- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Lululemon Athletica might be located among stores, but it doesn’t consider itself one of them. A store can sell jeans

Sure, there are stretchy, soft yoga pants at $89 a pop, but at Lululemon, much more is for sale. The attitude and outlook come free, as do bits of wisdom, ideas for serenity and tips for reducing your carbon footprint.

“It is part of our mission to educate,” says Andrea Downs, manager of Lululemon’s Tysons Corner store. “We are more than just product.”

Lululemon has opened three Washington-area stores - in Bethesda and Clarendon as well as Tysons - in the past two years as part of its rapid growth. The company had just four U.S. locations in August 2005; now there are 88 worldwide. Shops will open this fall in Logan Circle and Georgetown.

As Lululemon’s manifesto - a red-printed card with pithy sayings and reasonable advice - says, “Successful people replace the words ‘wish,’ ‘should’ and ‘try,’ with ‘I will.’”

As in “I will rule the yoga world.”

The idea began a decade ago, when Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, a surf-and-skate-shop owner, started taking yoga classes in Vancouver, British Colombia. He noticed women were wearing regular T-shirts, suited in neither fabric nor form to the demands of a yoga class. He developed performance fabric and ran innovative designs past a focus group made up of exercise enthusiasts. The first Lululemon store opened in Vancouver in 2000.

The company also was founded on the principles of education and training. Store employees are not clerks; they are called educators, and, ideally, they know about the products they are selling and for what activities people need them. There is no online shopping; how can someone teach you about the benefits of the half-moon pose and the mat on which you need to do it if that person can’t see you?

Each store has a community bulletin board where visitors can find information on everything from local nutritionists and massage therapists to, of course, schedules for nearby yoga studios. There are tips on how to recycle your old yoga mat and the long-term goals of the store’s educators.

“My goal for this store is to be a hub for fitness and wellness,” Ms. Downs says. “Not just ‘where to do yoga,’ but offering resources.”

In the stores, the Lululemon community board points out that the company is environmentally conscious - the floor is made from recycled Douglas fir, and the reusable store bags (imprinted with the manifesto) are made of recycled materials.

Out of the store, Lululemon spreads the word through the clothes, not the ads.

“When we come to town, the main thing we focus on before a store opens is getting out in the community and meeting people,” says Ashley Kaufman, director of community relations for the Southeast region. “Instead of advertising, we are working on really building these relationships.”

Lululemon only advertises in one yoga magazine. The rest is through “ambassadors” - popular exercise instructors around town who are chosen to wear the clothes and (hopefully) tell their friends.

“Our ambassadors inspire us by being amazing athletes,” Ms. Kaufman says. “They help create visibility and get feedback.”

Another form of community outreach: bringing classes to the people. Every Lululemon store offers free weekly yoga in the store - just move the racks of clothes, and you have an instant yoga space. In the District this summer, Lululemon sponsored free Wednesday night yoga smack in the center of Dupont Circle, where the nearby fountain created a serene atmosphere amid the noise of rush-hour traffic.

So, for prices that run way above the stretch pants one could pick up at, say, Target or T.J. Maxx, is it worth it? For people who wear exercise gear a lot, probably. Laurent Amzallag, a personal trainer and instructor at several area health clubs, says he appreciates the metallic materials woven into some Lululemon garments to wick sweat and odor away from the skin.

“I will pay for the extra benefit,” says Mr. Amzallag, who served as a Lululemon ambassador when the Clarendon store opened. “It is more money, but you are getting quality.”

Other shoppers are willing to pay for the small details - women’s clothing that comes in numbered sizes rather than just small, medium and large; interesting colors; chafe-free fabrics; and hidden pockets in everything - even sports bras - to hold a key or an iPod.

“You should always be able to slip in a Chapstick,” Ms. Downs says.

Or a reminder, as the manifesto says, to sweat once a day and take your vitamins.

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