Changing the “Industry Size”, with Alex Waldman
Episode 130: Changing the “Industry Size”, with Alex Waldman
When Alex Waldman, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Universal Standard realized that plus-size fashion was not as accessible, she decided to change the “industry standard” of sizes and introduce accessible and inclusive fashion for all women. On this episode, Alex talks about how she got her start in the fashion industry, getting away from “the bully in your head”, and the importance of having courage to change the status quo. She also shares her tips on starting a business, as well as the power women can have to affect change in companies.
00:12 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome the Ellevate network podcast. This is your host Kristy Wallace with my co-host Maricella Herrera, how's it going Marcella?
00:21 Maricella Herrera: It's going well. I'm really excited about your desk today.
00:24 KW: I'm really excited about my guest today, Alex Waldman, who is the co-founder and creative director at universal standard. If you don't know, universal standard you should, it's just a spectacular brand clothing fashion, that is focused on equality in sizing and fashion. So, not creating a line specifically for a petite or specifically for plus, it's how can we expose all women to the same types of clothes, to the same styles and opportunities, to equalize the playing field and stop putting us in buckets based on the size of our bodies? So they're doing some really great work, they've done some excellent partnerships with companies like Jay Crew, to really push forward this mission of theirs. And to have this conversation that we need to be having around women and fashion and the ways that the traditional fashion industry has really alienated and marginalized women who are not the "traditional sizes."
01:34 MH: Yeah, it's a topic that I wish I had known more about a few years back. I think it's something that I wish was talked about more when I was younger, but really it's crazy to me to think that this is a thing, that people are actually both... Not just in the fashion world, but in reality there are... I can't remember what study it was. I read that women are more likely to make less money or more likely to be discriminated against because of the way they look. So it's not just on the fashion industry where we know that there is not access to all sizes, in all clothing, and that most of the times women of a certain size can't find something in the brands they would like to because there's no access, but it's in general that there needs to be or that I'm very excited to see that their movement towards body positivity and inclusivity is happening. Clearly something I'm very passionate about. [chuckle]
02:36 KW: Yeah. I agree. Well, and it's also what to me speaks volumes is that we still have room for innovation in industries and sectors that have been around since the beginning of time, right? And so to all of you out there that are thinking of starting a company or are thinking there's no space for a different viewpoint or a different perspective. I hope you'll be inspired by this interview, because each of us is able to take what does not work for us and to create something that does. And their story, Alex story is really inspiring to me. She, along with her co-founder Paulina, are doing some great stuff. So let's get to the interview. I hope you enjoy it and we'll see you here next week on the Ellevate podcast.
03:42 KW: Alex, thank you so much for joining us today on the Ellevate Podcast, I'm really excited to have you here.
03:47 Alexandra Waldman: And it's an absolute pleasure. I'm looking forward to this conversation.
03:51 KW: Alex, tell me how did you get to this place where you are today, what does your background look like?
03:58 AW: Oh my gosh, it has very little to do with manufacturing of any kind. I did work in fashion as a fashion journalist, so I knew and understood capital F fashion. I also saw the disparaging difference as a size 20 woman. What was available to me versus what I was reviewing on-the-runways. So I kind of bought into this whole idea that we're constantly being fed that you deserve every inconvenience that you experience because you are fat. If you loved fashion, you would not be fat. And I totally bought into that, and it took me years to realize that who made that decision? My taste level is on par with all of my peers, why do I not get to participate in fashion to the full extent as they do? So it wasn't until Paulina and I actually met and became friends that her incredible business acumen and ability and experience in finance filled out the whole picture, and we decided to take this idea and actually build a business.
05:20 AW: And that's how it all started, with a very funny situation where we had both moved to New York about a month apart, we were introduced by common friends, we both sort of clung to each other, because we didn't know anyone in New York, and there was an event that we were meant to attend and it was exciting 'cause we're gonna meet new people, and I said, I'm not going. And she said, "Why?" I said "I have nothing to wear, which to her was the most absurd thing, she was just like, "What are you talking about? You live a couple of blocks from fifth avenue. Let's go and get you something to wear." And I looked at her like she had two heads, and I said, "You don't understand, there's not a single store on one of the most famous shopping streets in the world that carries my size.
