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27 July 2022

In the sleek, luxurious world of athleisure, aspiration hides something much darker

Brands that sanitise their image with New Age jargon have been getting away with hypocrisy for too long.

By Louise Perry

What happens when a company that built its brand on aspirational ideals of “empowerment” rubs up against the dirty reality of 21st-century capitalism? This is a question that often comes to mind when I see women on the Tube in luxurious yoga-wear – and one that I’m now much better placed to answer having read a book with the marvellous title Little Black Stretchy Pants.

The author is Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon, a Canadian sportswear brand that sells high-end products to a primarily female customer base. In 1998 Wilson had already established himself as an entrepreneur with an eye for sportswear trends. He saw a potential market in yoga, which had been gaining in popularity in the West since the 1960s but for which there was not, so far, a prescribed uniform. Wilson designed a new kind of clothing – sweat-wicking, super stretchy leggings that were both comfortable and flattering – that came to be known as “athleisure”. Lululemon now has 574 shops, found on some of the most prestigious streets in the world.

The success of Lululemon was not only a result of its clever products. It was also a result of changing demographics. Wilson identified a new kind of consumer: the childless female graduate with money and time to spare and an intense interest in maintaining her appearance. The new Western fashion for yoga – and thus for Lululemon clothing – was all about her.

The brand’s success depended not just on a product but a lifestyle. The imagined Lululemon customer (“Ocean”, as Wilson called her) was urban, financially independent, sporty, beautiful, thin and unencumbered by caring responsibilities. Her thinness was particularly important – until 2020, most Lululemon clothes didn’t come larger than a US size 14 (the average American woman is between a size 16 and 18). The Lululemon phenomenon wasn’t just about leggings – it was about a new breed of successful woman.

The brand’s success offers a glimpse into the way that 21st-century corporations often function. They sell a fantasy – in Lululemon’s case, the fantasy of being as gorgeous and glamorous as “Ocean” – but their fundamentals are like those of any other business: there are board members and profit margins and hirings and firings.

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[See also: “It’s a Wild West”: the scientist who took on the multi-billion femtech industry]

There is inequality, too. Chip Wilson’s Vancouver home is estimated to be worth $66.8m. Meanwhile, as with many fashion brands, those who actually make the clothes earn a pittance. According to a 2019 report by the Guardian, one of the Bangladeshi companies that manufactures products for Lululemon was paying some of its labourers only 9,100 taka (£85) a month – less than the price of one pair of Lululemon leggings.

Women in this factory also said they had endured physical violence and humiliation at the hands of their managers, who, the Guardian reported, called them “whores” and “sluts”. (When the claims emerged, Lululemon said it would immediately launch an investigation.)

Compare this with the wording of an ad for a job as an “educator” (retail worker) at one of Lululemon’s London stores: “At Lululemon, we care for and invest in the whole person – body, mind, spirit.”

This kind of waffle, of course, disguises the reality of the business model. And while Lululemon may have been among the first wave of brands to sanitise their image with New Age jargon, this language is now increasingly the norm.

There’s a hysterical skit by the comedian Bo Burnham in which he plays an advertising consultant. Over soaring strings, he asks his client: “The question isn’t, ‘What are you selling?’ or, ‘What service are you providing?’ The question is, ‘What do you stand for? Who are you, Bagel Bites?’” (They’re “a frozen snack pizza bagel”, or so Google informs me.)

During the summer of 2020, in the months following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minnesota, many brands followed a version of Burnham’s advice, issuing sombre statements on their commitment to anti-racism. A yoga studio I had visited a couple of times took the bizarre step of emailing customers an exact breakdown of the ethnicity of its staff (the “in-house team” was “15.4 per cent Colombian”, apparently).

And it was during that summer that Lululemon finally decided to stock larger sizes in its shops. This was not because Wilson himself necessarily cared about body positivity (there was a minor scandal in 2013 when he claimed that some customers’ fat thighs caused Lululemon leggings to malfunction) but because the market was clearly changing. Not only were more customers demanding larger sizes, but it looked terrible for the brand to welcome only skinny women into its embrace.

For all its savviness, Lululemon is now encountering problems. For the first time, staff at one of its larger stores in Washington DC are about to unionise, and their demands include more equitable pay structures for workers across the organisation.

I hope these workers succeed in their organising efforts. And I hope, too, that during their negotiations they remind the bosses at Lululemon that the corporation has committed to “care for and invest in the whole person”. Lululemon and other brands have been getting away with hypocrisy for far too long. It’s about time they paid attention to how things are, not just how they look.

[See also: Roe vs Wade has resonated widely – but the US is not the centre of the universe]

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special