The M.F. Truth: Just Lu It

Groovy, non-consumerist community doesn't come cheap at Lululemon.

If there’s one thing this city’s been crying out for, it’s a new place to buy expensive, highly technical T-shirts. Well, fret not. Last month, Lululemon, the maker of “yoga-based” clothing with the distinctive horseshoe/ovary logo, opened up a store in University Village. There you can outfit yourself with all the intricately designed, heavily R&D’ed apparel necessary in order to optimally stand and bend on a padded mat in a climate-controlled room.

For years, I’ve been seeing that logo on fancy scoop-backs and cropped bottoms in yoga class. (Incidental observation! Wasn’t staring! Calm down!) But I’d never known what the company was about, never understood its exquisite marketing panache—until this year, when some yoga studio apparently sold its customer list and I found myself the lucky recipient of a free subscription to Yoga Journal, where Lululemon is a regular advertiser.

Lululemon’s ads are more like anti-ads, statements of higher purpose. Founded in Vancouver, B.C., a decade ago, Lululemon has since expanded to almost 70 stores. The company received a huge infusion of private equity money in 2005, installed a new American CEO (the former head of Reebok) in 2006, and then had an IPO a few months ago, when its shares jumped 50 percent their first day. But this company is hardly about money, as its own ads will tell you.

My favorite, which is posted inside the new Seattle store, shows two young women in what looks to be the alterna-mama demographic, holding each other and smiling out at us. The headline: “Some of the richest people in life do not have money.”

The ad continues:

“What makes someone rich? Their bank account? Their savings? The bottom line? What if the bottom line was a tally of friendships made, of families gathered, of sunsets watched, of laughs shared or of communities helped? What if everyone tried to maximize that kind of bottom line? One thing is for sure. The world would be richer for it.”

All of which is slightly absurd from a company that recently announced it had managed to expand its gross profit margin to 54 percent in the third quarter, a gain of two percentage points over last year. Gross profits are what the company clears after the cost of making goods. There are many other costs before you get to the net profit, but it’s safe to say that Lululemon is making money down over dog. Looking at the ad, I also had to wonder how anyone who was rich—but not, you know, in the money way—could possibly afford the expert brow jobs these two women were sporting.

Thomas Frank observed years ago that corporate America had managed to completely appropriate the language and imagery of “rebellion” and redirect it toward buying stuff. (This was in Nike’s heyday.) And now, the success of companies like Lululemon is testament to just how shrewdly marketers are managing to monetize our distaste for materialism. Lululemon is just one of the new lines of high-end consumer goods by which you can signal your rejection of consumerism.

Starbucks helped pave the way here. Its success was built on the notion that it stood for something more than commerce, that in patronizing its stores you weren’t just buying a cup of coffee, you were embracing an entire set of enlightened, socially responsive, globally aware, quality-minded values. Obviously this technique has been around a long time, but it seems to me that no one, prior to Starbucks, so successfully married rapacious capitalist reach with a marketing message (and some actual practices) that explicitly rejected pure rapacious capitalism.

At the Lululemon opening party—a jammed affair where pairs of women, angel wings affixed to their backs à la Victoria’s Secret models, performed partner poses on pedestals—a friend regaled me with details of all the clothing company’s good works: They’re very community-minded. They offer lots of free classes at their stores and a free running club. They promote all the other yoga studios in the area. They recruit local “ambassadors”—teachers/athletes who appear in the company’s ads and get extra visibility, and free product, in exchange for promoting the brand.

That’s all great. It’s hard not to prefer the new, more benevolent corporatism, phony and forced as it may seem sometimes, to a business model that appeals only to our vanity and itch for a bargain. Still, you’re not going to get me to buy that $54 T-shirt. I just don’t see how good karma should require such fat margins.