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August 8, 2009

Is Lululemon A Yoga Poser?

At what point did Lululemon stop making clothes for yoga clothes and start making “yoga-inspired” clothes?

I would say the ultimate sell-out occurred when they started manufacturing clothing that you would not find in a yoga studio. A yoga raincoat? Really.

The transition from a coveted yoga brand to a lifestyle brand has been met with its fair share of controversy. Since its inception, Lululemon has posted consistently positive profits, even in a weak economy. And yet they’ve never manufactured using eco-responsible materials and practices, or in the USA—their company’s behavior doesn’t seem to match that of their target audience’s practice of ahimsa or mindfulness.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Rob Walker discusses consumer responses to the brands growing popularity.

Lululemon makes a great show of asking for product suggestions and feedback in all its stores, and it acts on them. And after all, one lesson of the “action sports” niche is the power of the lifestyle crossover. Just as you don’t have to skateboard to wear skater sneakers, you don’t have to be able to nail a sun-salutation pose to wear yoga pants.

That disconnect is hardly unique to Lululemon. The Atlantic published a lengthy meditation on the “commodification” of yoga in 2006. Even earlier, an executive for Danskin once explained to The Wall Street Journal how that company was focusing on consumers who sported yoga style while engaging in less-athletic activities, like “shopping.” The concept of people who only buy the yoga concept even has a name: posers.

But since Lululemon now serves its “niche” with more than 100 stores, it’s no surprise that some yoga devotees have zeroed in on it as an annoying phony-baloney symbol. Elaine Lipson, a writer and editor in Boulder, Colo., who has practiced yoga since 1993, laments the transformation of something that’s basically free into something vaguely upper class, female and “all about the lifestyle and the clothes.” To her, Lululemon is peddling “props” that may offer a sense of community to some but alienate others who might benefit from yoga but don’t fit what she calls the chain’s “yoga chick” image and attitude.

So how do we stay true to our roots when you need some new yoga apparel? Look for a company that uses fairly-traded or organic materials while maintaining classic design silhouettes. Unlike Lululemon, companies like Be Present, Blue Canoe, Prana and Patagonia make their clothing for women (and men) in a more eco-responsible manner, “borne from the experience” manner. And remember, being a yoga practitioner doesn’t require the latest designer duds—we can always shop thrift, too.

For more on “Consumed” by Rob Walker, visit the New York Times website.

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