06:12 AW: She had trouble believing that, but she also as a business woman saw an opportunity immediately. This is something that I've wanted to do for a million years, but I'm not a business person. And when the two of us sort of put our heads together, we seem to have all the tools that we might need, and we went from there. And now actually the full circle moment is that there are two places on Fifth Avenue you can buy clothes that go up to size 38, and both of those places, it's all the universal standard. J.Crew, we just launched a collection with Jack crew, which is a universal standard for Jay Crew, and Christian Siriano's beautiful beautiful store called the Curated where universal standards is also sold.
07:05 KW: I wanna say congratulations. And congratulations as an entrepreneur, as a revolutionary, as a business owner for that success. But also, thank you, because obviously, and I think about this a lot with Ellevate, here we're 2018 you wanna say why are we having this conversation? Why are we talking about a society about business constructs about industry is about media that has such a narrowly defined view of fashion and who's privileged or entitled enough.
07:43 AW: Entitled is a good word, yeah. Who can participate in beauty, it's not just who's beautiful, but who gets to actually participate in all the wonderful things that are available out there. And who decided where the cut off was going to be? It's gotta change, and we're going to do everything in our power to show the proof of concept that this can be done, it can be done beautifully, it can be done lucratively, it can be done really well to the benefit of all women without any sort of, okay to here but not to there. And so we will be going extending our sizes, from zero to size 40, which I believe is a pretty unique proposition. I don't know of any other brand that does that. And we'll see what happens, we'll see if the industry takes notice.
08:49 KW: Well, and what becomes powerful or really extends the power of what you're doing is now you see major retailers like J.Crew, for example, that are partnering with you. And so, how you the partnership, the power of building awareness it's then getting this message out to other channels that traditionally had not been having these conversations.
09:16 AW: Absolutely. And you have to give J.Crew a lot of credit, because they had the courage to really just to do this and not just talk about it, or not just strategize about it or have meetings about it. They saw that this was an overdue fashion moment. I almost feel like that's not... It doesn't have enough gravitas to call it that. It's much more than that because it is very emotional and it's simply the right thing to do. And they stepped up, they stepped up when others were simply creating plus-sized collections, or doing little capsules. We did a capsule with them to a size 32, and we helped them expand their entire offering to a size 24 so far. So about 50% of their things are now available in the larger sizes and they're continuing to extend throughout their entire offering. So it's incredibly... The thing that makes it admirable is not that they are doing it, it's that they have the courage to do it first, and to do it right and to turn to a brand who has an acquired learning about how to do this properly and say, "Listen, we really wanna do this well, we are serious about this. This is a permanent change for us. What's the best way to do this?" So I really admire that courage, and doing it not because others have already done it but just kind of just getting out there and really being the first.
11:03 KW: Did you receive outside investment?
11:06 AW: We did. Paulina, my business partner and I bootstrapped the company ourselves, and when we started off and we recently closed our first round with some amazing, amazing investors, who have just been incredibly helpful with advice. There are a lot of entrepreneurs involved. The founder of SoulCycle, the founders of Sweetgreen, founders of Allbirds. We have the founder of Net-A-Porter, the founders of Matches Fashion. Really people who have built empires out of in certain cases, complete the original ideas that had no precedent. So they really understand what it takes to build a business and what it means to create something that doesn't yet exist.
12:09 KW: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. I think so much about the investment vehicles today for entrepreneurs. And there's a lot of commentary about how the cards are stacked against women and particularly stacked against founders who are disrupting industries and solving problems for everyday people, that aren't being solved that aren't being addressed. And so what I find so powerful about your story, is that the investors in your business, are founders who really are heartfelt about how do you disrupt this? How do you create change and how do you support and invest in leaders that are doing that? And it's paying it forward from one founder to another that I think will really change the landscape of the startup community and provide more opportunity for these powerful companies to get some legs and traction.
13:11 AW: Absolutely. We have two VCs that led this round, Red sea Ventures and Imaginary, and everyone else was a person who really worked hard to build something of their own, and the amount of empathy and the amount of knowledge and resource from this group has been invaluable and it's been terrific. They look at everything from an incredibly empathetic perspective, and as someone who's trying to build a business, you couldn't have better partners.
13:56 KW: We have a number of listeners who are business leaders, many thinking of starting their own company, but also that have influence within the businesses that they're working at or that they're leading. How can companies recognize opportunities to be more inclusive in their products? I would say my sense, but actually I know that it's easy to kind of be... Toe this middle line, right? We're gonna follow the path and the common narrative around who the customers are and we're gonna try to just address that very specific customer. Or that maybe you associate with, or that everyone says is the right pathway forward, but that's alienating a huge portion of our society, and that could be in any business, right? It doesn't matter if it's consumer goods or services, but how do companies really start to re-imagine the ways and to change the ways that they look at their customer, that they look at the market and that they start to be more inclusive?
