Alexandra Waldman, Cofounder of Universal Standard, Dies at 57

A memorial service was held Thursday at the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel in New York for Alexandra Waldman, cofounder of Universal Standard and a passionate advocate for the size-inclusivity movement.

Waldman died Sept. 8 following a two-year battle with cancer. She was 57.

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Passionate, driven and a take-charge person, Waldman challenged the status quo in her determination to make fashion a more accessible and inclusive space for people and created a clothing brand for everyone, including women like herself who were plus-size.

Born in Ukraine, Waldman and her family emigrated to Germany and Israel and later Edmonton, Canada. After graduating with a B.A. in English literature and comparative linguistics from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, Waldman moved to Japan where she taught English, did translation work, and wrote for the Japan Times and WWD Japan about fashion. That’s where she began her love for fashion.

“I remember her telling me she was sitting in the front row at some of these fashion shows, and just knowing that she could only look and never be able to participate,” said Polina Veksler, cofounder and chief executive officer of Universal Standard.

She recalled that Waldman was interviewing Karl Lagerfeld in Japan and had nothing to wear, and had to go to the men’s department at Gap to buy a large Gap shirt. She later spent two years in Paris, wrote a book and went to work as global head of marketing in Moscow for the Renaissance Group before coming to the U.S. and working for a hedge fund.

“I ended up moving to New York in 2013 at the same time, and we were connected through a colleague,” recalled Veksler. They had both worked at Renaissance. “I messaged her at LinkedIn hoping she would help me get a job.” They ended up meeting and became quick friends.

Veksler recalled she was invited to a networking event and Waldman said she would go with her. Waldman then decided she was not going because she had nothing to wear.

“You live a couple of blocks away from Fifth Avenue. Let’s go shopping,” Veksler recalled telling her. Waldman said there was not a single store she could go to to buy clothes for herself, and they went to Bloomingdale’s and passed all the beautiful floors and then upstairs found a “small little section of plus-size clothing.” Veksler said that was the first time a light bulb went off. She realized that her experience, as a single-digit size, was so different from Waldman’s in trying to buy clothes.

Alexandra Waldman and Polina Veksler at work
Alexandra Waldman and Polina Veksler at work.

It was Waldman’s idea to start a company where everyone would be given equal access to clothing, from size 2 to 32, said Veklser. “She was going to start a brand for everyone; she wanted someplace where everyone felt equal,” said Veksler.

Universal Standard launched its first collection in 2015 with eight pieces, all designed by Waldman, which sold out in six days. Today, the brand has hundreds of pieces encompassing workwear, denim, everyday essentials, swimwear, underwear, activewear and loungewear, in sizes 00 to 40, or XXS to 7X. The aesthetic has been described as “understated chic.” Eighty percent of the business is done online, and 20 percent through trunk shows around the country.

The brand, which has done collaborations with Rodarte and J. Crew, made the decision in 2016 to offer consumers weekly drops over seasonal collections so they can shop for what they want, when they wanted it.

Waldman designed the first collection by herself without any design knowledge or background. She became chief creative officer, but then had to step back when she got sick. “She wanted to battle this cancer privately,” said Veksler.

Describing her work ethic, Veksler said, “She was tenacious, ambitious, unwavering, kind, gentle and a creative visionary. The brand is what it is today due to the foundation she set back when she started. She wanted representation and inclusivity to be the main mission of the brand.”

“She was an intellectual, she loved architecture, and was incredibly well-read. She was really into literature and history and philosophy. She loved spending time with her dog, Gracie,” Veksler said.

In an interview with WWD in 2017, Waldman spoke about how she related to Universal Standard’s mission. “I’m the end-user of the product. You get used to ‘look, but don’t touch.’ It’s always been a pain point,” she said about shopping for fashionable clothing. “I was always in a constant state of choosing the best of the worst. I was always settling.” She said that some department stores hide the plus-size fashion near the furniture departments. “Once you start to look, what you see is quite shocking,” she said.

Waldman included stretch in garments, aimed for fabrics that wouldn’t pill and designed so buttons wouldn’t pop open when a woman sits down. Online, the site shows different sizes of models in the clothes.

Lisa Smilor, executive vice president, Council of Fashion Designers of America, who was a good friend of Waldman’s, said, “From the first time I met her, which was not long after Universal Standard had launched, I knew that Alexandra Waldman was going to bring great change to fashion for women of all sizes. To hear her speak with such passion and determination about her vision to bring a satisfying shopping experience to every woman was very exciting. I immediately sensed that the work would be heartfelt, and believed that she (and her business partner) would succeed.

“It is not often that one meets a true phenom — someone with such drive and commitment, who has such admiration and respect for fashion and design and execution. There is no one who has made such significant strides toward making fashion truly inclusive, delivering garments that are beautifully made and affordable. Alex was the pioneer who paved the way for others to follow…she proved what can be done when someone cares enough to address and solve a systemic problem,” said Smilor.

Natalie Massenet, founder of Net-a-porter, whose Imaginary Ventures invested in Universal Standard, said Waldman was a catalyst for change.

“Alexandra had a vision to create a fashion brand that did not discriminate on size, any size. She knew she had to start by serving customers who were entirely ignored by apparel companies. Ultimately her vision was that Universal Standard would, through its example, reset the fashion industry’s view of what a consumer looks like and that all brands would make clothes for everyone,” said Massenet.

“In the years she and Polina built the business she was a significant catalyst of the tremendous changes in popular culture’s adoption of size inclusivity — and Universal Standard continues to be a significant part of this movement. Alex fought her cancer the way she fought stigmas, with all her heart. We are very sad that she left us so early. Although there is much left to be done, Alex leaves behind a tremendously inspiring and powerful legacy,” said Massenet.

Tom Chapman, cofounder of Matchesfashion, founder of Abask, and a private investor, also invested in Universal Standard. He spoke about Waldman’s passion and how she shook up the industry.

“I met Alex and her partner Polina seven years ago when they had just launched Universal Standard. Alex was a true visionary. She saw the huge opportunity of addressing a market that had historically excluded plus-size but also was so passionate about the mission of size inclusivity. Alex and Polina pushed the boundaries of the industry and have played a significant role in acceptance of size for all. She will be missed by all at Universal Standard. Under Polina’s guidance, Universal Standard will continue to build on Alex’s mission to challenge the industry,” said Chapman.

Waldman is survived by her parents, Lev and Maria Waldman, and her brother, Steven.

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