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Can Lululemon get its mojo back?


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Photo: Flickr/Marc-Christian Riebe

Four years ago, I broke up with Lululemon. And I didn’t just stop doing ambassador events or quietly push my piles of famously butt-flattering black pants to the back of the closet. Instead, I wrote an “I quit” screed that went viral, calling out the retailer for shamelessly selling “empowerment” and “self-care” to women while enabling misogyny at its highest ranks.

Six months later, in a packed room at the Yoga Journal conference, I joined a panel of fellow critics and then-new CEO Laurent Potdevin (whose tenure ended suddenly last week, with the company saying he “fell short” of standards of conduct) to discuss “the practice of leadership.”

It was a moment when, at least from a PR perspective, Lulu was losing ground (refresher: the sheer pants debacle, founder Chip Wilson blaming women whose thighs touch for pilling pants, and, disturbingly, an in-store murder. I left the crowded conference room hoping Lululemon would strive to democratize access to wellness, to promote body diversity, and do more, in a nutshell, than sell cute pants. It seemed to me that bad behavior at Lululemon merited special scrutiny, given that the company made its name with irreverent, anti-corporate, pro-woman messaging.

Now, after Potdevin’s abrupt departure on February 6, due to an unspecified “breach of conduct,” and as the company faces a $3 million lawsuit from a former employee who alleges that her “sexual predator” boss assaulted her, it’s worth asking: Can Lulu get its magic back? And a follow-up: Does it even matter anymore?

When I sat on that stage with Potdevin four years ago, Lululemon played a vastly different role in the rapidly evolving wellness world. They weren’t just selling spandex, but a lifestyle—before that became a cliché. In the early 2000s, a pair of Lulus (and the many knockoffs they inspired) became the linchpin of the athleisure uniform that signaled, paradoxically, both discipline at the gym and the freedom to chill out in stretchy pants, rather than a stuffy suit.

Add to that the free “community classes” the retailer hosted in-store, featuring top teachers compensated in clothes (which, given Lulu’s high prices and the industry’s low wages, wasn’t a bad deal), and salespeople who were called “educators,” and the vibe felt like the friendly sorority you never knew. The approach struck a pair of Canadian sociologists as so uniquely ideological that they published an academic paper in 2014 on “Lululemon and the neoliberal governance of self.”

But can Lululemon become a pioneer in new ways? Absolutely. Take a lead on fair labor practices. Support flourishing, but underfunded yoga service work. Amplify the voices of those calling out abuses, sexual and otherwise, in the wellness world. Advocate policy, not just promotional events, to expand access to physical and holistic fitness for the poor.

But from the vantage point of 2018, none of this seems that special, because Lulu has been so successful in making that “magic” an industry standard. Yoga pants are so prevalent—from Old Navy to Victoria’s Secret—that they’re everything from a punch line to a political lightning rod. Everyone from Bandier to Athleta now offers in-store classes (and even dedicated spaces for them), and sweating paired with luxury shopping is no longer even novel. Case in point: Saks Fifth Avenue’s Wellery, an in-store fitness studio and wellness center amid the department store’s evening gowns and fur coats. Meanwhile, major athletic brands like Under Armour, Reebok, and Adidas have expanded their women’s fitness and athleisure collections and amplified the holistic, you-go-girl affirmations Lululemon pioneered to sell them.

At the same time, Lulu itself has become more mainstream, a fact I noticed when none of the edgy crew in a recent New York City Barry’s Bootcamp class was wearing the brand. In last summer’s Fitness Junkie, when the out-of-shape protagonist shows up at the new “it class,” it is her passé black Lulus that reveal her uncoolness. On the other hand, everyone at the studio I visited in my suburban hometown sported the familiar omega logo; sure enough, there was a bustling location at the nearby mall.

But can Lululemon, with its expanded, more mainstream corporate presence, become a pioneer in new ways? Absolutely. Take a lead on fair labor practices. Support flourishing, but underfunded yoga service work. Amplify the voices of those calling out abuses, sexual and otherwise, in the wellness world. Advocate policy, not just promotional events, to expand access to physical and holistic fitness for the poor. Do this on a global scale, and in the communities that need it most—as opposed to just the affluent ones where stores are located.

Will Lululemon take up this invitation? Honestly, I don’t know if its leadership has reason to care, since the fact that the stock price has been steadily rising in the wake of Potdevin’s departure—which suggests the public, or at least the market, doesn’t.

I can’t entirely blame them. I got the news of Potdevin’s ouster as I was wandering through the Paris neighborhood of Opéra in a snowstorm, trying to find a yoga mat for a class that started a few hours later. No luck at the usual big box stores in this beautiful-but-historically-very American quartier; finally the sales associate at Reebok said, “There’s a yoga store still open around the corner.” Grateful and freezing, I rushed over to see…one of Lululemon’s three Paris outposts.

I debated righteously turning on my heel and missing the class, maintaining a personal boycott that once felt like principled opposition to a mission-driven brand failing to practice what it preached. But seeing the brightly colored mats just beyond those snow-streaked plate-glass doors, I sighed and for the first time in years, headed in to buy one, just like all but the most committed of us occasionally grab suspiciously cheap fast fashion without asking questions about labor conditions, cringe when we bite into juicy GMO fruit because we know better, and call an Uber (because it’s just so cold today) though we once nobly deleted the app. Tomorrow, I, and we, should I inspire each other and the brands we patronize to do better.

If you’re just catching up on what’s going on with Lululemon, here’s the latest news to know

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