Lululemon, the brand that invented athleisure, plans its second act

By guest author Elizabeth Segran. She is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Canadian active wear giant made yoga pants a status symbol. Here is how the brand is planning for a post-athleisure industry drowning in active wear.

I am deep in the recesses of Lululemon’s secretive innovation lab, Whitespace, in the basement of its cavernous headquarters in Vancouver.

Everywhere I look, there are fascinating–and occasionally bizarre–scientific experiments at work. There is a “sensory immersion lab” where human subjects are attached to monitors measuring brain activity, while neuroscientists project changing landscapes on the walls and alter the temperature, humidity, and sounds in the room. In another part of the lab, a computer scientist captures 3D images of a woman walking, tracking in microscopic detail how her movements interact with the fabric. “We’ve created this place to understand how you move, and how you feel when you move,” says Tom Waller, a sports technology scientist and the lab’s SVP.

As for me, I have let myself become a guinea pig of sorts. I am on a treadmill with sensors attached to my neck and chest. Chantelle Murnaghan, a neuro-mechanics research scientist and one of Lululemon’s innovation managers, instructs me to start running at a moderate pace. After a minute’s jog, we sit down together while she shows me a graph of how my body moves. “It turns out that the way that each person moves is entirely unique to them,” Murnaghan says. “It’s like a fingerprint.”

Over the last two years, Lululemon has developed a way to identify and measure each person’s unique pattern of movement. Until now, the entire sportswear industry – Lululemon included – recommended products based on the customer’s size and a specific activity. For instance, the brand would create bras for high-impact sports, like running, and then include more compression in bras for larger-busted women, who experience more breast movement. But, when Lululemon carried out its own research, it found that two women with a 36C bra size experienced different breast motion as they moved.

In the chart Murnaghan and I examine, I can see that with every step I take, my muscles and tissue first move up and down, then from side to side. On paper, this takes the shape of a figure eight on its side, or a butterfly. All of this is totally imperceptible to the naked eye, but when attached to these monitors, it’s possible to see each minute motion. And, because Lululemon is beginning to collect data about hundreds of other subjects, it’s now clear that each of them have a slightly different chart. One person’s gait may cause their body to move more than another person of similar build. While the scientists at Whitespace are still working to understand why each of us moves in distinct ways, they believe it has to do with our genetic makeup, our physiology, and even the way we learned to walk and run as children.

Lululemon plans to capitalize on its ability to track how each customer’s body moves. The Whitespace team has created a store-ready version of the treadmill I tested in the lab, which will be called the “Signature Movement Experience.” The idea is for customers to learn about their own unique pattern of motion while allowing store representatives to provide highly customized product recommendations. When I went through the experience, an algorithm identified a top bra for me based on the results, plus four other bras that would also provide the support I need. The first of these treadmills went out at the SeaWheeze Sunset Festival–the half marathon and music event in Vancouver that Lululemon sponsored this past weekend–where the company set up a booth where women could go through the process.

All photos source lululemon

Now facing competition from countless activewear startups, Lululemon is eyeing its future in a post-athleisure world, where comfort–not product categories–determines what consumers wear to work as well as the gym. By capitalizing on this individualized, data-based style of customer experience, the brand wants to push the athleisure genre it pioneered in the 2000s forward. “It’s an entirely new paradigm for us,” says Waller.

The brand that launched athleisure

Whitespace’s new technology is just one part of Lululemon’s effort to use science to stay on top of an overcrowded active wear industry. In a landscape where new start-ups are popping up every day, 20-year-old Lululemon is now an established player. Last year, the company’s annual revenue surpassed USD 3 billion and it had a network of 415 stores–and counting–in North America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. It has 13500 employees across the world.

Over the last five years, Lululemon has experienced a growth streak, regularly beating analysts’ expectations, despite the fact that it has gone through three different CEOs. In July, former Sephora executive Calvin McDonald stepped into the role of CEO after his predecessor, Laurent Potdevin, left abruptly because he had an improper relationship with another employee at the company. None of this seems to have any any impact on the company’s bottom line: Lululemon stocks soared by 80 % during this period.

