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Women’s clothing is divided into straight and plus sizes. Here’s why that’s a problem.

Universal Standard’s new Foundation Collection is available in sizes 00 to 40, allowing women of various sizes to shop together.

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A rack of women’s clothing.
Retailers have traditionally separated women’s clothing into plus and straight sizes, but brands like Universal Standard seek to change that.
Getty Images

The clothing brand Universal Standard has made a move it calls unprecedented: It is releasing a collection of high-end basics spanning sizes 00 to 40. The inclusive size range ensures that a vast array of shoppers — from the most petite to those on the larger end of plus — can wear the pieces in the line, called the Foundation Collection. The collection, available in the brand’s new SoHo store and online on October 18, includes turtlenecks, jeans, and dresses.

In a retail industry that has traditionally separated women’s apparel by size, requiring larger shoppers to visit plus-size clothing stores, a line as wide-ranging as the Foundation Collection stands out. In recent years, a number of retailers, including big-box stores like Target and Walmart and indie brands like Reformation and Mara Hoffman, have expanded their women’s clothing sizes.

Since 68 percent of American women fall into the plus category, meaning they wear at least a size 14, it’s a good business move. But the extended ranges that have debuted over the past few years often include only the smallest plus sizes, and many retailers that exclusively sell plus lack options beyond sizes 28 to 32.

Universal Standard wants to blur the line between plus and straight size clothing for women.
Universal Standard’s new Foundation Collection comes in sizes 00 to 40.

The Foundation Collection is particularly notable because it is available to women regardless of where they fall on the straight-plus spectrum. In fact, Universal Standard’s founders, Alexandra Waldman and Polina Veksler, want to eliminate the division between straight and plus attire altogether. They believe that women of any size should be able to walk into a store without worrying whether the retailer has clothes that fit them. It’s a radical approach in an industry that has consistently underserved and isolated larger women.

Plus and straight sizes are rarely sold together

Think of a mall, any mall. Chances are that if you’re a woman over size 14, you’ll have difficulty walking into a random clothing store and finding something that fits. Since the late 1800s, when ready-to-wear clothing became available for mass consumption, retailers have primarily sold apparel in straight sizes (0 to 14), excluding bigger women. This practice has required larger women to seek out clothing from the select group of retailers specializing in apparel for “stout women.”

As archaic as this practice sounds, it continues today. Larger women’s clothing sizes continued to be sold in separate stores, despite the fact that the share of such women is increasing. In the 1910s, “stout women” made up about 12.7 percent of the US population. Today they are the norm, but the fashion industry mostly continues to ignore them.

In recent years, that’s slowly been changing. In 2016, Racked reported on how clothing lines from celebrities like Khloe Kardashian and Zendaya included both straight and plus sizes, and brands like Of Mercer and Elizabeth Suzann extended their sizes to accommodate larger women. But the idea of straight sizes and plus sizes being sold together was still a novelty, as evidenced by Modcloth making headlines just for selling clothes in sizes 00 through 30 on the same racks at its first brick-and-mortar store. That establishment, in Austin, stood out as the rare store in the nation where smaller and bigger women could shop together.

But many brands, even those praised as innovators, continue to stick to traditional retail models when it comes to sizing. Vox pointed out in December 2017 how Everlane, applauded for its transparent prices and assortment of classic garments, excludes women over size 14. In a statement, the company said that it wanted to be inclusive but would need to do more than simply extending its sizes.

“We need to launch plus as a separate brand with new fits, new models and new fabrics to ensure that the styles fit and look great,” the statement said. “As we gain scale and get new customers, we will be able to focus our energy on launching this line.”

Everlane’s statement may have raised more questions than it answered. After all, it has introduced children’s clothing without launching a separate brand. Why would it be necessary to launch an entirely new brand simply to give women of all sizes clothing options? For a company framed as a trailblazer, Everlane doesn’t appear willing to challenge the old retail industry norm of dividing clothing by size.

