There have always been turf wars in the fashion retail world. Competition is the backbone of our free market economy, but in the fashion industry, drama often trumps pragmatism. The most recent example, accelerated by Covid-19 is the news that Lululemon, from their secure base camp in Vancouver, has been in a clandestine war with Levi’s, Wranglers, and Calvin Klein.
The Pants Battle
Jeans — high end and low end – are pitted against the yoga pant as the CV-19 world perceives comfort and fashion. The net result of Covid-19 is that the war Lulu was waging and winning in pants share of market has tilted even more their favor. What terrifies the traditional broader garmento world is that this war fought to date with women now includes men’s pants. Lulu has crossed between genders. As the Stone Coyotes (my favorite feminist country western band) sing – “There is trouble down in Texas and her name is Betty Lu.”
A Bit of Perspective
Let’s go back to the main stage. Remember that for a generation of male baby boomers the word jeans and Levi’s were interchangeable. They were western tough, manly wear. That girls wore them too was their statement to get past frilly and get to real. Jeans culture became dominant for everyone, to the extent that men wore them to the office with coat and tie and women wore them everywhere.
As Covid hit and Zoom took over, what was telling was the new focus on the look from the waist up. Those comfortable yoga pants could now be matched with anything and everything.
In the early days, we bought Levi’s at Arm-Navy stores across the country. We washed them to soften them up with the wear (and tear) on the jeans seen as a badge of honor. In the early 90s that train got derailed. Nothing comes between me and my Calvin’s and Gloria Vanderbilt moved jeans up market. Levi’s panicked and stopped selling to Army Navy Stores and The Gap. The market exploded as more players jumped in. Jeans moved into the department store and the badge of honor with rips and wear got baked in at the point of sale. To be honest, adding some stretch to the jean increased the comfort and particularly for women impacted the silhouette. In testing jean stores in the late 90s finding ways to check “butt fit” in dressing room design was a critical piece of that understanding. Women wanted to look good from the front, but the back was even more important.
East Meets West
When Lulu opened, the idea of the yoga pant outside the studio was an interesting proposition. The stores showcased “butt fit.” The level of comfort was unquestionable. Gap did its version with Athletica which was excellent – but Lulu still held the high ground. The idea of athletic wear getting past the gym, the playing field or the yoga studio was centered on projecting an image of health and well-being. Even if your body wasn’t perfect, the aspirational projection was perceived as attractive. And at the same time, the explosion of the yoga practice came in so many new forms making it assessable to a broad cross-section of ages and shapes. If you didn’t have the stamina to do Bikram hot, you could do the gentler, but still demanding Hatha.
As Covid hit and Zoom took over, what was telling was the new focus on the look from the waist up. Those comfortable yoga pants could now be matched with anything and everything. And the concept of stretch took on new power as we settled back into staying at home sitting for hours in front of our screens.
My next-door neighbor in my new Connecticut home is an investment banker at a boutique company in Greenwich. He’s in his mid 50’s, a beer drinking, golf playing, father of three. This summer he proclaimed “I will never wear another pair of pants unless I have too. Lululemon has changed my view of men’s comfort and fashion.” “I am a Costco guy, but that $128 on the first pair was the best money I’ve spent on clothing in years.” The pants were the yoga pant material, but with a jean cut. Inside one of the back patch pockets was a zippered pocket for “your passport,” Kwell. He went on to say that he now has five pairs and wears one of the them almost every day. Levi’s, Hagger’s, Tommy, much less the fading smell of Brooks Brothers, are subject to the men’s fashion industry stresses.
A 34-year-old millennial who sells real estate in New York City is a Lulu fan as well. He has one pair of chino/slacks design that he wears with a polo shirt, mainly for golf. The other pair are joggers that he uses for “lounging around, doing errands like going to dry cleaners or laundry, or physical activity. Those have lasted me at least four years now and are great.”
One caveat, this younger customer says, “The materials seem great and they obviously last long, but everything is super expensive in my opinion for what they are. I know some men who buy these pants to wear to work but they’re a little too casual for my taste.” He adds, “I think in NYC Lulu is very popular for men of a certain age and income level. I’ve also met some men who wear them upstate to do construction work because they seem sturdy but they’re also breathable and flexible.” And finally, “I’m not sure about what the ultimate popularity/trend will be for Lulu, I don’t find their general clothing that great looking, specifically their tops and shorts, so that might not become a trend. I do think that men will certainly become increasingly intrigued and interested in their pants as everyone becomes more used to the duality of the pants being comfortable enough to wear at home and nice looking enough to wear to the office. ”
A New Model
I can count on my fingers the number of times in the past five years I’ve worn a suit and tie, almost always on stage, knowing even then that who I precede and who follow would have a different sense of style decorum. Even our esteemed publisher of this publication is never out of his jeans; when is he going to try on his first pair of Lulus?
My 35 years of retail fashion research can be boiling down to a simple observation: Our closets are divided between costumes and uniforms. Costumes are worn for special occasions. Based on gender, location, social status and personal taste, those special occasion outfits can range from ugly sweaters and Hawaiian shirts to power blue tuxedos and three-piece pinstripes. Women’s costumes can be based on whether they want to be looked at or just to blend in.
That said, the interesting fact is that multiple costumes tend to come from different sources.
The coronavirus turned costumes upside down, relegated to TikTok and Insta moments. Until recently, no one had anywhere to go to wear anything special. In a PostPan world we are settling into comfortable uniforms. Once we find a place that has uniforms we like – we tend to return, be it Lulu, cashmere leggings, or the explosion of yoga-pant inspired pants that have become the norm – at home and on the streets. Those Lulu jogging pants and leggings are showing up in droves as urban streetwear.
It doesn’t take long for the fashion paradigm to shift: Lulu has been on the right place at the right time even as the world keeps turning.