By doing something the high street says is impossible, Birdsong and Universal Standard are building respect.
Brands offering true size inclusivity are hard to find. Ranges are improving but still, for most women finding clothing that makes them feel stylish and comfortable can be a challenge. It isn’t just being able to find clothes to wear but also the way that being excluded can make you feel.
After speaking to three women about their experiences and receiving hundreds of responses to a call for women who find it difficult to shop on the high street, it is clear that demand is not the limiting factor. For people at all points on the sizing scale, problems of fit can arise from the processes used by big brands that often scale up and down from a single fit model.
It can be done differently, though, in a way that builds both accessibility and respect. Speaking to two brands revolutionising their approach to fit, I discovered independent businesses making the effort that big companies say is too much.
Universal Standard was started by Alexandra Waldman and Polina Veksler after they realised that options for them to both shop together were severely limited. “As a size 20 (US) woman, the lack of clothing options available to me is something I have been painfully aware of for a long time,” Waldman explains. The pair recognised that the same level of quality, style and perhaps most crucially, respect, was not available to all women.
“Fashion was built on the premise of exclusivity,” Waldman adds, “and for many years about 70% of American women were denied access to great style.” So, to counteract the lack of options in the mainstream, Universal Standard (US) set out on a mission to allow a size 40 to shop in the same way as a size 00.
Traditional brands tend to use one fit model and base all sizing off one set of measurements by using a formula to size up.” US very quickly discovered that this method doesn’t work when you are trying to make a brand as size-inclusive as possible. As items were graded up Waldman says they lost the integrity of their design, shorts became unrecognisable culottes. “Essentially the traditional fit model method is like taking a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy,” she says.
Instead, the brand decided to reimagine the entire process. Developing their own unique method, US came up with the process of micro-grading. Alongside understanding manufacturing partners the method is far more in-depth than that used by most brands Waldman reveals; “we use sample models of every single size we offer and we look at the difference between each size individually, rather than using a standardized formula across the range”.
It isn’t just the work that goes in before the product reaches the customer, though, as US seeks to make the experience better even after you buy. “Fit Liberty” is a program that creates the flexibility to return products if they no longer fit you. According to Waldman it’s all about feeling comfortable with the body you have however it might change; “We want customers to shop without any hesitation, for the woman in the mirror, not some ‘better self’ they see as more deserving”. Products returned through this scheme are not wasted but are instead donated to organizations like Dress For Success and First Step, part of the Coalition for the homeless, that help empower women to achieve economic independence.
“By making size irrelevant and creating access to great style for all women, we hope our customers feel included and celebrated for being just the way they are”
Problems with size inclusivity
It’s important to realise that increasing inclusivity is not easy when it comes to making clothes. Obstacles that often prevent clothing from being made in a greater range of sizes include fabric usage, infrastructure issues and machinery. “It is much more expensive to make a size 32 dress than a size 2,” Waldman says, “not only is more fabric used, but more fabric is wasted. The price for larger clothing, however, can not reflect those increases as all dresses should cost the same amount, regardless of their size.”
Not all factories can produce clothing in a greater range of sizes as equipment limits them. Looms used to make knitted items, for example, are often not large enough to create sweaters of a certain size. Paying for the expertise required to make sure this clothing fits also doesn’t come cheap.
Waldman doesn’t think it just about money, however; “I think we would be naive if we didn’t also acknowledge the fact that a long-ingrained dislike of larger bodies is the last acceptable form of prejudice in our society. Many brands see introducing larger sizes as dilutive to their aesthetic and even their reputation.” An assessment that would seem to agree with the experiences of our previous interviewees.
Sustainable brand, Birdsong, recently successfully crowdfunded the money needed to make their brand size-inclusive. The biodegradable, compostable TENCEL™ dresses will be created for their size-inclusive range using expert garment technicians. In order to employ these highly skilled craftsmen and run their pop-up shops, the brand decided to crowdfund to make sure that they could pay everyone involved a living wage.
Birdsong particularly wants to ensure that people get a chance to have a good “high street” experience. “I think people still like to have a connection with the person or brand they’re shopping from,” says Co-Founder, Sophie Slater, “the high street isn’t performing well because the experience of shopping in person isn’t as nice”. Staff at Birdsong’s pop-up shops are super friendly and complimentary in an effort to afford everyone the respect that is so often missing from bigger brands.
Slater believes that being able to offer size-inclusive clothing is just a part of the responsibility of being a fair and optimistic brand. “All women should be able to find something that they treasure and hand down” adds Slater, “unfortunately, a lot of fast fashion brands have previously been the only ones to offer plus-size, but there are a lot of independents cropping up who do.”