksler. But the whole situation puzzled Polina, and together, the pair went on a field trip to a nearby department store.

Finally, they found something Alex could wear … on the furniture floor, surrounded by pots and pans … nowhere near the immaculate rows of clothing reserved for smaller-sized women.

That’s where a business was born. It was there that Alex and Polina vowed to bring fashion for all women up to a universal standard.

Universal Standard is a fast-rising company that provides clothing for women of all shapes and sizes. Its mission is simple: provide quality, style and respect for all women. Period.

But doing so required them to confront an “old, calcified notion of beauty” — all while taking the emotional and financial risks that keep many aspiring entrepreneurs on the sidelines.

Among Universal Standard’s innovations: If your size shifts up or down within a year of purchase, the company will exchange any piece in its Fit Liberty collection for your new size — for free.

“If your size shifts up or down within a year of purchase, Universal Standard will exchange any piece in its Fit Liberty collection for your new size — for free.”

In this episode of Longitudes Radio, Alex explains why she took the leap with Universal Standard and implores businesses to help shape a more inclusive world. She also provides some encouragement for small business owners daunted by competing with established brands and industry titans.

Against the backdrop of National Women’s Small Business Month, Kathleen Marran, UPS vice president of marketing, diverse segments, joins the conversation. Kat offers her perspective on difficulties women business owners face in raising money and handling that first big order — how exactly do you master the logistics needed to keep pace with rising customer demand?

As Kat says, it’s not just about shipping. Upstart entrepreneurs must navigate the challenges of streamlining payments, finding suppliers and going international, issues that make or break any small business.

“Upstart entrepreneurs must navigate the challenges of streamlining payments, finding suppliers and going international, issues that make or break any small business.”

Alex takes us behind the scenes of the early days of her business, chronicles the “downside of success” and highlights her company’s ambitious sustainability goals.

Finally, Kat and Alex speak to the value of infusing inclusion into your business model. They both envision a new normal when women feel included wherever they work and play — and yes, shop.

 

Transcript: A universal standard for all women

Music:                               00:01                   [Music]

Show Open:                     00:04                   (Longitudes Radio Show Open). I'm Brian Hughes and I'm James Rowe.

James Rowe:                    00:39                   So Brian, little something different today. I'm just going to read you something. Universal Standard started with the two of us, but we actually wanted to do it for all of us. We lived in a world in which access was limited. We couldn't shop together. One of us could hardly shop at all. It felt unfair, but moreover it made no sense. It was clear that all women weren't given the same level of style, quality, or even respect. We asked ourselves why.

Brian Hughes:                  01:10                   Those words come straight from the founders at Universal Standard, a company that sells fashionable clothing for women of all sizes and shapes. Today, we're lucky enough to have Alex Waldman, one of the Universal Standard founders on Longitudes Radio. She's going to describe a situation where she was in the heart of New York City and she says that she couldn't find a single shop on all of Fifth Avenue where she could walk in and buy clothing for herself, but rather than simply highlight the problem, she and her partner built a business intent on making the world of fashion a little bit more representative of the actual world.

James Rowe:                    01:44                   Yeah, and UPS is also doing its part to help build and shape a more diverse and inclusive world. And that's why we've asked Kat Moran, she's our Vice President of Marketing Diverse Segments to join in on the discussion.

Brian Hughes:                  01:55                   And in this wide ranging conversation, both Kat and Alex will focus on a day when business is more reflective of the communities we see all around us.

Brian Hughes:                  02:08                   One of the most fascinating things for me is just how people start a business. There's all kinds of stories out there. Some of them are a little bit crazy, others are a little more normal. How did you get started? Where did it begin and what was the thought process behind setting up your own shop?

Alex Waldman:               02:23                   Yeah, ours was definitely on the bizarre end of the things not on the normal end of things. There was a tipping point moment. Although I had been a fashion journalist and being a woman of a certain size, I always felt the lag and have always thought about uh, starting something that took size out of the conversation and allowed everyone access to great clothing. It had been ruminating in the back of my mind for many, many years and it wasn't until I met Paulina, my business partner who is an incredibly talented and smart, financially experience person and that we actually thought we had the tools we needed to start a business. But there was a tipping point moment when we both had moved to New York a couple of months apart and we were introduced by former colleagues and we both didn't know anyone in town. We'd been invited to an event and when the day of the event came, I said, I'm not going.

