How Karl Lagerfeld Helped Create Universal Standard

How Karl Lagerfeld Helped Create Universal Standard

By Alex Waldman, Cofounder & CCO

I often get asked if there was a moment, a tipping point, that made me consider seriously starting Universal Standard. The truth is there were many. But maybe there is one in particular that finally made me abandon the idea that I deserved my exclusion from the fashion world. This is the story of what happened…

Years ago, I found myself standing in the stairwell of a department store crying. I went into the stairs because I didn’t want anyone to see me. Public crying was considered not only mortifying, but a rude display of emotions that burdened others who might have to witness it. It couldn’t be helped though. I had just done something very foolish. I had decided to look for plus-size clothing in Tokyo.

It was my 7th year in Japan. There was very little in my experience so far to support any hope of finding something that would fit my size 18 self – but I had to try. It was a desperate situation that called for desperate measures.

When I entered the department store, I tried to be strategic about my approach. I looked around for a sympathetic face and slowly stepped up to a sales clerk on the ground floor. “Excuse me,” I said in Japanese “do you know where the ‘big-u’ clothes department is?” The sales woman looked at me with a smiling, open face that managed to radiate both willingness to help, and embarrassment at finding herself in an uncomfortable situation. “Hmmmm…” she pondered, giving me her best tilted-head hand-on-chin thinking face. “Big-u clothes… ahhhhhh! I understand!!” she finally exclaimed, delighted to be able to help/end this awkward communication. “Giant-o size!!” she said, without an iota of irony, empathy, or embarrassment. “Yes!” she said, quite proud of having a positive answer to my query. “Giant-o size - 4th floor!”

I turned toward the escalator, my face bright red. On the 4th floor, I began my search anew. At last, I was pointed toward a single round rack of end-of-the-road sales clothes. There, among the sad remnants of a buyer’s misjudgments, was the most giant-o piece of women’s clothing I could reasonably expect to find in Tokyo… a DKNY blouse in size 8. That’s when I looked for the staircase.

There was a reason for my venture into what I already knew would be a failed expedition. I had been asked to interview Karl Lagerfeld for WWD. In two days I would be facing one of fashion’s preeminent creative geniuses…and I hadn’t bought clothes in years. That may seem odd considering I was now the fashion editor of a national newspaper. But buying clothes had always been a horrible experience. Unfortunately what I did buy into was the idea that I deserved every deficiency I experienced because I had a big body.

I often felt like some of the best moments in my professional life were tainted by my inability to present myself in the way I wished. There was nothing out there for someone my size that allowed me to look like my stylish peers. Being a size-18 fashion editor was a constant self-esteem exercise - and I didn’t always have strength for the workout.

Regardless of my lament – the fact was the interview was fast approaching and I had to think creatively.

This is where I will pull back a little of the veil that inadvertently hides the plus-size world from everyone but the women living in it. It’s a little known fact that most plus-size women are amateur designers. We have to be. We are forever altering and reimagining the clothes we buy. For years I often bought men’s clothes and altered them to fit my frame. I wanted something - anything - that could pass for modern basics! I would comb plus-size racks in the hope of finding pieces that I could ‘zhuzh’ into something interesting – cutting off sleeves, changing buttons, removing collars. If necessity is the mother of invention, I was drowning in it.

The situation needed imagination and the mind-bending powers of a Jedi. I walked into the GAP on Omotesando Avenue, bought a men’s grey shirt in XL, and set off to create a ‘look’. Not surprisingly, the fit of the shirt left a lot to be desired - but it was a nice, flat, medium grey. That was something at least. I would wear it buttoned all the way up, with a black tube skirt, and sleeves messily rolled to just below my elbow. Tying it all together would be black oxfords. If I played it right, I might look just confusing enough to make Mr. Lagerfeld think I’m doing something irreverent, or quirky with my style. Maybe he would take the super long shirttails, straight body, and baggy shoulders of my dolphin-grey GAP shirt as a kooky take on Harajuku styling… we were in Japan after all.

The rest of the story is… another story. Suffice it to say that we met, I did the interview, and I consider that experience a preamble to what eventually became Universal Standard. Maybe there is a tipping point. Maybe you need enough of these moments (and the great fortune to meet an amazing business partner) to actually take the steps to build a brand.

There must be some amazing stories floating around out there. I’d love to hear them.

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