How Lululemon Distinguishes Itself in an Overcrowded Market for Athleisure

Gone are the days of stringent corsets and itchy layers, fashion trends that long dominated the expectations for female apparel. Athleisure, a more comfortable and casual alternative, has been on the rise in the last decade and has consequently redefined the prevailing norms for women’s dress. Moreover, the concept sets a standard for comfort and individuality that mimics the millennial movement to redefine femininity. Oversized sweaters and puffer coats have replaced trench coats, stretch leather for skirts and dresses, and sneakers for heels. The rise of athleisure and styles that accommodate versatility accompany the trend of at-home fitness that has swept the nation. Now, more than ever, brands are working to accommodate the concept of a life in transition.

The celebration of comfort has ultimately driven the rise of athleisure which presently dominates the apparel industry, and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. The evidence is in the numbers: across the globe, activewear sales reached $48 billion and represented 22% of industry sales in 2017.

Historically, athletic brands such as Nike and Adidas, as well as high-end, luxurious brands that include Balmain and Louis Vuitton, have all capitalized on the trend, promoting their own lines of athleisure wear in stores and on the runway. Designing, both literally and figuratively, is no longer quite as stiff as it once was. The hybrid between casual-wear and athletic apparel applies to more than just the transitional moments in workouts but to day-to-day functions, little moments that include getting on and off of the train as well as heading to and returning from school. While style once dominated over functionality, athleisure has illustrated that it is possible to be comfortable without sacrificing style. The trend reflects fashion’s versatility and adaptability to accommodate the changes in our culture.

Celebrities, too, are hopping on board (Kanye West’s Yeezy line lists a pair of sneakers for a whopping $2600). Even more traditional clothing lines like Gap have added athleisure pieces to their merchandise lineup in hopes of boosting sales. Due to an influx of vendors yearning for a slice of earnings in the athleisure industry, there has been overcrowding, and thus, many brands are experiencing a drop in sales.

Somewhere in the middle of the traditional and the luxurious lies Lululemon, a brand that has uniquely distinguished itself as maintaining steady success while the market for athleisure expands. So, what exactly separates Lulu from its counterparts? Laurent Potdevin, longtime CEO of the brand who recently announced his departure from the company, credited the fact that customers are drawn to the brand because it reflects who they are and who they want to be. At the time of his departure in February 2018, Lululemon’s shares had climbed at least 16% from the previous year. They have successfully created a brand under which the individuals wearing it are connected to one another and are united by the brand’s motivation. One of the efforts Lululemon has made that other brands have not is to purposely seek out brand ambassadors that are yoga instructors and fitness mentors. These brand ambassadors embody a lifestyle that Lululemon consumers strive to lead, a resource that ultimately differentiates the company and drives up its appeal. In addition to motivational brand ambassadors that reflect the company’s goals, Lululemon uniquely offers free in-store yoga classes.

Clearly, their brand-focused approach has brought them success. A study that compared future growth rates of Nike and Lululemon predicted that Nike would continue to grow at high single-digit rates while predicting that Lulu will maintain a steady 15% growth rate. Their rapid international expansion helps, with current Asian growth rates in the triple-digits. Within Asia, the company is attempting to reach Chinese consumers specifically through hosting these lifestyle events, including their trademark free yoga sessions.

With an abundance of brands behind the athleisure movement at the fingertips of consumers thanks to the Internet and viral advertising, Lululemon has distinguished itself as a dominating force in its field. However, it will be interesting to see how the departure of longtime CEO Laurent Potdevin and the rise of Amazon impact the company’s culture and impending success. Only time will tell…