Alex Waldman:               03:24                   And she said, why on earth? And I said, I have nothing to wear. Which sounded very strange to her, cause she is a very tiny girl, has never had an issue finding clothing. And she said what seemed to her to be a very obvious thing. She said, do you live a couple blocks from Fifth Avenue? Let's go get you something. What's the problem? And I said, there's not a single shop on all of Fifth Avenue that I can walk into and buy clothing for myself. And I think that's kind of when the penny dropped. She was like, how can that even be? And that's how it all began. We started to look at the space from a business perspective. I took her to a department store and we passed all these beautifully merchandised, gorgeously lit floors of fashion and went to the furniture floor where in the Northwest corner of that particular floor with all the pots and pans and throw cushions was the section where I was allowed to, to shop and to from which I had to actually choose the armor that I wore into the world, so to speak, and showed myself to the world. And it was quite a shocking for Paulina who had never experienced that before, so we set out to fix what we saw as a big problem.

Brian Hughes:                  04:49                   How did we get to this point? It's kind of shocking that given the millions of people that this type of service would help, that someone didn't think of this before.

Alex Waldman:               04:58                   I think a lot of people thought of this before. There are some very real obstacles to entering the space, including a very old calcified notion of what is beautiful and what is worthy of fashion. I think that that's probably one of the biggest problems that nobody talks about is the last acceptable prejudice is against larger bodies. For a myriad of reasons. People feel quite justified not to like bodies that are bigger than what we see on commercials and in films unless they're comic relief. So I understand why it's happened. What surprises me is that the prejudice is so deep that in a country like America, people were leaving billions of dollars on the table. Rather than provide fashion and clothing for women who now numbered 115 million in the United States alone.

Kat Moran:                       05:58                   As a woman who has also had to shop in those corners of the department store for many years. It's been recognized, but I think what's brilliant about what Alex and Paulina have done is they've brought it to the surface. They found a solution that many of us were seeking but weren't willing to take the risks ourselves to do. So Alex one thank you. Number two, maybe if I can. How did you then decide to take both the financial risks, perhaps the emotional risks and every other kind of risk you can think of as a small business startup in a space that was recognized by some but not respected by others.

Alex Waldman:               06:30                   I think that necessity is the mother of invention. I think that that's where we found ourselves. It was a very interesting time in both Paulina's and my life where we had a little bit of savings that we could put into this and try it out. And we also found ourselves at kind of a strange junction in our careers where we really wanted to try something else so the setting was right for us to to give it a go. We knew from the very beginning that if we were going to do this, that we were going to go big or go home, and we did not want a hobby that was going to last us 50 years. We really wanted to make an impact and we wanted to fix what we thought was broken and the fashion industry is broken. That is exactly what the space looks like now and I think that people are just beginning to wake up to not just the opportunity to actually capitalize on the market, but to actually serve a huge percentage of women who have been absolutely ignored. Not just in terms of the sizes that they were being offered, but the styles that were being offered. It was really incomparable. What you could get as a size six and what you could get as a size 26 is they weren't in the same stratosphere. I've always said that a size six woman has never had better taste. She's just had better options.

James Rowe:                    07:53                   You know, one thing that's particularly inspirational, I think for you Alex and Universal Standard here is how you really got it off the ground. And Kat was talking about that you guys have raised eight point $5 million in capital to get started. That's really impressive given that you guys don't come from the fashion industry. So how did you do that?

Kat Moran:                       08:14                   Alex before you do, it's also really fantastic to, to recognize that they were able to secure this kind of funding in a environment right now that whether it's intentional or not is biased against a lot of women owned businesses, from a venture capital perspective. It's only about 14% of all venture capital that goes to women owned enterprises. Some of that is because of lack of relatability. The people who are making those investments want to invest in things they relate to. They may not relate to larger women needing variety and high quality clothing. So, so Alex, you know, let's hear your story because I'm sure that will help a lot of other organizations out there think about how to break into the venture capital or the capital world as much as the fashion world.

Alex Waldman:               08:55                   I think you're absolutely spot on. I think that the people who are holding the purse strings often do not understand the opportunity because they're not part of it in any way. So you, I mean we went through our share when we started to look at the possibility of raising money, we did speak to middle aged men who tend to be the ones with the decision making power and they would say things like, why aren't your models smiling? There was this disparaging difference between how bigger women were being shown and we really knew that in order to make this successful, we would have to speak to women in a totally different editorial language. We wanted to respect their tastes. We wanted to respect the zeitgeists. We wanted to respect what was going to be happening in the fashion world, even if we were the ones determined to make it happen.

