With new fitness fashion brands popping up virtually every single day, everyone wants to know: who’s going to be the next lululemon? Lululemon has enjoyed a meteoric path to multi-billion-dollar success since their inception in the 90s. They’re pretty much THE brand that created the fashionable, functional activewear niche.
But lululemon isn’t what it used to be. Their quality has suffered, their corporate leadership has experienced considerable turmoil and turnover, their stock prices have faltered several times over the past couple of years, and they’ve been plagued by one PR debacle after another.
The combination of a rough couple of years for lulu plus a rapidly growing activewear market has opened the door for other brands to swoop in and chip away at lulu’s previously uncontested share of the market. Although lulu has been synonymous with high-end, stylish activewear for years, the game is changing fast, and the future of the fitness fashion space is anything but certain.
All that said, lululemon’s success is not nearly as simple as just making cute workout clothes. There’s a whole slew of things that made them an innovative, powerful force in the marketplace. Although lululemon is far from a perfect company, there’s a lot to learn from what they’ve created. Personally, I’ve been a fan of lululemon for a long time, but my love is waning and my gaze is wandering. Lately, I’ve been trying dozens of luxury activewear brands in search of a brand I love just as much, if not more, than lulu. Through that process, I’ve come up with a few things that I believe are the most important aspects to creating an unstoppable fitness fashion empire.
So: who’s going to be the next lululemon? Whoever can do all of this.
1 | Don’t sell us sheer pants
Seriously, just don’t do it. Despite lululemon’s sheer pants scandal 3 years ago, less-than-perfect coverage is still a recurring problem not just at lululemon, but with countless other activewear labels, too.
It’s incredibly embarrassing to discover your pants are see-through when you’ve been wearing them for a while, and that kind of embarrassment is not something you want associated with your brand. Yes, it’s possible to make a high-stretch, high-performance fabric that doesn’t turn sheer when we bend over. Yes, it’s even possible to make light-colored fabric–including white!–that isn’t see-through. I don’t want to worry about the color of my underwear, and I don’t want to worry about rushing to claim the squat rack in a secluded corner simply because of the pants I’m wearing.
Build a brand that we can trust to literally cover our butts, no questions asked.
2 | Fit matters
Proper fit is the bedrock of fashion in general, but it’s especially crucial when it comes to what you wear when working out. The perfect fit not only looks better, it feels and performs better, too. Lululemon offers most styles in 6 sizes, and the subtle differences between sizes mean women have more choice and therefore more odds of getting the perfect fit. While it may seem small, a half inch here or a quarter inch there can make a huge difference. Think of it like jeans: if my only choice of jeans sizes were XS, S, M, or L, the chances of me getting that perfect pair is a whole lot smaller than being able to choose anything from size 24 to 32.
Another important aspect of fit that lululemon really nails: designing for athletic bodies. It might not work to take traditional fashion patterns and expect them to work for athletic clothing. Lululemon has endeared themselves to female CrossFitters, bodybuilders, and weightlifters, for example, because they flatter an athletic frame and stretch to comfortably accommodate more developed muscles. Yes, athletic bodies come in all manner of shapes and sizes, but you should strive to use fabrics and patterns that don’t exclude the athletic set. If your tights feel like a straitjacket on someone with even medium-sized calves, you’re limiting you reach in a really important way.
3 | Be good to your community of fans
From my perspective, lululemon’s fan base is a huge part of how they became what they are today. From getting excited over the latest product drops, to helping each other out with try-on reviews, to buying and selling from each other, the lululemon community is extremely vibrant. For me personally, the online community of lululemon fans is a huge reason why I got so deep into the world of lululemon. It took me from simply being interested in lululemon to being a voracious consumer. I’m sure I’m not the only one for whom that’s true.
Be supportive of a community where people talk about your brand and share their love of what you create. Even if it’s not all roses and rainbows talking about how great your brand is all the time, the presence of a community in the first place is invaluable (not to mention, it can be a source of incredible customer insight). Sharing those experiences and opinions with others has a way of drawing us in and deepening our love for a brand.
4 | Make clothes for working out
No, really for working out. Gear should be able to perform well for more than just running errands and going to brunch.
I’m always surprised at the number of styles I try that omit an important technical detail (or several). Yes, style is important to us, and I love being able to wear my workout clothes casually, but style shouldn’t come at the expense of function. Although we might make an exception for a style or color we really love, a brand isn’t going to occupy an elite position in our closets if it doesn’t absolutely nail the technical side.
Here are a few things this might mean. First off, use fabrics that can withstand the activity they’re intended for. I expect my clothes to be able to withstand serious fitness (which isn’t always delicate!), not just sitting around at home on the couch. Use flat seams. Sew in a gusset. Make a bra that supports more than just smaller busts through a long run. Cleverly place pockets on styles that might need them. Add zippers or reflectivity where it makes sense. Better yet, come up with something completely and totally new that we’ve never seen before. If there’s one thing lululemon has taught us, it’s that clever function and style are not mutually exclusive.
