I live in activewear, but not Lululemon. I quit Lululemon.
One of the very best things about being a writer and Bossbabe is the uniform: all athleisure, all the time. After 15 years of heels and suits in news, it’s a welcome change. I believe leggings are indeed pants, jeans are formal wear, and I dare anyone to criticize my choices.
I used to be a member of the cult of Lulu. It’s going to sound pretentious, but I started shopping there when there was only one store, a tiny shop in Vancouver. That’s probably why my disappointment in the brand has turned into complete antipathy. Its shareholders have shared my ambivalence lately: shares of Lululemon dropped more than 20 percent since its first quarter earnings were released, although the company expects rebound this year.
Lululemon’s Vancouver Origin Story
My first encounter with Lulu was in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood in February 2000. Kits was gritty, not as crowded, more boho and less polished than it is today. People were lining up for Yaletown condos back then, but someone in their 20s could afford one on a single income. Imagine. Yoga classes had more nose rings and fewer soccer moms than they do now. Or maybe it’s just that I had a nose ring then, and I’m a soccer mom now.
I was standing in a Bread Garden (they used to be everywhere before low carb movement. Sigh.) waiting for my coffee and in front of me a woman was wearing the perfect pants. They were bootcut, stretchy, and somehow amazingly flattering. They had a little round logo that looked like the silhouette of a girl with a Marlo Thomas hairdo. At least, that’s what I saw when I looked at it.
“Where did you get those pants?” I asked her. She looked at me as if I was an idiot.
“They’re Lou Lou Lemons,” she replied, or at least that’s how I interpreted her answer.
“They’re who?” I asked. I had just learned another Vancouver word “Aritzia,” This was a new one.
The woman sighed and got out her business card. On the back she wrote Lululemon and drew me a map to the West 4th store. I went immediately and dropped an unholy $60 on a pair of those pants. I still have them. And another $80 on a running jacket I still own. And yet another $60 on a thick blue hoody warm enough for a Vancouver winter with these awesome thumbholes in the sleeves. What a design idea!
Over the next fifteen years I would spend. And spend. And spend. And I still own two of those first three items.
Lululemon’s Quality Problem
Around 2006 I started to notice something. The black stretchy yoga pants I bought at Lululemon pilled sooner and more extensively than my old ones. The zippers on jackets and bags frayed sooner. In 2013 the company recalled pants for being see-thru in certain circumstances, but I noticed a quality decline long before that. I might not have noticed, but I had my “original three” to compare.
The prices continue to rise. Today, a “Scuba” hoody similar to the first blue one I bought costs $118 dollars, almost twice as much. The inflation increase for most goods and services in that time averages 37%, if you use the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator, which relies on Consumer Price Index data. Qualitatively, I can say that the Scuba hoodies produced now aren’t as durable or as nice as the one I bought in 2000.
Furthermore, I don’t have to rely on Lululemon for flattering stretchy workout pants and leggings anymore. I can buy SweetLegs leggings, or Joe Fresh leggings. I can get a thick comfy hoodie with a feminine design from Under Armour or Puma at a fraction of the price.
Lululemon, My Ass
It was also about 2013 that I noticed while I could go into any store and just grab the smallest size, I was about midway up the size range at a Lululemon. I stopped wanting to shop there because my vanity didn’t like that. Boo hoo right? But thinking about this intersectionally, I felt infuriated on behalf of the women who don’t have thin privilege, who couldn’t shop there at all.
What kind of store unilaterally decides to recast sizes so drastically, I thought? And why? Are they trying to make us feel bad on purpose? Why exclude so many women, whose bodies are perfectly fine, who enjoy and require activewear just like anyone else? It seemed short sighted to me, for a company that seemed to prosthelytize constantly about fitness. Yo, if you want us to be working out constantly, we all need some clothes, right?
The now-infamous interview given by founder Chip Wilson explaining that Lululemon clothes are meant for certain women shed light on this.
It made me realize that all their platitudes about wellness are of course, bullshit marketing. If you care about wellness, you care about everyone’s wellness, not just the wellness of the people who already fit into a specific aesthetic you’re flogging.
And let’s say you are under the totally misguided impression that large women can’t be fit, and you for some reason want them to be smaller so that you can be more comfortable, you’d think making them some damn workout clothes so they can do that might be a good way to push your pro-thin agenda. “Come back when you’re thin” seems to be their message. Corporate social responsibility at its most empathetic.
Many analysts chalk Lululemon’s recent stock failings up to the retail crisis in general, but I wonder if part of the problem is that they’re out of step with the trend. It’s disgusting and unfortunate that there is such a thing as women’s “body trends.” But there is, and since Lululemon has decided to tie its fortunes to a specific aesthetic, they are vulnerable to a change in that aesthetic. Now, tiny-dancer bodies (not that there’s anything wrong with them, you go girls!) aren’t the most sought after aesthetic. Certain celebrities have us all doing squats. You know who wouldn’t fit into a pair of Lululemons? Girls with giant asses. Instagram fitness models whose behinds are especially coveted right now. It is possible, I suppose, that Lululemon pants would fit over a juicy booty just fine, but thanks to their own marketing, when people think curves, they definitely don’t think Lululemon.
These days I want to shop at activewear companies who just make clothes for all women, from the very petite to the very rubenesque. From short and stumpy like me, to tall and leggy like I wish I was. I love KDeer for that reason. Come as you are!
Lululemon, We Have Choices
Athleisure isn’t going anywhere. Personally I think dress codes are what is going to change. I think it’s going to become less and less common for workplaces to dictate how employees look, and with that people are going to choose more comfortable clothing, and why not? I’m more productive in my pyjamas than anything else, although I do draw the line at leaving the house in them.
In my business, I work to present my clients and their products in the best possible way, and part of what that entails is ensuring they aren’t tying themselves to messaging that can’t change with the times. Messaging that is authentic, not a marketing platitude designed solely to push sales. Most of all, I advise my clients: if you’re going to put yourself out there, your behaviour and practices need to withstand scrutiny. That means if you aren’t being ethical and fair to all, whether via pricing or product integrity, your customers will eventually find out.
Imagine if Lululemon really was committed to wellness for all, not just for the very thin. If their products stayed ahead of the technical curve and they charged more because they truly were better, not just because of that little symbol. If they were truly Canadian, not just a Canadian origin story. They had an opportunity to sell not only good products, but some great messaging and over the years and they’ve squandered both. That’s why my legging love is going to someone else these days.
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