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Lust for Lulu

How the yoga brand Lululemon turned fitness into a spectator sport.

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Lululemon's annual Barefoot in the Park event last month.  

Just five minutes on my mat and I’ve already broken one of the yamas, the founding commandments of yoga put down by the guru Patanjali 2,000 years ago. The yama brahmacharya prohibits lust, but it’s a very hard commandment to follow, particularly in Manhattan, particularly on this perfect summer Thursday night in Bryant Park, surrounded by 400 women, all in excellent health. They’re here for Lululemon Athletica’s twice-weekly open yoga practice, and most of them are in Lulu pants made out of formfitting Luon, a fabric celebrated mainly for its ability to shape and display the ass.

Lululemon, if you don’t know, is a brand of yoga apparel. The signature Lulu piece is the $98 Groove Pant, cut with all kinds of special gussets and flat seams to create a snug gluteal enclosure of almost perfect globularity, like a drop of water free from gravity. Lululemon makes tops too, racer-backed tanks in bright neon and stripes, as well as sports bras like the Ta Ta Tamer.

Lululemon has four stores in Manhattan and a brand-new one in Park Slope, and they’re reliably crowded. The company’s following is devout, weirdly so, and hundreds regularly turn out for its free yoga classes here in the park. If you pay any attention to tight pants in Manhattan, you’ve probably seen Lululemon’s logo, an iridescent little A that looks like an omega. As an on-again-off-again speculator in Lululemon’s hot little stock, I’ve been paying careful attention to tight pants in Manhattan, and I once purchased 100 shares after passing three women in a row wearing Lulu pants. (I’m out now, by the way.) Often, “Luluheads”—as Lululemon’s New York community-relations director calls the brand’s fans—wear Lululemon top and bottom, as in the case of the women to my left and right, who are also on special Lululemon yoga mats.

Music—sitar and bongo—accompanies the class, provided by a duo calling themselves Yoga Organix. Following instructions, all 400 of us lift our butts to the sky in yoga’s “downward dog” pose, under what must surely be the brahmacharya-busting gaze of 60 floors of corporate workers in the glassy towers all around.

“Don’t be shy,” intones Elena Brower, founder of Virayoga in Soho, who is leading the class. She’s got yogi voice, that special combo of ethereal satisfaction and perfect timbre that sounds like a massage. “Push up,” she says. “Push! So that you can feel the sassiest opening in your seat that you can feel right now!”

You can’t help but want to please a voice like that, so I push out even farther and open my sassy seat wider to the sky.

The Luluheads are everywhere, at least in neighborhoods where wealth and some groping toward spirituality coincide. On the Upper East Side, one sees the company’s reusable shopping bags on passersby on almost every block. The bags are plastered with inspiring slogans seemingly stolen from that famous graduation-day speech that makes the rounds on the Internet every June—“Do one thing a day that scares you” and so on. Out in Westchester, Lululemon is apparently de rigueur, as a friend about to move there reported. “It’s fine if you like Lululemon,” she was told by one local, “because that’s all women wear up here.”

And so, too, around the country. A former employee who worked at the store in Boulder, Colorado, recounted the scene when it opened a few years ago. “The women would come down from Aspen and Vail in SUV-loads,” she told me. “They would drop $2,000 easy. They would just say, ‘I like that top, I’ll take one in every color.’ ”

Avril Lavigne wears Lulu. Brooke Shields wears Lulu. Felicity Huffman, Jennifer Garner, Courteney Cox, Kate Winslet, and Kate Hudson wear Lulu. There are Lululemon blogs with names like Lululemon Addict and hundreds of Facebook groups, many devoted to celebrating Lululemon’s ability to make butts look great, with evidentiary photographs.

Last, and perhaps most telling, some kind of turning point has certainly been reached when my wife finds she can easily sell her used Lululemon tops on eBay. These are not Prada blazers that don’t fit. My wife does hot yoga, sweating in a furnacelike studio, but her old tops still sell in just a couple of hours for about 60 percent of what she paid. This is a relative bargain compared with the bags, which are available free at the stores but go for as much as $5 on eBay.

Like my wife, most Luluheads believe the clothing is superior in every way to what else is out there; longer-lasting, more comfortable, and, yes, most flattering. All true, but socially speaking, Luluheads are much like sailors who wear their deck shoes in town—“Oh, what, these? Why, yes, I do happen to own a boat.” Tight yoga pants are a nice way of letting people know that you’re spiritual and healthy, can pay $20 a class for yoga, and are very flexible.


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