Thanks to high-end workout gear line Lululemon, yoga is no longer just a spiritual discipline: It’s an aspirational branding opportunity. The company, founded in 2000, has a massive, cult-like following of juice cleanse–guzzling, elite gym-going women who wear Wunder Under leggings ($98) and Virasana blanket wraps ($148) inside and outside of the yoga studio to signify how rich, hip, and healthy they are. Healthy, of course, is code for thin – 67 percent of U.S. women wear a size 14 or larger, but you’d be hard-pressed to find Lululemon’s largest size, 12, or even a 10 in most stores.
Billionaire founder Chip Wilson is famously dismissive of larger customers: He has said the extra fabric it takes to make plus-size clothes would hurt his business and that part of the reason his company had to recall thousands of indecently sheer yoga pants last spring was because customers were trying to squeeze into too-small clothes. One former Lululemon staffer recently said the company purposely refrains from restocking larger sizes. Earlier this month, Wilson sparked national outrage when he told Bloomberg TV that some of his pants pill because not all women are Lululemon-worthy. “Quite frankly, some women’s bodies just actually don’t work,” he said. “It’s about the rubbing through the thighs.”
Some viewers were offended, but competitors in the activewear arena were thrilled. Many of them are inspired by Lululemon’s high-tech style but hope to attract the average American women instead of excluding her.
The activewear market is a $30 billion industry that’s growing two times as fast as the overall apparel industry, according to NPD, a consumer market research firm. (Lululemon’s projected revenue for 2013 is around $1.6 billion.) Plus-size women hold 28 percent of women’s apparel purchasing power, but spend only 17 percent – maybe that’s because 62 percent of plus size woman say they have a hard time finding the styles they want.
If they can’t find them (or fit into them) at Lululemon, they might try Threads 4 Thought, a sustainable apparel line that recently advertised its new yoga line ThreatsActive as “Never Sheer, Always Flattering, for Every Woman, No Matter the Body Type,” a not-so-subtle jab at Lululemon’s embarrassing recall. “Hopefully it’s clear without being too offensive,” laughed co-founder Eric Fleet, who added that he didn’t agree with Wilson’s strategy and “wasn’t sure that it’s going to work out for them.
“Any brand should want to appeal to as many women as it can, instead of alienating them,” he said.
According to Tasha Lewis, a professor of fiber science and apparel design at Cornell University who has been following the post-recall marketing strategy, Athleta, which was acquired by Gap Inc. in 2008 and carries sizes up to 2X, is Lululemon’s biggest threat. She says it strategically places its stores in close proximity to Lululemon’s. Athleta hasn’t sent out any snarky emails and wouldn’t comment directly on Wilson’s most recent comments, but a spokesperson noted the brand’s Give-It-A-Workout-Guarantee, which allows women to bring back clothes if they, say, pill.
Some founders of independent, plus-size-only brands were more straightforward about what they feel is the real issue: fat stigma and shame. Women who wear Lululemon aren’t just buying pricey yoga pants; they’re buying into a lifestyle that larger women think they don’t deserve.
“Society constantly tells plus-size women that we don’t have a place in the conversation about fitness and health, and in branding around fitness and health,” said Jen Wilder, who launched plus-sized athletic wear line Cult of California in 2012 after working as the manager of retail sales at Equinox Gym and noticing that women above size L had to raid the men’s section. She had also started dating her now-husband, an avid hiker, and didn’t feel confident in the baggy sweats available to her.
“I really wanted to look cute,” she said. “I wanted the outfit with the matching bra that goes with the tennis shoes. It was important for my self-esteem.”
So she started designing galaxy-print high-rise capri leggings ($69) and zip-up sports bras ($45) sexy enough to wear post-gym and sturdy enough for curvy women; for example, her leggings have double inseam panels so friction doesn’t open the seams. Her clothes are even made from the same fabric as Lululemon gear. But Wilder said since most women don’t aspire to stay plus-size – “They hope the size they are isn’t going to be the size they are next year” – she gets backlash about her prices. She’s closing shop soon because she makes more money working for retailers like Bebe, that pay big bucks but aren’t interested in plus-size attire.
Stacey Goldstein, founder of Lola Getts Active, agreed that most major retailers don’t want to “offend their skinny customers” by advertising plus-size offerings, and said even big brands like Athleta stock limited sizes and rarely use plus-size models. “When stores don’t take the time to fit in plus-size women,” she said, “the woman knows she’s an afterthought.”
Goldstein wants Lola Getts, which offers empire-waist tanks ($59) and T-shirts with neon trim ($63) for women size 14 and up, to be as aspirational as Lululemon. “We want the customer to get that same community feeling as her skinny counterparts,” she said. The Lululemon fiasco has been great for business, she said; in the last 10 days, she has seen a 5 percent increase in sales that she directly attributes to Wilson’s comments. “It’s obvious that the plus-size woman is a force to be reckoned with,” she said. “She wants a healthy, active life. And she wants to look good.”
Does Lululemon care about potential competitors who welcome the women the company has rejected? Lululemon didn’t respond to requests for comment, but it seems unlikely. In some ways, Wilson’s comments enhance the brand’s enviable aura of unattainability. Lululemon is for the confident woman who doesn’t care if her pants are see-through: all the better for showing off her toned thighs.