Brian Hughes:                  09:51                   Yeah. You said it was almost like you were building a country. What surprised you in the process? I assume you had tons of sleepless nights trying to figure this out. You had your idea, you had your funding, but there had to be all kinds of roadblocks and surprises along the way that you didn't anticipate. I wonder if you could walk us through a few of those that might help other aspiring entrepreneurs out there.

Alex Waldman:               10:13                   I think that one of the most, uh, important things that I ever heard or read, I don't even frankly remember where it came from, but it, something in my head clicked when I heard this and it was that, think of the most highly achieved professional in the field that you're trying to enter. And to my mind, came Karl Lagerfeld and realize that although it seems like they're millions of miles ahead of you, they're actually just around the corner. So you're never really far from the very, very best people who are doing what they are doing. And that thinking of them as unreachable is an illusion. And as soon as I heard that, I was like, huh, okay. You know, we're not stupid. We can learn quickly. We can adapt, we have a goal, we can, we can learn. And we were fortunate enough to find people who were willing to do that with us because quite honestly the industry itself was not set up to to do what it now can do better and is still quite a challenge.

Brian Hughes:                  11:26                   And just so everyone fully understands, because I really do think it is such an innovative program. Could you just lay out exactly what fit Liberty is, what it does, why it's such a game changer in your mind?

Alex Waldman:               11:39                   We're direct to consumer brands. Most of our interaction with our customers is through the screen. We rarely get to see them face to face. And when we opened our first showroom, it allowed us to actually see the women who are buying our clothes, and see the process through which they went in order to buy, buy these clothes. And what surprised us was how incredibly emotional it could be. We're not a a brand that is all about body positivity, which quite often shocks people because we do have such a huge size range. But the reason we are not about body positivity is because it's a very personal and private thing and a very emotional thing. And we don't believe in extracting an emotional payment out of people, which I think a lot of brands have kind of depended on this alignment with body positivity while really not doing what could be done in order to help women look and feel their best.

Alex Waldman:               12:42                   So when we started having people in the showroom and we're seeing them in real life and we're seeing how affected they were by the clothes they were trying on and and how they were seeing themselves for the first time in a pair of jeans ever in their lives. We had a 38 year old woman come in and try on a pair of jeans and just break down. She broke down completely. And it wasn't because she had denim on her legs, you know, it was because of its meaning the meaning of being part of the world, like everyone wears jeans and here she was never having gotten to do so and suddenly she could wear them. And it, it's, it's so much more than just a piece of cloth on your body. And we thought, let's try and convince people to buy exactly for the person that they see in the mirror as they are at that moment. And then they can take a year of wearing those clothes and if they should go up in size or go down in size or have their body change in any way whatsoever, all they had to do was return those clothes. And we would give them brand new clothes in their new size for free.

Alex Waldman:               13:58                   And the clothes that they did return would be, um, washed and laundered and handed over to these two charities that we work with, which allowed women access to clothes they would not normally have access to. And it would also keep the clothes out of the landfills. So created this perfect little ecosystem and that's when we knew we had something because you know, it was such an elegant solution to to so many problems that we just knew this was something worth trying.

Brian Hughes:                  14:30                   Kat, I wonder if, cause you talked to business owners all the time, if you could kind of give us some more macro assessment of the landscape and some of the things that you see every day and what you do here at UPS and kind of how we can help level the playing field for a bunch of these folks are doing the very things that Alex is talking about today.

Kat Moran:                       14:49                   It's a great question and one with my current role is one that's on my mind all the time. I lose sleep sometimes to thinking about the excitement of what's happening in the first things that get me excited are just the pure demographics of where the growth is happening. Not just in the U.S. but globally is and often has been on the backs of women. Whether that's companies like Universal Standard and creating a new development within an industry or it's repurposing a part of the industry that they were in before. We see a lot of innovation happening. If the challenges though are still pretty significant. We talked about one a little bit in the capital acquisition. The other one is just the pure nature of, of size of how quickly you can get your, your revenue stream to be marketable and to be competitive. But before that even happens, it's the opposite side. It's, I'm almost too small to get attention, but at least I can control it. When I get that first big order, I don't know what to do with it. I get thrilled by it that first time and then I freak out because I got to fulfill it and I don't know how I'm going to financially handle the costs of getting the supplier to give me what I want while I'm waiting for the payment by the buyer of my product. So I have to balance all of this components to it. So where companies like us in supply chain, we've got pieces that help along the way. And so that's what I spend a lot of my time doing is working with companies like Universal Standard to say it's not all about shipping. Shipping is uh, an important factor of businesses. But the reality is how can we help them find funding? How do we help them better streamline their payment processes? How do we get them better suppliers across the globe? How do we help them find revenue streams? How do we go global? These are the exciting things that we get to bring forward and, and talk with our customers.

