Meet the Canadian who is helping fashion get over its size obsession

Alexandra Waldman knows what larger-sized women want when it comes to fashion: quality, choice and a shopping experience that doesn't make them feel bad. In other words, the same thing every woman wants.

Universal Standard is teaming with retailer J.Crew to extend its size range

Alexandra Waldman is the Canadian co-founder of fashion retailer Universal Standard, shown here in her company's showroom in New York. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

Alexandra Waldman knows what larger-sized women want when it comes to fashion: Quality, choice and a shopping experience that doesn't make them feel bad.

In other words, the same thing every woman wants.

"I think that the idea of separating women — of segregating some women — from access to style and quality has got to stop. There shouldn't be 'us and them,'" said the Canadian-born Waldman, speaking from the New York showroom of Universal Standard, the fashion company she co-founded that carries clothing in sizes 6 to 32.

Universal Standard grabbed headlines earlier this month when it partnered with J.Crew for a collection that goes up to 5X, or size 32.

The deal obviously benefits Waldman's company, which is not yet a household name, like J.Crew. But it's J.Crew that stands to benefit from Waldman's expertise, which ranges from how to cut larger clothes differently for a more flattering fit (hint: you don't just make a small dress bigger), to using different terminology when talking about size.

J.Crew is not alone: mainstream retailers from Joe Fresh and Le Château in Canada, to the British online retailer ASOS and U.S.-based Tracy Reese, are expanding their sizing to offer both smaller and traditionally plus-size garments.

Women who have put up with segregated shopping outings in plus-size stores or departments welcome the arrival of more inclusive retail experience.

Sarah De Melo and Daniela Lombardi, two of the plus-sized models behind the popular Instagram account Canadian Curvies, have had to contend with disappointing shopping trips starting in their teen years.

De Melo said her two best friends growing up wore size 4 and 2. Hunting for clothes with those two, she couldn't find anything for herself without "having to go into the dark corner of the plus-sized section."

"It's kind of degrading," said Lombardi, who recalled missing out on shopping for a prom dress with her friends. "My mother made my prom dress."

Both say they're happy to see the change Le Château, J. Crew and other retailers are making. "They're making it possible for all of you to shop on one rack," says De Melo.

Lombardi and De Melo, two of the models behind Canadian Curvies, share how tough it is for plus-size women to find stylish clothes that fit:

Models Daniela Lombardi and Sarah De Melo, co-founders of Canadian Curvies, share how tough it is for curvy and plus-size women to find stylish clothes that fit. 2:28

But winning the loyalty of the larger-sized fashionista is not likely to happen overnight. Here are some of the lessons Alexandra Waldman learned since starting her company in 2015.

'Plus-size' is outdated

At least the term is, according to Waldman.

Universal Standard published a "manifesto" on Instagram this spring that included the declaration that "plus-size fashion is over."

Many consumers and fashion observers delighted in how the change in terminology conveyed a revolutionary abandonment of old ideas about size. 

But not everyone was a fan. Some plus-size bloggers saw it as a marketing ploy or an attempt to distance Universal Standard from the very shoppers who made it a hit.

All new ideas are met with some pushback, according to Waldman, and she said she understands her customers' feelings.

"People have been pushed away and pushed to the side and ignored for so long that they have adopted a certain nomenclature to define themselves," she said. "And when you say that nomenclature is no longer valid or let's work toward a place where it's no longer necessary, people feel protective of it."

You can't just cut bigger garments

One of the major hurdles mainstream fashion retailers will face is in "sizing up" — such as going from a size 2 to a size 18. When it comes to larger sizes, garments often need very different design and construction to fit equally well.

"There are areas that have a little more traffic on a bigger body, so there's pilling," said Waldman.

Her company researches fabrics and cuts that look more flattering on a larger customer.

Lombardi said designers need to do that kind of homework. "It's not just a matter of cutting it and saying 'OK it's going to fit you because we made it three times bigger.' No," she said.

More material, same price

There's no way around this: a plus-size garment costs more to make than a regular-sized one.

But despite the extra fabric used, "the price to the consumer has to be the same," said Waldman. 

So retailers have to think hard to figure out the right price for each garment.

No 'one size fits all' exchange policy

Maybe the biggest departure from "business as usual" is in how Universal Standard handles its exchanges.

Since plus-size women tend to fluctuate in weight more, Waldman's company allows them to exchange the Universal Standard "basic pieces" within one year if their size changes, receiving their new size instead.

That's the kind of thinking that shows understanding of the specific needs of a larger-sized customer, said Imran Amed, the Canadian-born founder of the influential publication The Business of Fashion.

"I think what they're doing, which is quite interesting, is communicating to the customer in a way that's really respectful and different," he said. "They think about the customer in a targeted, considered fashion."

The two models behind the Instagram account Canadian Curvies share what they'd like to see change in the retail fashion world:

Models and Canadian Curvies co-founders Daniela Lombardi and Sarah De Melo on the fashion retailer changes they’d love to see and the importance of greater inclusivity and representation. 2:06

About the Author

Deana Sumanac-Johnson

Reporter

Deana Sumanac-Johnson is a national CBC News reporter for the entertainment unit. She appears regularly on The National and CBC News radio programs, specializing in stories on music and literature/publishing. Before joining the arts unit, she was an award-winning current affairs producer for CBC News: Sunday.

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