5 | Product flaws are not our fault
Here’s another one that should be obvious, but sadly, apparently is not. Lulu has struggled with this plenty of times themselves, and it has a big impact.
It’s a terrible tactic to imply that we did something wrong and that’s why your product didn’t work out. Don’t tell us the sheerness is because we’re in the wrong size. Or worse, that your pants are sheer because we’re not supposed to bend over in them (what?!). Don’t tell us your pants fell apart because we must not know how to treat them and how to wash them. Even if you’re right, there are better ways to help the customer have a good experience and love your brand that don’t involve condescension or blame-shifting. Take note of the service recovery paradox.
6 | Create a brand that makes us feel things
When I first started shopping for lululemon years ago, it had a strong effect on me. Their imagery drew me in–in fact, I wrote a whole post on lululemon’s use of imagery and branding. The subtle message I heard was “girls who wear our clothes are healthy, stylish, balanced, and glowing”. Those were all things I wanted to be, so I pined after lulu because not only were the clothes cute and good quality, it was symbolic of the kind of life that I wanted to build for myself. And indeed, when I bought my first few pieces, they gave me an undeniable spring in my step.
It might sound incredibly lame, but branding works. Don’t just sell products. Create an experience that makes us crave what you’re offering. The identity behind lulu is so powerful and meaningful that I’ve literally seen people with tattoos of lulu’s logo. Lululemon’s leadership harps on “brand experience” all the time, and while sometimes it’s couched in incredibly cheesy terms, the underlying concept is vital.
7 | Chase innovation
Since their inception, lululemon has been ruthlessly devoted to innovation. Yes, sometimes this results in some really, really weird stuff and some total flops, but it’s also led to huge wins and really clever stuff. Think of how your fans are using your products and strive to come up with creative ways to facilitate that. If there’s something about your gear that makes our workouts more convenient (like large pockets for runners), you better believe we’re going to reach for your styles first.
Innovation is especially important with fabrics. Always be pushing the envelope and looking for the latest and greatest technology, instead of simply snagging a random stretch fabric and sewing it into a cute style. Women love lululemon because the fabrics they use have a way of hugging our curves and making us feel like a million bucks in a way that other active fabrics may not.
Sensing the recurring theme? Making a cute design is one thing. Creating a reputation for blowing us away with function is harder, but so, so important.
8 | Don’t compete on price
This one might be a little contentious, but in my opinion, simply making a cheaper alternative of lululemon isn’t going to make you anywhere near as successful as lululemon. Yes, there’s a need for options that suit a range of budgets, and businesses can definitely be successful by targeting a specific price range. But if you want to become a brand as iconic as lulu has become, you don’t build that brand simply by making something inexpensive (unless you’re Walmart).
The thing is, when lulu started off, it was pretty much unheard of for women to spend as much on activewear as lulu was asking. And now, thanks to lulu, paying $100 for yoga pants is a pretty normal thing. Ultimately, the quality and brand reputation were so much more important to customers, and now lulu has countless shoppers who hardly bat an eye at the price tag–and plenty more who hem and haw but buy anyway.
Case in point: despite lulu’s controversial price increases last fall, their revenue in the quarter immediately after grew by a whopping 17%. Clearly, customers are willing to pay. If you create a brand with an amazing reputation and an undeniably fantastic product, you earn enormous pricing power.
9 | Learn from us
Lululemon gathers customer feedback in stores, through reviews on their website, and through their online feedback forum. They also make a point to gather detailed feedback from official brand ambassadors and product testers. Granted, lululemon isn’t a perfect example and sometimes we customers still feel like lulu doesn’t listen to us. But looking at the bigger picture, they’ve made a clear effort to talk to people who are really using their clothes and find out what’s working and what’s not, even if they do sometimes ignore big pieces of that feedback. From my perspective, their dedication to systematically gathering real world input on fit and function has greatly informed their brand strategy and product design.
P.S. That community from #3? Here’s where it might come in handy.
10 | Don’t try to be lululemon
Strictly speaking, no one is going to be “the next lululemon”, because no one can be better at being lulu than lulu themselves. You’re never going to reach the top by imitating. Don’t always just talk about your brand in terms of how it compares to lulu. Yes, of course it’s nice for your brand to compare favorably to your competitors, but a brand should stand alone as awesome, without the need for comparison. Build a brand that’s innovative and irresistible in its own way. Yes, learn from other’s mistakes and take note of what made them successful. But at the end of the day, aspiring brands shouldn’t try to replicate another brand’s journey, but must instead come up with their own way to offer something uniquely fantastic.
What do you think?
What are the most important aspects of your love for lululemon? What it would it take for you to fall just as hard for another brand?