Lust for Lulu

Lululemon's annual Barefoot in the Park event last month.Photo: Summer Starling/Courtesy of Lululemon

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.

Lululemon store in Soho.Photo: Summer Starling/Courtesy of Lululemon

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.

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.

Lust for Lulu