The Cult-Like Following Of Lululemon Is Stronger Than Ever — Despite Controversies

What would you do for a pair of Lululemon leggings? Like, really cool leggings, made from a patterned reflective fabric that shines when it hits the light and looks like a rainbow from certain angles. Leggings that are so exclusive, they are only sold at one pop-up store once a year and cost $298. Leggings that would kill in a SoulCycle or barre class.
This was the question I asked myself entering the merch store at Seawheeze, Lululemon’s annual half-marathon fitness festival in Vancouver, the city where the company was founded two decades ago. "The clothes are organized by size, and you can’t take photos," a Lululemon representative warned me and a group of other journalists. He cautiously ushered us into the store through a back door at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
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Inside, people fought through a tangled sea of frenetic-patterned, spandex clothing. Racks of leggings, jackets, technical shirts, and shorts were feebly organized by size and print. Groups of shoppers huddled along the sides of the conference room counting product — customers were only allowed 10 per person — and muscling hangers into their arms. A group of slim, wellness-obsessed look-alikes in matching rainbow leggings and customized matching Lululemon shirts staked out a spot to try on clothes. A voice came over the intercom announcing: "It looks like women’s leggings are almost sold out!"
At the center of the room, the coveted annual reflective Seawheeze merch glowed behind a closed-off guardrail. If this were the Hunger Games, these items would be the Cornucopia, and there was about the be a bloodbath. At the register, a snake of people lined up for the opportunity to give away their money.
Here at the 7th annual Seawheeze festival, scoring the merch is just as important as getting a ticket to the race itself and immersing oneself in a wellness scene, complete with yoga and Lululemon-branded craft beer. This year, 10,000 runners gained entry through a lottery system. Of that number, 55% of the participants are Canadian, 45% are from the United States, and the remaining sliver are from other countries around the world. The race, which takes place alongside the Pacific Ocean seawall, is billed as "the most fun half-marathon in the world." At night, runners are treated to a post-race yoga and music festival, and this year, Diplo performed.
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It makes sense why people spend $173 CAD ($133 USD) to participate in the race; it’s fun as hell, and the 13.1-mile course is lined with spectators, drag queens, people on stationary cycling bikes, inflatable arm flailing tube men, a karaoke set-up, and more. But, as so many people attending told me, Seawheeze is more than just a race, it’s an experience. For a weekend, Lululemon fans get to take a pilgrimage with other ravenous fans, drink the Kool-Aid, and soak up the sweaty, yoga-doing ethos that they love so much — despite the fact that things haven’t been all zen for the multi-million dollar company with over 400 stores around the globe this year.
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images.
In February, the former CEO Laurent Potdevin resigned, and although the details are hazy, CNBC reported that his departure was in part because he had an alleged multi-year romantic relationship with an unnamed designer who worked for the brand until 2014. "Lululemon expects all employees to exemplify the highest levels of integrity and respect for one another, and Mr. Potdevin fell short of these standards of conduct," a press release read when Potdevin left the company after five years in the role. Lululemon declined to comment to the New York Times about whether an alleged sexual misconduct allegation ultimately led to Potdevin’s resignation, a seemingly reasonable assumption in the #MeToo era. And when we asked Lululemon about Potdevin's departure, they largely echoed their initial press release in an email response, saying, "We expect all employees to exemplify the highest levels of integrity and respect for one another. Laurent fell short of the company’s standard of conduct in a broad range of instances, and so he left the company." Refinery29 was unable to reach Potdevin for comment.
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But long before Potdevin made headlines, Lululemon’s founder Chip Wilson built an infamous reputation for saying ridiculous things about women’s bodies. (For example, he said birth control causes breast cancer and leads to divorce, and that yoga pants don’t "work" for women whose thighs touch). Then, there are the company’s out-of-touch price points, cult-like atmosphere, and bizarre training and goal-making practices for retail associates. For a company that preaches yoga, mindfulness, empathy, and inclusion, it appears they have a track record of choosing questionable leaders and setting lofty ideals that the average consumer may have a hard time living up to. But in late August, Calvin McDonald, took over as the newest CEO of Lululemon in the hopes of steering the company in the right direction. He arrives with a squeaky-clean reputation, and was the former CEO of both Sephora and Sears. (Representatives from the brand said McDonald was unable to give a comment for this story since he just started and was still "listening and learning.")
A leader with an impeccable reputation who’s good at their job and doesn’t cause any headaches through their personal actions is in many ways emblematic of the Lululemon ethos. That it's a man, leading a brand with a cult-like female following is beside the point. And, judging from the fervor at Seawheeze, however, this type of morals-based shopping hasn’t affected Lululemon’s customers who seem keen to turn a blind eye to the company’s appearance of hypocrisy, and buy their athleisure anyways.
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The reason why Lululemon’s brand might be impervious to the actions and words of its previous leaders is because it’s some of the best out there — and I would know; I’ve tested a ton of workout clothes. Even though Lululemon has also been criticized for not catering to extended sizes, and making leggings that are completely see-through, their stans stick to them because their clothes are overall very well made. They’re on-trend and the designers think of everything: an inner pocket here, an extra zipper there, or a fabric that somehow keeps you dry as a bone during hot yoga.
Still, I admit, wearing Lululemon may be kind of awkward for someone who’s socially aware or sensitive. Perhaps it’s similar to eating a Chick-fil-A sandwich: You don’t want it to be good, because the company doesn’t represent your values, but it’s delicious.
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"[Seawheeze] starts with the shopping always," says Lacey, a 36-year-old from Portland, OR, outside the Seawheeze Showcase Store. Lacey was with her friend Roma, 25, from Calabasas, CA. They first connected on a Lululemon Facebook fan group page, and for the past five years, they’ve met up at Seawheeze to shop and run every year.