Brian Hughes:                  16:34                   That's great. And I love that you brought up, what do you do when you find that first big success? And I wonder, Alex, could you describe when you kind of hit that moment when you're like, Oh man, we're actually doing a good thing?

Alex Waldman:               16:46                   Definitely, I remember it so well. I created a collection of eight pieces that I always felt I wish I had and we decided to invest in and make 3000 pieces out of that eight piece collection. So you have to imagine a New York sized, one bedroom apartment with the Billy Ikea shelves covering absolutely every space of wall and just 3000 pieces of, of merchandise everywhere. And we were very fortunate because Refinery 29 was trying to concentrate on this, uh, part of the, the, the fashion industry and how it was underserved and it was just being discovered as something worthy of telling the public. So they wrote an article on Universal Standard when I think our website was probably like two weeks old, completely nonfunctional. I mean, it was just a mess. We were literally doing ourselves, the two of us and the 3000 pieces sold out in six days.

Brian Hughes:                  17:55                   Wow.

Alex Waldman:               17:56                   And we, our heads were spinning and we were like. Oh, okay. Wow. Okay. So there, there is a market here and this is great. Um, but we were so unprepared that not only did we have to then pick pack and post for which we had no infrastructure whatsoever. We were also so unprepared that we were suddenly completely empty. So we had to start the entire process from scratch, which meant months of, of, uh, development and months of, of creation and months of transportation. And suddenly we had this hungry audience that was not going to be serviced for probably five, six months. So a lot of miscalculation and a lot of the downside of success in a way. But somehow we got through it and a lot of it was just literally the physical labor of creating these, these packages and sending them off and thinking, my gosh, like how, how did this happen? It was really quite a revelation.

James Rowe:                    19:07                   So fast forward four years, I understand that you've opened it up to sizes zero through 40 right?

Alex Waldman:               19:14                   Yes.

James Rowe:                    19:15                   Okay. So how has that impacted your supply chain and how you get that stuff out there?

Alex Waldman:               19:22                   So, this was something that we wanted to do from the very beginning. We wanted to create a line of clothing that felt modern and elevated and for every day that took size out of the conversation. But of course we couldn't start from a double zero and go to 40 from the beginning. So we started with the audience that we felt was most underserved and we started to make sizes ten to 28 we eventually went to six to 32 and now we're double zero to 40

Brian Hughes:                  19:52                   So let me ask you too, it makes me think, I think one of the dirty secrets of e-commerce, as great as it is for so many reasons. You talked a lot about people trying things on and you know that's great for personalization and making sure things fit. But when it comes to sustainability and the items going to landfills, that also has an effect there. Could you talk about your commitment to helping us build this greener world and get around some of those problems that have plagued the fashion industry?

Alex Waldman:               20:20                   Yes, that's a very important thing for us and we are constantly working on making things more and more sensical from that perspective. So first of all, we're not a fast fashion brand. We make great quality clothes that have a second and even a third life. We believe in choosing well and buying less. We create programs like Fit Liberty that allow you to, rather than discarding clothes, actually upcycle them through charities like Dress for Success and First Steps, which is part of the coalition for the homeless and allows women who are trying to get back into the workforce, access to just a wardrobe that they can go on interviews and therefore again, keeping it out of landfills. There are all kinds of things that we're now focusing on in terms of recycled products. You have to be really careful these days because recycling is such a huge thing that a lot of people, once again putting the recycling label ahead of its actual meaning. So I've heard horror stories of, you know, clothing that's recycled from plastic, but actually the plastic was created in order to recycle that clothing. So there's all kinds of things that are happening out there that I think responsible consumers and responsible manufacturers have got to pay attention to. You can't call something recycled if only 2% of its content is recycled. It has to be much more transparent.