Lululemon was founded in 1998 by Chip Wilson, a charismatic and occasionally controversial businessman from Vancouver. An avid yogi, Wilson believed there was space in the market for a company that created high-quality, high-performance gear specifically designed for low-intensity exercise like yoga and Pilates. He engineered $90 leggings that were stretchy, but that didn’t provide the same kind of intense compression necessary for high-impact sports. For several years, Lululemon was just a niche womens wear boutique in Kitsilano, a posh Vancouver shopping district, with Wilson’s office on the second floor.

But by the early 2000s, Lululemon was setting up stores in big U.S. cities and gaining a cult following among women obsessed with the yoga pants. Some raved about how comfortable they were, while others loved how flattering they were, since they flattened the stomach and appeared to lift the butt. Fans created blogs, where they feverishly discussed and reviewed new products. Buzzfeed has a listicle titled “23 Signs Your Lululemon Addiction Is Out Of Control,” and Business Insider has one with the headline, “This Woman Spent $15,000 On Lululemon And She Doesn’t Even Do Yoga.” At a price point that was significantly higher than other activewear brands, Lululemon clothing became a status symbol among well-heeled women in New York and San Francisco.

All of this transformed Lululemon into a household name. The brand expanded its product selection, creating leggings for running or high-impact workouts, a wide range of bras, down jackets, raincoats, bags, and anything else that might go along with an aspirational lifestyle centered on wellness. (It has since expanded into menswear and girls’ clothing.) By 2007, the company had filed for a $240 million IPO, had 52 stores, and was raking in $149 million in annual revenue.

Lululemon has benefited from other cultural shifts. First, consumers are more interested than ever in their health, spending more money on gym memberships and healthy food. And secondly, Americans have become increasingly more casual in their dress. This was driven, in part, by Silicon Valley tech companies that encouraged employees to ditch formal clothes for whatever made them comfortable. Over the last two decades, it’s become acceptable to wear yoga pants out of the studio and into other aspects of life, from brunch to the office. Many attribute this trend, which is now called “athleisure,” back to Wilson himself.

These days, Wilson is no longer officially affiliated with Lululemon. In 2012, he stepped down from his position as chief innovation and branding officer to take a sabbatical in Australia. He was then ousted as chairman of the board in 2013 when, after customers complained that some yoga pants were see-through, Wilson blamed the fact that some women’s legs were so large that it created friction in the thigh area. Nonetheless, the trend Wilson helped create has now effectively overtaken the entire fashion industry. Between 2008 and 2015, worldwide active wear sales increased by 42 % to USD 270 billion. In fact, analysts believe that yoga pants and running tights kept the clothing sector afloat during the economic crisis.

The challenge facing Lululemon today is that it’s now just one athleisure brand in an ocean of brands competing for the same consumer.

But how does the Customer feel?

That brings us back to Whitespace. Many of Lululemon’s competitors–including other mega-brands like Nike and Adidas–talk about high-performance clothing in purely objective terms, emphasizing things like compression, moisture-wicking properties, and breathability. But through their research in the lab, Waller and Murnaghan firmly believe these are the wrong metrics to be tracking. “It’s clear to us that people experience the exact same conditions very differently,” Waller says. “It’s not just that our bodies move and respond to the world differently: We also have very different perceptions of the world.”

This seems obvious, but the value of this insight begins to make sense when you think about your personal wardrobe preferences. For instance, I really hate feeling constricted when I exercise, even in a high-impact workout. I also prefer fabrics that feel warm and soft against my skin. But this is not true for everyone. Murgnahan explains that other women feel unsupported when their clothes don’t provide a lot of compression, and they want materials that feel cool and slick on their skin. “If you feel uncomfortable in a restrictive bra, you’re not going to perform at your best,” says Murnaghan. “But the way you feel in a bra could be totally different from the way that someone else feels in that same bra. We’re trying to rethink performance to consider how a customer feels.”

