Plus-Size Women Want More Than Just More Sizes—They Want Style

Photo Courtesy of Universal Standard.

Talking to Universal Standard co-founder Alex Waldman

Universal Standard co-founder Alex Waldman spent years as a fashion journalist watching women walk down the runway who didn’t look like her, writing about brands that didn’t cater to her, holding up an industry that refused to prioritize her needs—or those of the 68 percent of American women who look like her. The tipping point came when she was invited to an event and couldn’t find anything to wear. When her friend and now co-founder Polina Veksler suggested they simply go to Fifth Avenue to find something, Waldman responded: “There’s not a single store on all of Fifth Avenue where I can buy something for myself because of my size.” Waldman tells me now: “I said, ‘Come on, I’ll show you what my sort of "choice" looks like.’” She proceeded to walk Veksler to a department store, past the home goods and furniture, to the space designated for women in double digits. “That’s when I think the penny dropped for her,” Waldman says. Soon after, Universal Standard was born.

The company’s motto is "fashion freedom," meaning they work to present every woman with options—not just a select few. The aim is to cater to all women, to create styles that a size 6 and a size 26 would want to wear, to eliminate the conversation of “us” and “them.” So, the brand started out with sizes 10 to 28, then expanded to sizes 6 to 32, and by next year the offerings will range from 00 to 40. Another part of the freedom Veksler and Waldman speak about is being free to let your weight fluctuate, because they recognize that changes in size are common. In fact, while doing market research, one of the things they found out was that plus-size shoppers were hesitant to invest in more expensive clothing in case they eventually lost weight. So, Waldman and Veksler introduced an exchange policy that states if a piece from its Fit Liberty collection doesn’t fit within a year of purchase, the brand will replace it with a new size, free of charge.

Outside of the exchange policy and the many sizes offered, women respond to Universal Standard’s clothes because the selection doesn’t just include oversized dresses and wide-leg pants. There’s lounge and active wear, clothes for professional settings and casual ones. The brand has the range—and the industry has taken notice. Orange Is the New Black star Danielle Brooks collaborated with the team on a series of small collections last year. And earlier this year, the company received a large chunk of funding from Gwyneth Paltrow, as well as the owners of SoulCycle, Sweetgreen, and Toms. Most recently, the brand teamed up with J.Crew to help the company expand its sizes.

Waldman was sitting on a CFDA panel about the plus-size industry (the first ever!) when senior executives from the brand approached her. The choice to collaborate was a no-brainer. J. Crew is one of those all-American brands that, when it starts making changes, others follow. “I said jokingly, 'Had J.Crew been making plus-size clothing all along, I would have never started Universal Standard,'” Waldman shares. “They were great representatives of the everything-ness of brands.” J.Crew’s been doing well on this front, and is having an inclusion resurgence of sorts. So is its sister brand, Madewell. But the change is slow-moving for the industry as a whole. According to Racked, when you look at the multi-brand retailers, only 2.3 percent of their clothes on offer are plus-size. That number shrinks even more when you get to the luxury retail market, in which, according to Yahoo, only 0.1 percent of brands cater to plus-size customers.

There are real barriers to plus-size entry, Waldman says, including the cost difference, the lack of expertise, and the misconceptions. “There’s a real learning and expense curve,” she shares. But for luxury brands—who can more often than not afford to dole out the money—it seems like a lazy excuse. As Christian Siriano, one of the few designers who has made size diversity a priority, told Refinery29 in a recent interview, widening your distribution is never going to negatively affect a big brand’s business. “Take Calvin Klein, for example: It would always, always be beneficial for them,” he says. “It would never hurt them. You can’t do anything to hurt the Calvin Klein business at this point. They’re Calvin Klein.”

When Waldman and I meet up in Universal Standard’s showroom, it’s the second day of New York Fashion Week. People emerge from the subway wearing plaid blazers over silk sip dresses paired with grandpa sneakers. Of the 84 brands showing at New York Fashion Week this season, only 12 actually sell clothing in a size 16 or above, according to InStyle. Last season’s Fashion Spot diversity report showed that the number of plus-size models that walked the runway went down from the season before, making up a pathetic total of 0.4 percent of castings. We’re often fed this narrative that the industry is improving when, in many cases, it seems to be at a standstill. Or, even, regressing.

The plus-size vs. straight-size debate isn't just about whether or not there's availability, it's also about what is available, Waldman says. As she reiterates multiple times during our conversation, it’s not a size issue, it’s a style issue. “On the straight size side of things, there's a lot of imagination, there's quality, there's diversity in price, you really can choose pieces and build your wardrobe,” she says. She doesn't want to walk into a SoHo bar wearing floral dresses or yellow palazzo pants anymore. “A size 6 woman doesn't have better taste, she just has better options,” Waldman continues. “I want to look like I participate in real life, not in a strange perpetual baby shower... When you can't present yourself in the way that you'd like to present yourself, it's very limiting, and it can be very painful.”