Brian Hughes:                  22:01                   I saw that you guys like to use this phrase revolutionary inclusivity and I'm, I'm curious what do you mean by that and how do you actually tie that in to your business on a daily basis?

Alex Waldman:               22:11                   I think that our commitment to the concept of providing access to all women is very earnest and I think that at the moment as more and more brands kind of dip their toes into the idea of inclusivity, there tends to be kind of a, an abridged version of it happening. So we will have brands who will do a capsule within their brand that is slightly different than everything else that they offer to the smaller consumer. Or you can go into the store and it's not available in the store or you have to get it online only, which feels very unwelcoming to to the bigger consumer. Or it'll be something that somebody just does, they'll march a plus size celebrity or model down the runway without actually making any plus size clothes, if I may use that term. So there's a lot of stuff that feels a little bit performative and we really want to be true to what we're trying to make and the way we see it happening is we have to offer every single thing we make in every single size without exception, it has to be in store. If there's a an IRL space, then you have to be able to to walk in there, try it on, and actually see it on your own body and not have to be relegated to the internet. It's funny to call it radical because it seems be just a sense of fairness really, but it is a radical notion at the moment because so few people are truly committed to it.

Brian Hughes:                  23:54                   You know, Kat, I think I'd argue, given what you do every day, that you're one of our biggest evangelists for this radical philosophy. I wonder if you might talk about kind of where it aligns with your work and kind of how it helps shape UPS's approach to partnering with organizations such as this great one here.

Kat Moran:                       24:13                   Yeah. I'm not ready to declare that I'm a radical in this space. I'd rather not necessarily be, because I would love this to be a foundational, but when, when we talk collectively as a community about diversity and inclusion, I think it gets overblown. It's definitely a hot word right now, and I'm desperately trying to make it something that is more fundamental and foundational within our company and with our communities. So the way that we look at diversity and inclusion is kind of where, where Alex was. You've got to start by listening. You've got to ask the right questions, you've got to ask honest questions, and it's not just the questions that everybody has been asking and re-asking you got to go deeper than that and you've got to ask it of your employees first and foremost. So when we talk about diversity inclusion, we've got to start there. And we have been, we have to talk to our communities that we serve both philanthropically as well as we talk about customers, we talk about our suppliers and they've been telling us along the way that companies like ours can do the right thing for the right reasons. But you have to be willing to ask the hard questions. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, which means there are gonna be times when you're going to advocate for a community that may not be the popular thing for everybody. And when you're a company like ours, sometimes companies can be dissuaded from doing that because you want to stay neutral all the time. Inclusion doesn't mean neutrality, it has to mean everybody has a voice. They may not all be acted upon, but they need to be heard. So what we're doing in our space is trying to bring forward our employees more closely with our customers, our customers more closely in our communities, our communities more closely with our suppliers and on and on and on to this flywheel effect that says we are genuine to all of those communities. So I'm very excited to, to hear what's going on in Alex's world cause it's just the stepping stone for her businesses, for the community she serves and the ones that we do.

Alex Waldman:               26:07                   Wow. That was really beautifully put. Really beautifully put.

Kat Moran:                       26:11                   Thank you.

Alex Waldman:               26:12                   I think that what we're building really is the new normal and I think that that new normal is a much more beautiful and broad and interesting place than what we've had until now. And that new normal includes people of all races and genders and sexual orientations.

Kat Moran:                       26:33                   And sizes

Alex Waldman:               26:34                   Ages and sizes and everything. There's so much gorgeousness out there that has been really sort of tossed aside for what has become very mainstream and a little bit bland. So I think that we're, we're definitely all heading in the right direction in our idea of all of us as we are where you don't ask anyone to change. There's, there's no archetype for you to follow and to judge yourself by. I think that's gonna make a much, much better world for, for all the upcoming generations if we can, if we can manage to do that.

Brian Hughes:                  27:12                   Alex, thank you so much for joining us today. This is a great conversation and we really appreciate your time and look forward to watching where your company goes from here.

Alex Waldman:               27:20                   Thank you. It was an absolute pleasure.

Brian Hughes:                  27:23                   If you liked what you heard today, check us out on iTunes, Stitcher, or right on our website at ups.com.

James Rowe:                    27:29                   Yeah, and after you've signed up for the podcast, please drop us a review. We'd love to hear from you.

 

 

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