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Lust for Lulu

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A hedge-fund manager had called Louise Story at the Times and showed her lab results that suggested that there was no seaweed in Seacell. Lulu’s stock price has fluctuated since, but the company’s continued to grow. The Luluheads did not seem to care.

“It was a good thing it happened, in a way,” says Eric Petersen, community-relations director for Lululemon, from his office in Vancouver. “We’re a young company, and it’s part of growing up.”

Whatever the truth of the matter, the episode is a sign of a company run by fast-moving free-and-fuzzy-thinkers, who grant huge autonomy to their store managers while passing down bizarre corporate materials like the Lululemon Athletica Success Chakra, an eight-point wheel of instruction enumerating the routes to “wealth,” “long-term human relationships,” and a “superior immune system.” The first piece of advice is, “Determine your aptitudes and turn them into money.” There are also helpful nuggets about avoiding soft drinks, forgiving your parents, and having a cigarette now and then. Overall, it doesn’t really make any sense, but it’s the essence of Lulu: good karma and great cash flow.

Lulu might be able to hang on to the karma, but cash flow can be tricky. The road to irrelevance is paved with cool little companies doing their own thing who bloom for a moment and then fade into mediocrity, like beachwear giant OP, now putting its logo on $10 bathing suits at Wal-Mart; Crocs, once hot, now on the brink of Chapter 11; or just about any brand bought by Liz Claiborne, which in the last years has served as a corporate dustbin for companies like Sigrid Olsen, Juicy Couture, and Kate Spade.

Lululemon’s current CEO is Christine Day, who worked for twenty years at Starbucks, the overexpansion of which The Onion perfectly spoofed in a headline announcing that Starbucks had just opened a Starbucks in the bathroom of a Starbucks. One would assume such a hire implied plans for total world domination, but Lululemon says it intends to stay small. “You’ll never see Lululemon stores everywhere,” says Petersen. “We have no interest in being a thousand-store chain.” The Gap, by way of comparison, is a thousand-store chain. Lululemon has announced that it wants to build no more than 400, which would put it in the class of J.Crew.

Analysts, for the most part, are increasingly positive about the company’s future, particularly as American shoppers emerge from deep freeze. Sharon Zackfia, who covers the company for William Blair, argues that it’s not just a yoga company, but a company that makes quality athletic clothing for women, an important segment not yet dominated by “a vertically integrated retailer,” which is to say an entity that controls everything from manufacturing to the store experience. Nike, by contrast, is a wholesaler, and Lululemon is not likely to try to be Nike. “You can go to Sports Authority to get stuff made by Nike for women,” says Zackfia, “but you just don’t feel indulgent there.”

Staying small and retaining the special feel of a brand that’s like a club sounds good, but Lulu may have foreclosed on that vision when it went public. Market pressure makes it very difficult for public companies to choose the long-term good of a brand over the near-term demands of earnings reports. The perfect example is Starbucks, which lost its cachet by expanding into every strip mall and airport concourse and can’t seem to get it back at any price. Right now, Lulu floats at that magical spot equidistant from obscurity and ubiquity. Few brands have ever been able to stay there.

Back in Bryant Park, Lulu educators are wandering among the throngs of guests, repositioning a few here and there. They wear glassy, satisfied expressions, calm smiles eternally floating on their faces.

An instructor specializing in Kundalini yoga closes out the service. Like many forms of yoga, Kundalini is supposed to be passed down from master to student, individually and in confidence, when the student is ready, but, at least as of this evening, the secret is certainly out. We blow air out our nostrils one at a time, and then she has us perform a series of “spinal coughs,” which are supposed to stimulate the spinal fluid. The 400 of us sit cross-legged, our spines as straight as possible, and thrust our chests in and out, making a snorting sound with each thrust, really testing all those Lift & Separate bras out there, which are also made of Luon.

“Don’t be shy,” she says. “Trust this one thing which is happening.”

She finishes with a blessing. She’s got yogi voice, too, and she drapes a kind of benediction over the hundreds of bodies prone in the park, saying, “May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May all beings dwell in equanimity, free from attachment and aversion,” and ending, of course, with “Namaste,” the salutation that closes out every yoga class, and that one often sees on the bumper stickers of fuel-efficient cars.

We yogis lie still for a few minutes, and I suddenly forget about Lulu’s stock price, commodification, even yoga. The sky is perfect. The skyscrapers are beautiful. Then it is time to leave, and like the rest I am a bit sad to go, and linger. Lululemon may be a wacked-out harbinger of the next New Age, or it may be a corporate co-option of a pure practice. Either way, it’s nice out here in the park, with all the beautiful Luluheads.


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