Universal Standard wants to influence other retailers to stop dividing clothing by size.
Universal Standard’s new Foundation Collection is available is sizes 00 to 40.
Universal Standard

Universal Standard, by contrast, has distinguished itself from other brands by expanding its clothing sizes up and down. In May, the brand announced that its apparel would be available in sizes 6 to 32, an expansion of its previous 10-to-28 size range. This week, it announced the new Foundation Collection in sizes 00 to 40. But Waldman, the chief creative officer, and Veksler, the CEO, don’t plan to stop there. By next year, all clothing available from Universal Standard will be available through size 40, according to Waldman.

“Our brand exists to basically end the segregation of fashion through sizing,” she said. “At some point, someone decided smaller women should have all these wonderful options and larger women should be relegated to less in terms of sizing and style. Instead of making plus-size brands, it’s time to start taking the two branches and binding them together. We are not plus-size. We are women. This is the size for you.”

A high-end retailer, Universal Standard also fills a void by offering upscale clothing for women who wear larger sizes. Jeans are about $90 on average, dresses range from $60 to $180 and blazers can cost more than $200.

The company is not the only retailer selling upscale apparel in larger sizes. Brands like 11 Honoré offer luxury clothing for the plus market, and others such as Anna Scholz and Navabi Fashion sell high-end clothing for this demographic. But these brands don’t have as expansive a size range as Universal Standard’s.

Cost and fit are some of the challenges of size inclusion

Trying to change retail conventions hasn’t been easy for Universal Standard. Some customers have questioned why the company feels the need to serve smaller women when those consumers already have multiple places to shop. Others appreciate the term “plus size” and find it convenient.

“It’s definitely needed to know where I can shop,” said Patricia Birch, who has modeled for the retailer SmartGlamour, which custom-makes clothing for shoppers of all sizes.

“There’s no shame being my size,” Birch said. “There is stigma with ‘plus size’ as a term. I don’t like the stigma. It’s about the attitudes people have about bodies that are larger.”

For her, size inclusion means clothing “for every single body,” no matter its shape or size. Until that happens, Birch says she’s content with the industry using the term plus-size to describe larger women.

Waldman and Veksler, of course, want retailers to start dressing all women sooner rather than later, arguing that if a company of its size — Universal Standard has 35 employees — can be more inclusive, so can mass-market retailers.

“I think there are challenges,” Veksler said. “But if you work hard enough, they can be overcome. Alex and I don’t have a background in manufacturing or design, but if we were able to figure out a way to get this done, I think [extending sizes] is something that is definitely possible for other brands.”

Mastering fit has been one challenge, and Universal Standard works with a diverse group of models to ensure its clothing fits well.

“We fit models of every single size, so we can get the styles to look right from the top to bottom,” Waldman said. “We do design for a range of body shapes. We use amazing fabric. Everything has stretch. Everything is designed so it doesn’t yank or pull up. We try to be inclusive without compromising.”

Universal Standard’s Foundation Collection comes in a size 00-40 range.
Universal Standard is trying to change how the retail industry sells clothing through its new collection.
Universal Standard

The retailer also has a clothing line called Fit Liberty that allows shoppers, within a year of purchase, to replace any item they’ve bought from the collection that no longer fits. Gently worn clothing is then donated to charitable groups like Dress for Success.

While making sure a miniskirt looks as flattering on a size 28 as it does on a size 6 takes effort, retailers typically blame their lack of inclusive sizes on money. Making larger clothes requires more fabric, which, of course, costs more.

“It’s expensive for brands to change how they’ve been doing their production and design for the past 50 years,” said Jess Mederos, a New York-based fashion and wardrobe stylist. “That’s a very heavy undertaking — to create patterns for different sizes when they’ve been working with the same pattern. [For plus clothing,] it’s literally a separate pattern for design and cutting.”

That said, she argues that it’s still wrong for retailers to marginalize shoppers who need extended sizes.

Veksler acknowledges that costs do go up when retailers make larger sizes, but inclusive sizes also attract a broader customer base. Those new shoppers offset the higher production costs.

“There is a way to do it and do it right,” she said, “and that’s to really focus on quality, style, and fabric and serving all women.”

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