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Inclusive brands share where Old Navy went wrong in its shift to inclusive sizing

September 7, 2022, 11:30 AM UTC
Universal Standard Cofounder Polina Veksler.
Courtesy of Universal Standard

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Britain’s new PM outlines her vision and revamps her cabinet on day one, Signal hires a new president, and a size-inclusive brand weighs in on what went wrong at Old Navy. Have a wonderful Wednesday.

– The right fit. In July, Old Navy announced it would scale back on inclusive sizing, less than one year after its rollout. The size expansion was a bold move that integrated plus sizes and straight sizes on store floors. But in practice, the strategy made it hard for shoppers in the middle of the size range to find the right clothes. Sales were down 19% in the first quarter of 2022 compared to the same time a year earlier.

Yet the retailer’s failed plus-size experiment didn’t have to be that way, according to Universal Standard, the 7-year-old apparel brand that launched in 2015, with sizes 00 to 40, and has been a leader in inclusive fashion ever since.

Some of Old Navy’s biggest assets—its size and brand legacy—were also its downfall. It’s considerably harder to fix size inclusivity at a major brand than it is to build an inclusive one from scratch. And Old Navy was by far the biggest retailer to attempt such an overhaul. “When you center your business to reflect the reality of the world we live in today, you do not have to overcome as many hurdles as some of the brands playing catch-up,” says Universal Standard CEO Polina Veksler.

The key, she says, is to place size 18—the average for an American woman—at the center of the size curve, the measurement that outlines which sizes a retailer will have for sale and in what quantities. “When you reimagine that size curve and put the 18 at the center, you are able to not only perfect your fit, but you’re able to perfect your inventory and buying decisions,” Veksler says.

Universal Standard Cofounder Polina Veksler.
Courtesy of Universal Standard

Retailers and designers have long argued that serving the plus-size customer is too costly and either declined to do so or charged customers who wear larger sizes a higher price for the same item. Diane von Furstenburg said as much at a Wall Street Journal conference earlier this year. “If you are a size two and if you are a size 16, you do not use the same amount of fabric,” she argued.

But brands would be smart to absorb any extra costs for the long-term customer loyalty and payoff in a market that’s estimated to reach $100 billion, Veksler says. “It shouldn’t be a special budget that needs to be pulled from. It’s the baseline for any clothing company.”

Veksler’s biggest concern is that Old Navy’s stumbles could lead other large retailers that have considered serving a wider array of customers to pump the breaks on their plans. “I don’t want the industry to take a step backward because of this,” she says.

The growth of other brands that have embraced inclusive sizing—from Big Bud Press and Selkie to Wray NYC and Girlfriend Collective—may help counter some of those fears, even for the retail behemoths.

“It takes time to get this right,” Veksler says. “But the industry is only moving toward more inclusive sizing.”

Emma Hinchliffe
emma.hinchliffe@fortune.com
@_emmahinchliffe

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“I had a great pregnancy. I had a very fortunate pregnancy. But every single second of my life was different. And it would occur to me sometimes: What if I was forced to do this?”

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