Lululemon Strikes A Yoga Pose

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“It’s a little mind-boggling when you think about it,” writes Mike Albo in the New York Times. “Our all-consuming consumer culture completely transformed a 5,000-year-old discipline into a comfy, cozy branded existence, and all it took was just one short decade.”

He’s talking, of course, about yoga, perhaps better punctuated as “yoga”; these days, the ancient practice has become less lotus pose and more lifestyle. You know: more Lululemon.

Lululemon, the yoga-centric retailer that has blossomed from local Vancouver boutique to national presence over the past few years, has long been the subject of a sort of chicken-egg debate. Is the pricey purveyor of stretchy pants and lollipop-colored tank tops merely reacting to the buildout of “yoga” as a scare-quoted-brand, or perpetuating it?[more]

Probably both. While the eccentric founder of Lululemon, Chip Wilson, was himself a yoga devotee prior to the inception of the company, he was also a marketer: looking around his yoga classes in the mid-90s, he noticed a dearth of tailored workout clothes for women, and a niche was born. Today, items meant to be worn during an actual yoga session represent only a fraction of Lululemon’s offerings, which include bags, headbands, raincoats, and the occasional dress. Lululemon clothes won’t just get you through class, they’ll get you to and from.

Or nowhere near! In fact, the earliest coverage of Lululemon’s New York Store that I can remember said nothing about yoga at all, noting the line’s “flattering silhouette, even if you haven’t come from two hours of Pilates” and declaring Lululemon “Best Weekend Clothes.” You can see the trademark blank pants on every other elliptical at your Equinox, but take a look around and you’ll spot them on the playground, in the bodega, and on the plane as well.

Why? Simple: they make your ass look incredible. “Special gussets and flat seams create a snug gluteal enclosure of almost perfect globularity, like a drop of water free from gravity,” marveled New York Magazine’s Bryant Urstadt in a recent examination of “Lust for Lulu,” while one Lululover quoted by The Big Money was more succint: the brand “is really kind to your biscuit.” And while I can personally attest to the transformative qualities of Lululemon pants on my dimpled derriere, I have no idea if, you know, actually attending a yoga class would produce even better results.

Not everything is as smooth as Lulu-clad rear ends. A minor controversy two years ago about the veracity of VitaSea, a seaweed-fiber based fabric trumpeted by Lululemon as having special mineral-based qualities, was a ding on the company’s earnest do-gooder image. And much has been written about the curious corporate philosophies inside the company — employees are known as “educators,” and Wilson can be a slightly cult-ish doctrinaire — but these quirks may be relatively unimportant to the future of the brand.

More interesting to me is how things will shake out among the competitors, among them Nike, Adidas, and now Gap, who purchased lifestyle-wear company Athleta for $150 million last year in a deal that seemed like a blow for Lulu. Seeking Alpha even suggested that Lululemon, whose website conspicuously (and, they would argue, strategically) lacks any online store, had even considered an e-commerce partnership with Athleta prior to the Gap deal. It remains to be seen how much Lululemon’s future success will rely on the ongoing trendiness of the “yoga” brand, or whether the two will ever decouple.

But regardless, you now have my permission to gaze at the gluteus of everyone you see on the subway. Just say you’re doing it in the name of marketing research.

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