Many women, including Waldman, have been forced to buy and alter men’s clothes, or purchase things that were meant to be worn one way, and then wear it a different way. They’ve become their own personal designers because they’ve had no other choice. And in a lot of cases, they simply submit to this reality. They learn to live with the fact that they’ll have fewer choices than their straight-sized friends. “You think that you deserve every inconvenience that you experience because you’re this size,” Waldman says. “What I want the world to realize is that we all watch the same television, we all read the same magazines, we all walk past the same windows... Until we make clothing for all women, I just don't see how we're going to stop feeling like the other.”  

Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images

Sounds fake, but okay

In a new interview for Australian Vogue, Kendall Jenner makes the claim that being associated with the Kardashian name was a setback in her modeling career. Hmmm, that's funny, because power and influence usually works in their holder's favor.

In the interview, Jenner addresses skeptics who doubted that she would make it as a professional model. "A lot of people assumed that because I came from a 'name' that it was a lot easier for me to get to where I got, but actually it's the completely opposite," she says.

"I've always been the person to prove [critics] wrong, even when I was younger," she says. "I've always been a hard worker: that's in my blood. My parents raised me and my little sister to be that way and the rest of my sisters, too." In the profile, it's revealed that Jenner used to attend castings "simply as 'K' or 'Kendall' to distinguish herself from her famous family."

But keeping her name off her portfolio wasn't going to fool anyone, really. Her face has been on television for years, and it seems unlikely that a casting agent wouldn't know who she was even if Kendall didn't come out and say it. Perhaps Jenner was more closely examined and more readily criticized by people who doubted her, but I'm not sure I believe that she had a harder time gaining a modeling platform or booking big jobs, even if she didn't use her last name.

After all, Jenner was likely able to get into those big casting rooms right away because of her family's connections, and she was able to devote her time to pursuing that career because of the wealth they have. She would've had a much harder time making a name for herself if she didn't come from an influential family. She probably wouldn't get to be so selective about which shows she walks, and she definitely wouldn't be the highest paid model in the world.

Screenshot via Hulu

Introspection is not a bad thing

In Look Back at It, we revisit pop culture gems of the past and see if they're still relevant and worthy of their designated icon status in our now wildly different world.

"It just seems like you agree to have a certain personality or something, for no reason. Just to make things easier for everyone. But when you think about it, I mean, how do you know it's even you?"

Iconic '90s show My So-Called Life is filled with existential questions and observations like this, with many, if not all of them, voiced by high school sophomore Angela Chase (Claire Danes). They're delivered with a familiarly annoyed tone, as if Angela can't believe things are the way they are, and that they're unlikely to change.

Angela lives with her parents and sister in a comfortable home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and spends her time navigating the social scene of Liberty High School. She's undergoing a big change, having switched friend groups and fallen in with a cooler crew, namely Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer) and Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz). Thanks to them, Angela dyed her hair from blonde to a "Crimson Glow," and is encouraged to indulge in her obsession with Jordan Catalano (a pre-Gucci Jared Leto), the kind of guy who's constantly applying Visine and has a limited chance of actively graduating.

From the first moment of the first episode, Angela's voice is pure, unadulterated teen angst. The melodrama can, when watching as an adult, feel like it's too much. And then there's other times, like when Angela talks about the agony of Sunday evenings, that it feels unnerving to relate so much to a 15-year-old:

"There's something about Sunday night that really makes you want to kill yourself, especially if you've just been totally made a fool of by the only person you'll ever love, and you have a geometry midterm on Monday, which you still haven't studied for because you can't, because Brian Krakow has your textbook, and you're too embarrassed to even deal with it. And your little sister's completely finished with her homework, which is just, like, so simple and mindless a child could do it. And that creepy 60 Minutes watch that sounds like your whole life ticking away."

Angela is nothing if not an over-thinker, preoccupied with very teenage problems like zits and gossip and who to talk to at parties; her thoughts on the most simple of relationships are extreme, like when she thinks about how she felt before she became friends with Rayanne and Rickie: "it seemed like if I didn't, I would die or something."

Sometimes, her melodrama feels suffocating—particularly when related to Jordan Catalano (it's imperative to say both his names). Angela wonders: "Huge events take place on this earth every day. Earthquakes, hurricanes... even glaciers move. So why couldn't he just look at me?"

As an adult, it's easy to think that, of course, Jordan should look at her: She's smart, witty, open-hearted, pretty, has good taste in music. But then, there's no way to make sense of how crushes work. As a sophomore in high school, I also pined after guys who I felt were out of my league, and after the only girls who were out... but who were dating each other. My thoughts probably (definitely) sounded a lot like Angela's, and I was similarly dissatisfied with my life.

