Note to feminists: I hope the headline got your dander up. Now, please continue reading, if only to wander for a moment outside your echo chamber of media hacks and celebrity businesswomen who all seem to believe the world is such a dreadful place because women don’t hold all the levers of power. Lululemon has a female CEO and a female Chief Product Officer, and caters to an almost exclusively female clientele. Lululemon stands as unassailable proof that the world might be just as dreadful if women exclusively ran things.
Have you heard of Lululemon? I certainly hadn’t, until it made news recently because of having been forced to “recall” some yoga pants for being too sheer. It seems there was a glitch in the factory, and some of the pants (the black ones) came out showing a bit too much in the crotch area. Or so, that’s the story of Lululemon’s CEO Christine Day, and she’s sticking to it. She claimed, during an analyst’s call, that the recall would reduce Lululemon’s bottom line by as much as 27 cents a share, knocking it down to $1.99 a share on anticipated revenue of $1.64 billion. Yes, that is a “b”. The company pulls in more than a billion bucks a year selling pants and other workout gear at a stout premium to costs. The pants in question retail at $98 a pair; the supplier, who is claimed by Lululemon to have goofed in their manufacture, probably gets about five bucks a pair, but I’m just speculating, because nobody’s telling that end of the tale. The factory that manufactures the pants claims it manufactured them exactly according to Lululemon’s specifications.
Lululemon’s CEO is on record (before the recall) as having explained their retail strategy as basically fashion churning—ordering limited amounts of new items, and keeping them on the shelf for short times at premium prices, with no aim to later discount that which doesn’t sell, a strategy which is curiously consonant with yanking 17% of the yoga pants off the shelf due to (gasp!) a too-revealing derriere. Ms. Day claimed the only way to tell the pants were too sheer was through the “bend over test”. Ms. Day is a cynical and capable marketing genius, if nothing else.
Imagine how the strategy meeting at Lululemon might have gone down when it was decided to recall the pants:
Ms. Day: The black pants aren’t selling. What should we do?
Chief Product Officer Sheree Waterson: Why don’t we yank them like we do the other styles, but this time, tell everyone it was because of some defect that makes them even sexier than before?
Ms. Day: Brilliant! Let’s say we’re recalling them because they are too revealing.
Yoga pants are all the rage these days (mostly with females—the male version of the yoga pant is the biker short, and frankly, by my reckoning, guys who wear biker shorts to leisurely ride what amounts to a grownup version of a child’s toy are skirting awful close to the feminine side of sexuality). And the wearing of the pants (for women) is hardly limited to yoga, or even to other quasi-athletic activities. Women wear them everywhere. When I was recently visiting a local university campus on a blustery, wet winter day, practically every coed shuffling between classes was wearing the winter uniform of yoga pants (Capri length generally), a sweatshirt or sweater top, and fashionably styled rubber rain boots. Their tops rarely reached so low that the derriere wasn’t in full view. The pants can be seen in the grocery stores aisles and on the sidelines of youth soccer pitches. Yoga pants, particularly of the skin-tight, calf-high variety are ubiquitous.
Being like a second skin, the pants reveal, in their too sheer versions or not, pretty much everything about the female form (except that Lululemon claims it takes care to eliminate “camel toe”—I’m not making this up), which is, of course, exactly what women who buy them want. Women are forever searching for acceptable (i.e., not too slutty) ways to attract sexual attention by advertising their wares (while always reserving the right to sell only to the highest acceptable bidder). Once a critical mass of women were seen around town wearing the tight, revealing style, whose ostensible purpose is to allow the stretching and contortions of a haute pursuit like yoga, the pants gained wholesale acceptance and became the latest vehicle for women to acceptably strut their sexuality. Kind of like the two-piece bikini in the sixties.
The whole purpose of the pants is revealing the female form. Yoga can be done in practically any old pants that allow freedom of movement (I know, I did a month or so of yoga to aid in healing a strained back—I wore sweatpants and a t-shirt). Ms Day is quite cynically aware of this. She knows this snafu in production, one that purportedly makes the pants even more revealing than before, will do nothing but juice her bottom line (no double entendre intended, but that one really works, eh?). And only Lululemon really knows whether what they are saying about the pants is true.
My guess as to what is really going on? Lululemon understands it is heavily dependent on its overpriced pants and other gear remaining faddishly desirable among women (else the premium vanishes), something like Apple Computer depends on everyone thinking iPhones and iPads are the coolest of all electronic devices (and likewise pursues a strategy of fashion churning). Lululemon saw its brand fading from faddish view, and wanted to reestablish the brand at the top of the female mind, so engineered this recall to make itself look as if it truly cares that its pants aren’t too revealing (wink, wink) while providing a ready excuse, if, as it anticipates, sales prove to have topped out and started to decline. And if everything works out really well, Lululemon will have to recall the recall, and sell the sheer pants (at a premium, of course) to legions of devoted women who understand there is now no better way to attract the sexual attention they crave than to be spied in a pair of Lululemon’s black yoga pants.
Lululemon’s stock reached an all-time high of about $80 last May (2012), got as low as about $53 in August, and had rebounded a bit to about $70, just before the sheerness snafu hit. After losing a few points initially (to about $64), the stock has recovered a bit, trading up 1.3% today at about $65. There’s fashion churning and there’s stock churning. Lululemon has figured out a way to do a little of both. Lululemon is no different in that regard than any number of retail operations, male or female owned or oriented. Women really are the equal of men.