Sports  Lululemon rides the trends

How the athletic clothing company rose to prominence

Summer is finally on the horizon, and, feeling slightly self-conscious about my library-tanned (aka snow-white) legs, I decided to buy a new pair of running shorts to motivate my beach-season workout regime. Now, there are several well-known stores where I could have searched for a simple pair of workout shorts: Adidas, Nike, Under Armour – even The Gap or Old Navy have athletic clothing sections. However, I ended up at Lululemon Athletica, the store where I seem to buy the majority of my sports clothing. Among all these other competing brands, Chip Wilson, the creator of Lululemon Athletica, seems to have created a wildly successful clothing company.

Some might say they are attracted to the brand because of Lululemon’s dedication to sustainability, or due to the durability and quality of the clothing. However, there are many similar athletic clothing companies. What makes Lululemon so special to consumers?

Essentially, Wilson’s success with Lululemon comes down to one thing: timing. He caught on to the yoga craze in 1998, right as it was becoming popular in North America. In doing so, he managed to create an accessible commercialized brand, while still using parts of the ancient tradition of yoga. The brand remains dedicated to a list of inspirational guides to healthy living dubbed the “Lululemon manifesto.”

Luckily for Wilson, the healthy-living aspect of the tradition of yoga correlated perfectly with a newfound importance being placed on protecting the environment. In 2006, Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth famously spurred a newfound international public awareness of environmental issues. At the same time, the yoga trend in North America exploded, and Lululemon Athletica rapidly expanded. The result? A mere ten years after the first store opened in Vancouver, BC, Lululemon has become a multi-million dollar company with 78 stores operating in four different countries.

Wilson came up with the idea for Lululemon in 1998 while participating in a yoga class in Vancouver. He became passionate about his practice, and started a yoga studio that doubled as a design studio for the brand. In 2000, the first Lululemon Athletica store opened in Kitsilano, a small beach community in Vancouver.

On the Lululemon website, Wilson recalls his original idea of the store as “a community hub where people could learn and discuss the physical aspects of healthy living from yoga and diet to running and cycling as well as the mental aspects of living a powerful life of possibilities.” He is definitely a dreamer; I’ll give him that.

Coming from Vancouver, I remember going to a Lululemon Boxing Day sale with my mom in the winter of 2004. She has practiced yoga for over twenty years, and supported Lululemon since its beginning stages. The sale was held in the basement of the flagship Kitsilano store, with one makeshift communal change room and clothes being sold out of boxes. Although Lululemon was not fully established yet, the community feeling Wilson wanted to facilitate was definitely noticeable.

Walking into the Lululemon on St. Catherine in Montreal, I felt like I could have been back at the Kistilano branch. Every Lululemon store I go to has the same friendly sales associates, the same interior design and display, even the same smell (is it possible to pump the scent of the BC forest and ocean into all their stores across Canada?). From Victoria and Vancouver to Montreal and Toronto, Lululemon stores always generate the same familiar feeling for me. This similarity between stores provides, for me, a link between the stores, creating a more communal atmosphere. In this way, Wilson seems to have achieved his goal of creating a community center for healthy living.

Lululemon has expanded their business past just clothing. All stores hold events and give yoga classes, and all sales associates are trained to promote and embody an active lifestyle. Originally just a yoga-clothing outfitter, Lululemon has now expanded to selling running and dance apparel. The company’s success has allowed Wilson to consolidate his brand to embody one unified lifestyle, a lifestyle that has become popularized and commercialized in North American society.

Wilson had the ingenuity to catch on to a trend right before it exploded, and has been riding that wave ever since. In fact, Lulelemon has made him the tenth richest Canadian in the world. The company’s advice is to “dance, sing, floss, and travel,” and I might just be convinced that they’re on to something.