Incorporating subjectivity into the brand’s design is complex endeavor, but Waller and Murnaghan believe it could be a boon for Lululemon’s bottom line. In practice, it means creating a wide range of different materials and styles to offer customers products tailored to their movement patterns and personal preferences.

It is already working toward creating a comprehensive range of bras. It currently makes 33 different options designed to provide a variety of compression and textures against the skin thanks to the brand’s large catalog of proprietary fabrics. (Only Adidas and Nike can compete with Lululemon’s range, and they are 7 and 10 times the size of Lululemon, respectively.) One bra, the Enlite, has multiple straps on the back to provide a lot of support, and is made of Ultralu fabric that feels cool and smooth against the skin. The Flow Y bra, on the other hand, is a racerback, which provides a looser fit, and it is made from Nulu, which is buttery-soft.

The Whitespace team is also working on a new way to collect information from customers that goes beyond asking for their size and measurements, including questions that are more subjective. Lululemon has created a new kind of digital profile that customers can fill out online or on tablets in store that gathers data focused on how they like to feel in their clothing. For instance, it will ask whether you prefer feeling your body move freely when you run, or whether you prefer feeling more tightly supported by your clothes.

This data, combined with the insights about each customer’s unique movement pattern, will allow Lululemon to provide customized product recommendations. The company will not share this data with any third parties, but it will anonymize and aggregate it to better understand whether the products within its collections are actually meeting customers’ needs. It is Lululemon’s own twist on gathering insights from customer feedback–something many brands do.

A bra four years in the making

Lululemon is particularly interested in how materials feel against the skin. The company creates all of its fabrics from scratch, rather than using generic performance fabrics on the market, which many brands do. One of the brand’s most popular products, the Align Pant, feels velvety to the touch–the material was meant to reduce distractions from clothing during yoga practice, but many women do not use it for yoga at all. Some wear it on long plane rides or for sleeping. Others wear it to work. One woman wore it with a button-down shirt and heels into a board meeting.

Lululemon wants to apply the findings coming out of Whitespace to create new products that have the same widespread appeal to customers who want to be comfortable–regardless of whether they’re at the gym or not.

Take the brand’s new Like Nothing bra, which hits stores today. The Whitespace team discovered that female consumers were searching for a bra that felt like being naked, but that still provided support during exercise. There was nothing within its current line that was specifically designed to create this sensation. So, they spent four years building a product that allowed the breast to move naturally using a proprietary fabric called Light Ultralu that conforms to the body’s shape, providing light, even compression throughout the entire bra rather than tightening around the widest part of the chest. The company developed a three-dimensional cup that adapts to the shape of the breast, and subtly changed the construction for every size within the range, since women with different cup and band sizes require support at different places. The edges are not hemmed, but rather cut by a laser to reduce friction.

“When you combine our research about how we move with the insights we’re gathering about how women want to feel, you end up with interesting products,” says Sun Choe, Lululemon’s chief product officer. “But in many ways, a bra like this makes so much sense for how we live now: Women want to be able to bike to the office or take a Pilates class after work, without having to change bras.” It is the equivalent of Lululemon’s beloved, ultra-comfortable yoga pants, which catapulted the brand into a global phenomenon years ago–a bra for the post-athleisure world.

Still, Lululemon’s real work is just beginning. Its main challenge as a company is communicating its design process to customers, to show them how Lululemon stands apart from other activewear brands on the market because it is interested in comfort for every unique type of body. Whitespace, and the customer experiences it is developing, is part of that effort.

“All our lives, we’ve learned that human bodies move in more or less the same way,” Waller says. “A big part of challenge for us is explaining this new science to our customers. It’s one thing to gather insights in a lab, and quite another to bring this knowledge into the world to help people find clothes that improve the way they perform in everyday life.”