15:03 AW: Well, for us it was... I'm an end user of a product that I felt did not exist in the world, so there was kind of a quick jump from idea to actual working concept, once the right people were in place. As far as existing companies go, I know there's a lot of problem when it comes to the entire apparel industry. We know that it's tough out there. You just have to drive around downtown to see how many empty stores there are. I think that the answer sometimes is not in what is it that we're not looking at? Look at what you have, and if it's not working, then perhaps you should consider something to the side of it. How can you change it to help it work? In my view, and this is just in life in general, not just in business, but inclusivity and diversity always built stronger better ideas and brands. And we live amazing times where inclusivity and diversity are really sort of being hailed as the next North Star to reach for. So, I would literally look around and see who has been marginalized, who has been left out and have we done enough to make sure, that these people are taken care of, feel included and have a voice. It's pretty bug standard stuff really, but if you have a vested interest yourself as I did as an end user of our product, obviously it feels a little bit more natural and organic than thinking of it from just a purely business kind of perspective. But even those organic viewpoints are probably available within your existing group. Go out and ask.
17:08 KW: That is a great segue into my next question, which is really around your customers. What are the ways in which you engage your customers in being... Not just champions of your brand, I think often times we think of customers as being that influencer and champion, but also helping to provide the direction for the future and providing that feedback?
17:32 AW: Our business is still so young that our customer base is morphing almost on a weekly basis. It changes and it becomes the descriptor for that group of people that shop at universal standard, changes with it as it grows. Our customers are people who have felt the lack and the need and have always searched. And I'm describing, again, I'm describing myself, it's a matter of finding that group of people who are literally walking out there and pointing a torch at the darkness and saying, "Where is the stuff for me? How do I participate in the real world?" And it's as basic as that, it's participating in the real world rather than wearing a costume that has been designed by somebody indifferent. That is the... I'm not sure, I think I may have veered off a little bit from your question.
18:38 KW: No. But that's incredibly important, right? You want to connect. So much of what... I'll give an example from Ellevate is, for a long time we're tackling the gender achievement gap in business. So women not making it to positions of leadership, we know that women are more than 50% of the incoming workforce but 17% of managers, they're 3.5% of CEOS, they're 20% on boards, 20% in elected office. I mean there's just... You're kind of like, "What is going on here that we're at the front of the funnel, but not at any of these meaningful points at the end. So hearing from our listeners, from our community, you start to get insights into experiences that you may have never had, right? As an example, recently we've heard from a number of women who are later in their career and are lost, they have either worked for 30 years, they got laid off or pushed out of a company, they no longer find meaning and purpose out of doing the same thing they've been doing year after year. They want to start their own company. They are facing different life situations. If it's divorce, death, move, whatever it is.
20:05 KW: It is a completely a different story that I personally have not experienced, but I care about, and so listening to their feedback has not only enlightened me, it changed my mindset, it's created an advocate in me to solve their problems as much as I can, because I believe in how we can as a business continue to evolve and grow, not to serve the needs of one but to serve the needs of many. But I wouldn't have thought about that if I wasn't open-minded enough to listening to our customers and to caring about what they're experiencing and...
20:48 AW: And also being an end user as a woman.
20:50 KW: Yeah.
20:50 AW: You are a woman, so you understand the struggle.
20:53 KW: Yeah, innately I get it.
20:54 AW: Yeah, innately you get it. I think that a lot of these issues are legacy issues. I think that the statistics that you just riffed off of how we're so highly under-represented, I think it is a legacy issue, from a time gone by, and hopefully something that we are putting into our rear view mirror, and it's changing slowly, it will take time to change. And we've only just now started exploring the numbers behind what all of these things mean. I can't remember the exact statistic but I know that Venture Capital firms and professional investors are... Ones run by women consistently outperform VCs that are run by men, consistently. It's not like a blip or a blop somewhere. This is like, there is an untapped potential that we are just now turning to and saying, "Oh, there is this incredible intuitive power that women have that can be applied across the board to so many things, and there's a strength, there is an intellect that has heretofore not perhaps been taken as seriously as it should be, and it's happening more and more, and all of that happens through opportunity. So first comes the opportunity, then comes the proof of the fact that there's so much brain power, and might, and strength and ability out there that women have. It's changing, but it still has a way to go.
