Inside the Canadian retailer’s mega-temple of spandex in New York’s Flatiron District and its fashion lab in NoHo
The term “athleisure” refers to the booming trend that’s blending “athletic” and “leisure” wear, and it has become so ubiquitous that the Merriam-Webster dictionary plans to include it in its next update. Lululemon prefers to call its wares “progressive athletic apparel that carries active people seamlessly throughout the day,” and if you want a glimpse where the Vancouver-based company wants to take the trend, you have to make the trip to Manhattan.
Lululemon launched in Vancouver in 1998, and seems on track to put embarrassing debacles behind it (like the 2013 recall of its unintentionally see-through $99 yoga pants). The chain now counts more than 350 stores worldwide, from Auckland to Zurich, but the focus is on New York, which is fast becoming the brand’s favourite showroom for new customer experiences and retail innovations. Last year, downtown Manhattan became home to Lululemon’s largest-ever flagship store, and this spring saw the NoHo debut of the very first U.S. Lululemon Lab, a sort of incubator for new athleisure design ideas.
Why New York? It’s just like Sinatra once sung: “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” According to Meghan Chisholm, Lululemon’s U.S. public relations manager, “New York is a key market for Lululemon, particularly the Flatiron District, which is affectionately becoming known as the Fit District.” New Yorkers are a model audience for the driving ethos behind the Lululemon label: Plenty of consumers here pursue a no-holds-barred lifestyle of self-improvement both inside and outside of the gym.
Lululemon is betting New Yorkers will show fitness fashionistas everywhere that being able to move with style and ease between good-for-you-activities (like boutique fitness classes and organic dinner parties) actually justifies that pair of pretty pricey but perfectly-fitting leggings.
The Flatiron flagship
Opened last November, Lululemon’s largest flagship to date – a bi-level, 11,500-square-foot temple of spandex in Manhattan’s Flatiron District – is set in a historic building (a former mayor’s residence, circa 1910). The massive store is the new kid on the fitness block alongside Fifth Avenue studios, including two locations of SoulCycle, Flywheel Sports, Exhale, SLT and Pure Barre, as well as big-name athletic stores like Athleta, Sweaty Betty, Nike, Gap Body and New Balance.
The Flatiron District megastore
The megastore also serves as a launch pad for pilot projects that will potentially roll out to Vancouver locations, and later worldwide. These include a fitness concierge service and a multi-event community space. It’s all part of the master plan. As Chisholm explains in an email conversation with Billy: “Our Lululemon stores transform the traditional retail experience, acting as a hub of events that elevates the level of health and fitness in every local community. We strive to provide a unique space to foster an authentic relationship with our guests/customers.”
In the name of “striving to be more interactive with guests,” the flagship not only offers rows of shiny new duds and skinny mirrors, but unique concierge services dedicated to helping shoppers to a level above and beyond retail therapy. A team of “concierges” will take into account your personal tastes and preferences to hook-you-up with free in-store yoga and cardio classes (with instructors from New York studio cult favourites like Tone House). You can also get insider tips and local recommendations, as well as assistance with booking the city’s best boutique studio classes and spots for wholesome eating and drinking, all vetted by Lululemon staff. Alternatively, there’s a touch screen wall to help you navigate and reserve places and events to “sweat, eat and explore.” And you can even plan a customized sightseeing run that circumvents the city’s hordes of tourists, tailored to your preferred tally of miles.
The store also offers a free service to check your shopping bags and coat (and whatever else you don’t want to cart around the store or city). And if you’re just too spent after boxing class to return for your stash, they’ll deliver your Lululemon purchases to any Manhattan hotel, apartment or office, at no charge.
The Flatiron store is also the first of its kind to dedicate nearly half of its footprint, to a community space designed as a retreat for store guests. Separate from the retail floor, the white, ultra-modern 4,200-square-foot lower level calledHub Seventeen hosts community happenings with a focus on wellness, in the broadest sense of the word: Think healthy, creative, and inspiring boho-chic experiences including yoga classes, workshops and guided meditations; small concerts with local musicians (like rising Brooklyn soul-pop star, Kevin Garrett); indie flick nights with filmmaker talks (curated by Rooftop Films); private dinners (usually prepared by celebrated New York chefs) that attract a diversity of industry professionals; a speaker series on overcoming personal challenges; and exhibitions featuring local and emerging artists. Lululemon hopes to squeeze in five events daily.
Above all else, Hub Seventeen is open to the public for connecting over free espresso, filtered water and healthy snacks. You can take advantage of the full kitchen and living room (decked out with a plush grey sectional, modern white swings, and communal picnic tables), phone charging stations, free wireless, as well as a giant back area for classes and workshops complete with fitness equipment, lockers and change rooms.
The Lululemon Lab
In March, Lululemon also opened its first ever U.S. Lab in Manhattan’s ultra-hip NoHo neighbourhood. Located about a 20-minute walk from the Flatiron store, this is the second “Lab” store, following a Vancouver location open since 2009.
Like Vancouver’s Willy Wonka testing ground, New York’s Lululemon Lab is home to limited-edition capsule collections and the designers who create them. Led by 31-year-old Marcus LeBlanc (former designer for ready-to-wear brands like John Varvatos and Theory), the in-house design team has carte-blanche to experiment with techniques, fabrics, and styles, in order to create one-of-a-kind pieces for the active urban lifestyles of New Yorkers. The idea is that the clothing demands of subway-chasing Manhattanites differ from those of Vancouver outdoor adventurists. The “hyperlocal” New York apparel – which is only available at the New York Lab and Flagship store; don’t bother looking online or at other Lululemon stores – strives to be stylishly functional for carrying a New Yorker through an entire day nonstop, from an early morning run to a full day at the office and an evening of schmoozing at an industry event.
The neutral-coloured blazers, trousers, swing coats, hoodies, and turtlenecks aim to be sharp and dressy, yet practical enough for moving around and sweating. In a deliberate departure from what we’ve seen so far in athleisure, the tailoring is well-fitting and minimalist, yet also stretchy, moisture-absorbing, and cleverly pocketed. The 16-piece inaugural men’s and women’s collection ranges from US$60 to $450, and in true New York fashion includes plenty of black pieces.
There are also one-off collaborations with local designers. For example, Brooklyn-based Christina J. Wang’s whimsical, brightly coloured scarves were inspired by a day in the life of a New Yorker; and Parson Design School graduate Yegang Yoo came up with a fancifully geometric and sculptural collection of bags and purses.
The Lululemon Lab is meant to be an open, transparent and experimental space where designers and customers interact. Its design team is encouraged to venture out from behind the sewing machines to help style and fit customers on the retail floor, all the while watching out for street trends and listening to direct feedback for the next round of creations. Shoppers might also see models trying on prototypes or catch a glimpse of the latest in laser-cutting machines (rarely seen by industry outsiders).
Customers can watch garment innovation in action at the Lululemon Lab in NoHo
New York’s Lab is poised to influence the larger label as a whole. It’s key to Lululemon’s mission of setting itself apart and keeping a well-toned leg up on the onslaught of its athleisure competitors (as well as high-end designer and celeb lines from the likes of Tory Burch, Derek Lam, Cynthia Rowley, Beyonce and Julianne Hough of Dancing with the Stars fame). With the aim of becoming a design-led brand that caters to specific and practical customer needs, Chisolm says it’s all about “keeping Lululemon’s global focus on innovation at the forefront, paving the way for progressive ideas and disruptive design in Vancouver, New York City and beyond.”