It’s kind of ironic that people from Calabasas, the Kardashian fashion capital, and Portland, the home of Nike and Adidas, would travel to Vancouver to shop for athletic clothes. But Roma and Lacey insist Lululemon is the best. "I am by no means small, I wear a 10 or 12 at Lululemon," Lacey says. "I think they could expand on [sizes], but as a company, they’ve done a good job." Roma says she shops Lululemon for the designs: "I love the colors — I mean look at these shiny pants," Roma says, gesturing to her rainbow reflective leggings.
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The pants Roma is wearing are the 2017 Seawheeze leggings, which she had to scramble to get. Last year, Seawheeze participants slept outside a day before the sale in order to snag the products, but this year Lululemon setup organized time slots to quell the frenzy. "These were very coveted and they started going for $1,000 on eBay. It was wild," Roma says of the pants she purchased last year. Today, less than a month after the race, the 2018 reflective leggings available at the Seawheeze Store are going for $599.99 on eBay. But Roma would never sell her leggings. "This was the only pair I got," she says. "And I could never let go of them."
Lululemon’s covetable items are created in the company’s Whitespace Lab in Vancouver. It’s the testing facility where they develop fabric innovations and rigorously vet their products. The space is fashioned after an actual science lab with sewing machines, treadmills, special humidity-controlled chambers, stationary bikes, and dunk pools all lined-up and ready to test the athleisure brand’s new offerings. Alexandra Plante, director of innovations, told me she’s has spent the last four years working on one bra. That might sound excessive, but at Whitespace, their goal is to perfect "the science of feel," — or the sensations that a garment provides on a person’s body, says Tom Waller, VP of Whitespace. After all, if you’re going to spend $98 on a pair of leggings to sweat in, you’d want them to feel good on and make you feel good in them.
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Fit and feel are the most important factors that Kelsey, 27, a Seattle resident who’s been to Seawheeze twice, looks for when buying expensive workout clothes. "And then, obviously I’ll also consider if there’s some sort of moral decision-making that’s part of it," she says, referring to the types of brands she’s drawn to.
To Kelsey, the company’s backstory is made up for by the fact that Lululemon taps local workout instructors for events in the stores, and makes the brand "a huge part of our community." She said some of her friends who are workout instructors have been featured in Lululemon stores, which she says is amazing. "But it’s also just like, the brand," says Lucy. "The people are good, the stores are good, the employees are so nice to you. It’s such a good community."
Some might say that this "community" is cultish. Back in 2013, a Salon story about being a Lululemon “educator," aka sales associate, went viral. The details in the piece covered everything from the self-help books employees had to read, to the diets they all ate. It made sorority hazing seem tame. But "it’s not cult-like at all," says Leanna, 25, a Lululemon "educator" (aka sales associate) in Boston. "I could see how you’d think that from the outside, but once you’re in, it’s family. It’s so much fun and nothing like what people expect it to be."
Lululemon employees are very goal-oriented, which is how Leanna ended up at Seawheeze. "I was hired under the premise that I hate running," she says. At a company-wide mandatory goal-making session that happens every 18 months, called Vision + Goals, she and her colleague Kelly, 25, made goals to run a half-marathon, and Lululemon flew them out.
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After the Seawheeze shopping experience, Seawheeze volunteers usher us into another much calmer conference room, surrounded by beanbags, meditation cushions, and rugs to sit on. This is where I join the "cult," I thought. As a pre-race event, Lululemon was offering a Vision + Goals session for Seawheeze participants. The week before, we’re told the brand new CEO had to go through it as part of his on-boarding.
Jian Pablico, a mindful performance manager at Lululemon, took the stage in front of a giant neon Lululemon logo, and told us to get comfortable, because we’d be there for 70 minutes. Awesome. After slightly rolling my eyes, I focus them on the booklet in front of me, because I knew if I looked up my eyes would just roll further back in my head and possibly never return. I got the feeling this is the sort of event where people cry, which immediately made me uncomfortable.
Photo courtesy of Lululemon.
Seawheeze participants take a yoga class in the pouring rain at the Sunset Festival.
But the first exercise got me. We had to list three people whom we admire, and the qualities that we value in them, which is harder than it sounds. (I picked my mom, childhood friend, and Chrissy Teigen — sorry, dad. You didn’t make the cut this time.) From there, we circled three qualities that resonated most with us right now. "Could these be your core values?"Jaema Green, a retail manager at Lululemon asked the audience. Here’s how this sorcery works: The values that we find important are often qualities we admire in others, but we just have trouble identifying within ourselves, she said. The words made even a cynic like me get emotional.
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I kept thinking about this exercise in the days that followed. I even made my boyfriend do the exercise, because I thought it would resonate with him, and he has been repeating his three values as a mantra ever since. As someone who goes to therapy, it kind of pissed me off that it took sitting in a Lululemon-branded room full of strangers for me to come to terms with my personal values. I didn’t want to adopt their ethos, but there I was, at the Sunset Festival after the race, sipping a Lululemon beer can sporting phrases such as, "Observe a plant before and after watering and relate these benefits to your body and brain," while staring at a Lululemon-branded ferris wheel. It was pouring rain and cold, but truly dedicated people were taking a yoga class led by Janet Stone, wearing ponchos and rain boots.
Was this whole experience cult-like? Yes. Was it fun? Incredibly. Was it moving, maybe life changing? Surprisingly. At the same time, there was so much going on that it easily distracted from the fact that this is a company with an infamously wacky culture and sometimes offensive mission. But despite all of the public scandals, people still want to be a part of it — even in the freezing rain — myself included, I guess.
Lululemon paid for hotel, airfare, meals, and race entry as part of a press trip the writer of this story attended. However, Lululemon did not approve or review this story.
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