22:45 KW: Yes, well, and you're at the forefront of that change so thank you.
22:49 AW: Well, it's a pleasure. Paulina and I work pretty hard. And we have a growing company that has men and women in it. It is largely women, but to us it's an evolving organic thing that is taking shape on its own, and the shape that it's taking is very much that of female leadership.
23:20 KW: Yeah, absolutely. If our listeners want to check out Universal Standard and some of the amazing clothes that you have, where should they go?
23:33 AW: We're a direct-to-consumer brand. So UniversalStandard.com is where you can see absolutely everything in our online store. We have two showrooms that are by appointment in Seattle and here in New York, it's all on our website. And you can make an appointment and have the entire showroom to yourself and a stylist. And it's a stylist not a salesperson. So the stylist is there on your side to help you experience the entire line, play with various combinations and see how you like the brand. And we're also available to some extent at Nordstrom and of course, our new collaboration with J.Crew, which just launched a few days ago.
24:21 KW: And I have to say I love your kits.
24:24 AW: Thanks.
24:26 KW: I always joke about myself, I'm such an un-creative shopper. I buy the same things, but when I try different things, try different items and colors it is transformational, it makes me feel so good.
24:41 AW: Absolutely, of course.
24:42 KW: I think we just play it so safe when it comes to fashion. So your kits are really fun. Makes it kind of give you the whole... It's like here's everything you need from... Depending on which kit, there's active wear and work wear, dresses, but it gives you a little bit of everything to help make you feel special and great.
25:00 AW: Yeah. We were looking at our customers, and this goes to your question of how do we interact with our customers? We were seeing that there was a lot of this kind of trepidation of stepping out into the light for the first time and kind of going, "I want to have a modern wardrobe. I love this style, I just don't know where to start." So we said, Here are eight pieces. And you now have 20 outfits even if you throw everything out of your closet like tomorrow, but if you incorporate it with the things you already have, then you have countless combinations. So that worked really well and people liked it.
25:41 AW: Another thing that we saw was that women were really having this dialogue with the bully in their head, when they were standing in front of the mirror, and they were saying this reflection that I see, I don't like that reflection. This is not the me that I'm going to be. This is a temporary state, my body is not what it should be, "I'm going to be thinner or I'm gonna be better, I'm gonna... " And that's the version that will deserve to get the nice stuff, so I will either buy stuff that doesn't fit me, it's gonna fit my future self, or I won't buy, I won't treat myself at all. And we thought to ourselves, what can we do to shift that really abusive, self-abusive mind frame. So we instituted something that we really hope the entire apparel industry will adopt in one way or another, and it's called Fit Liberty, which says that if you purchase something from our core collection which are our most popular pieces, buy for that person you are right now, and if within a year you go up in size, or down in size, just return those clothes and we will give you your new size, brand new size for free.
27:07 KW: Wow.
27:08 AW: So you don't have to fret and worry and think like, "Oh, I'm pregnant and this won't fit or I'm on a weight loss journey or I'm on a weight gain situation, for whatever reason, stop beating yourself up, buy something that fits you beautifully, right now. And ironically, that's when change happens, when you feel great about yourself. So buy that and feel good about yourself. And then whatever happens, we've got your back, we will take care of you. So you don't have to think about the extra expense or the... That the ill-fitting or which version of me deserves what? And it worked out so beautifully because when people return the clothes that that no longer fit them because they're great quality clothes, they have a second life and a third life. We work with two charities that we donate these clothes to. They're Dress for Success and First Steps. And all of these women that are trying to make their way back into the workforce get to participate in Universal Standard clothing as well, that is given to them through these two organizations. So it was this wonderful ecosystem. It keeps stuff out of landfills, it saves you money, it saves you peace of mind, and it also provides something for someone who's trying to rebuild a life. It just worked out so elegantly that we thought this must be something good.
28:47 KW: I agree, it is something good. Thank you so much for joining us today on the Ellevate Podcast, this was really amazing.
28:54 AW: It's the pleasure, thank you.
28:55 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate if you like what you hear, help a girl out, subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't get to follow us on Twitter at EllevateNTWK, that's Ellevate Network. And become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, www.EllevateNetwork.com, that's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E Network.com And special thanks to our producer, Catherine Heller, she rocks, and to our voice-over artist, Rachel Griesinger, thanks so much, and join us next week.
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