At the time, that dissatisfaction felt oppressive—and I wouldn't want to relive it entirely. But that introspection was also what saved me. By questioning what was around me and interrogating how I really felt, I was able to reject the trappings of my conservative town, figure out my own politics, and accept my own queerness. My teenage dissatisfaction with the way things actually are made me grow as a person, and it shaped me into who I am. Thinking about Angela now, and how her angst fueled her, reminds me that I should also let myself indulge in some teen angst—even as an adult.

In one of the show's final episodes, Angela pauses to reflect on the value of her overthinking. She's ringing in the New Year with her friends and decides her resolution could be "to stop getting so caught up in my own thoughts, because I'm like way too introspective… I think." But she decides against that idea, because "what if not thinking turns me into this really shallow person?" Same, Angela. Same.

Courtesy of HBO

Thanks, I hate it

In an interview today with The Cut, Vanderpump Rules star Stassi Schroeder blessed readers with some of her thoughts on HBO's Game of Thrones, and since we can't get enough GoT talk, we were excited to see what Schroeder had to say.

And, in case you're wondering if Schroeder is a fan of GoT, don't: She's actually such a massive fan that she refers to her fans Khaleesis, and they call her Khaleesi right back. So!

Anyway, after the wide range of responses to Daenerys' fiery mayhem in the show's penultimate episode, The Cut wanted to check in to see how Schroeder was faring, and ask what she thought of it all. While Schroeder's opinion on Dany is mixed (she found the Dragon Queen's "crazy" actions to be relatable, but she didn't think it followed Dany's character arc), it wasn't, like, a bad opinion, just a bit muddled, if not so different than those of the majority of viewers.

Schroeder's real hot take, though—what we feel comfortable calling the worst GoT opinion we've heard—is about another character altogether: Arya Stark. Here's what Schroeder had to say about our favorite blacksmith-banging, Night King-killing, proposal-denying assassin in all the Seven Kingdoms: "Arya, I feel like she probably should have just married whats-his-name [Ed. note: Gendry! His name is Gendry!!]. What's wrong with being a lady and a badass at the same time? You don't have to choose just one."

And, like, sure, you don't have to choose just one, but Arya would never choose to be a lady. That's not her! So, if we're still talking about characters behaving inconsistently, Arya saying yes to a proposal (a rushed one at that) would have been absolutely bonkers. Arya's not about to change her entire personality just because some dude drops down on one knee and proposes, and to want her to do so would be like wanting Dany to act like a sheep, instead of a dragon.

All to say, you know nothing, Stassi Schroeder.

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hoto by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Civic Entertainment Group

Our favorite grouchy girl died today

Today is a sad day, because it is the day Grumpy Cat died. Also known as my personal favorite feline celebrity, Grumpy Cat died from complications following a urinary tract infection. The super relatable cat—real name, Tardar Sauce—was only seven years old.

Grumpy Cat was first introduced to the world in 2011, back when LOLcats were everywhere. Grumpy Cat's downturned face (the result of feline dwarfism, according to her owners) was the subject of a huge amount of memes—she was even the 2013 Meme of the Year at the Webby Awards—and was the subject of her own Lifetime movie, in which she was voiced by the Grumpy Cat of actresses, Aubrey Plaza. But, though we loved her for the memes, we loved her even more because we related to her mood.

Grumpy Cat was so relatable because, like us, she was completely over everyone's bullshit. Unlike us, Grumpy Cat didn't hide her feelings with a smile. And while that was because Grumpy Cat literally couldn't do that, we like to think that she also just didn't want to do the emotional labor. Which is why, in honor of Grumpy Cat, have the courage to roll your eyes at someone today, instead of forcing a fake grin. And just think about how Grumpy Cat's probably frowning at us from some sort of kitty afterlife, utterly annoyed that everyone is mourning her death.

Screenshot via YouTube

And I need to see the rest ASAP

As excited as we already are for Olivia Wilde's directorial debut, Booksmart, to hit theaters next week, we just got even more desperate to see it. Why? Well, the first six minutes of the film were just released, and every minute is incredible.

The film opens on Molly (Beanie Feldstein) meditating and listening to a motivational tape telling her she's better than everyone else, and to "fuck those losers." Her room is decorated with pictures of Michelle Obama and RBG, so we know her head is in the right place. We learn she's the class president when she arrives at school with her best friend, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever).

It's there that we get a glimpse of the social hierarchy in which Molly and Amy exist—but somewhere down near the bottom, way below the popular kids, the theater nerds, the stoners, and even the annoying class clown.

The film officially hits theaters on May 23, but Annapurna Pictures is holding advanced screenings across the country today, May 17—we're actually holding two of them! So, if you're in L.A. or New York, check them out.

But also, you can watch the first six minutes of the film, below, and prepare yourself to watch the whole movie in a week.

BOOKSMART | Uncut First 6 Minutes