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Lust for Lulu

Lululemon store in Soho.  

This fanaticism has meant a huge amount of money for Chip Wilson, who started Lululemon in Vancouver, opening the first store in 2000. It is one of several athletic brands he has founded, and, as the story of the naming of Lululemon suggests, he is clearly a marketing genius. One of his previous brands had an L in it, which proved popular in Japan, possibly because the el sound does not exist in Japanese, and thus the brand was considered authentically Western. When he decided to do a yoga line, Wilson challenged himself to put as many L’s in one name as possible and came up with Lululemon. Playfully inventive, too, are the names for Lululemon’s fabrics, like Luon, Luxtreme, Swift, Silverescent, Beechlu, Vitasea, and Flight.

Lululemon went public in 2007, and in 2008, it sold $350 million worth of apparel in 113 stores. Despite the downturn, the brand continues to grow, reaching a market cap of more than a billion dollars.

As a brand, Lulu seems to have annoyed as many people as it has outfitted, both for the cultlike intensity of its followers and for its blithely ironic model of charging people good money to pursue an essentially ascetic practice. Even if it isn’t really, truly a cult, there are aspects of the corporation that certainly ring with a cultlike air. Want to work on the floor? You’re not in retail, you’re an “educator.” Want to be in charge of the “educators”? Then you’re a “key leader.” Work as a “key leader” for a few years, and you can jump to the next level, “store manager” (okay, that’s not such a weird one). Once you’ve worked at Lululemon for a year, you’re entitled to a free trip to the Landmark Forum, a corporate descendant of the est movement, which caused a stir in the seventies. The Forum is always getting annoyed that some people brand it a cult, but after a few decades of aggrievement, perhaps it would be better for the Forum to embrace and thus defuse the term—“We’re here, we’re a cult, get used to it,” etc. The Forum, as its website says, “is specifically designed to bring about positive and permanent shifts in the quality of your life”—in just three days. It’s an institutionalized self-help program, geared to people who feel weighed down by something in their past, which is to say, pretty much everybody.

“You don’t need anything to do yoga. You don’t even need shoes. ”

Many of New York’s most-sought-after yoga teachers are Lululemon “ambassadors.” These ambassadors, usually yoga teachers with a big following, but sometimes triathletes or runners, are recruited in a target city before a store opens. They are outfitted in Lulu and thus spread the gospel to the customers. Though they aren’t paid, ambassadors are featured prominently on bulletin boards in the stores, lending the company credibility as a part of the “community.”

Lululemon is obsessed with self-improvement. One educator, on her first day at work, was instructed to build a collage for herself of her one-, five-, and ten-year goals. This she was told to post in the employees’ room, so that the other educators could help her advance. She found the whole process very cool, by the way. Wilson used to hire exclusively yogis as ambassadors, but he found they were not quite “up” enough. You really need the type A personality of a runner to move $98 workout pants.

“It is like a cult,” says my wife, back from a class in her calf-length Groove Crops and pink-and-white-striped Power Y tank top. She is speaking colloquially, I think. “I’m there at six in the morning, surrounded by Lululemon stuff. And the thing is, I really do feel like I’m part of a secret club.”

Not everyone is so charmed. “It’s all just ridiculous!” cries John Philp when I call him the day after my workout in the park. Philp is positioning himself as the Michael Moore of yoga. He was so amused/outraged by the boom in yoga pants, yoga videos, yoga chain studios, even trademarked yoga practices like Bikram, that he made a documentary called Yoga, Inc., which he has turned into a book. “You don’t need anything to do yoga,” he says. “You don’t even need shoes.”

Lululemon stretches all kinds of yamas, says Philp. “There’s a yama aparigraha which says you’re not supposed to acquire more than you need, that you’re not supposed to be greedy,” he points out. “Yoga is supposed to be about asceticism, not expensive accessories.”

Philp also accuses Lululemon of wearing down another yama: satya, which commands honesty. In 2007, the New York Times reported that there was no seaweed in Seacell, which was used in the fabric Vitasea, one of the many miracle fabrics for which Lululemon makes all kinds of claims. Seacell, with its seaweed, was supposed to relieve stress somehow, much as their Silverescent is supposed to fight odor.