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Photo courtesy of Lululemon
Photo courtesy of Lululemon

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Lulule-men: The Activewear Giant Reveals Its Plan to Woo Dudes

Meet the dedicated group of male Lululemon customers who have just as strong feelings about the brand as their rabid female counterparts do.

Eric Lewis is an avid runner. The 23-year-old Ontarian is also an avid Lululemon shopper. In fact, it's the only sports apparel brand he wears, and he owns some 45 pairs of their Pace Breaker shorts.

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"They fit perfectly, wash nicely, and can also be worn every day," explains Lewis, who has maintained LuluMen, a site dedicated to Lululemon's masculine side, for the last three years. "I've tried other brands like Nike or Under Armour, but you can't find fabrics like Lululemon's, and I find that the cut and style are more tailored and unique. Why would I spend $50 on a shirt from Nike when I could buy one from Lululemon that'll last longer and perform better?"

Lewis is part of a dedicated group of male Lululemon customers—Lulule-men, if you will—who have just as strong feelings about the brand as their rabid female counterparts do. In fact, Lululemon's male customer base is slowly growing—and Lululemon has noticed. This fall, the brand will open its first men's store in New York City and has plans to unveil several more by 2016. The men's-only store concept comes on the heels of a men's-only customized shorts program at its Vancouver flagship last month.

"Lululemon's men's business is growing, and we are focused on developing product which marries performance and style," Felix Del Toro, senior vice president and head of men's design for Lululemon, tells Racked. "We recently launched men's-specific social channels and continue to elevate our guest experience and global brand awareness for our products."

For all its cult-like quirks, CEO gaffes, and production problems, Lululemon has achieved remarkable success since its launch in 1998. According to Howard Davidowitz, chairman of retail consulting firm Davidowitz & Associates, it is the highest performing apparel chain in the U.S., with a sales capacity of $1,700 per square foot.

But while Lululemon has already gained the full attention of female shoppers—as proven by those printed red shopping bags in everyone's hands, as well as a 16 percent net revenue increase last year—the company has clear ambitions to grow the men's part of the business. With a few strategic steps to capture the attention of male consumers, experts believe the company could grow into the full-fledged fitness apparel behemoth it has the potential to be.

"There's a tremendous area for add-on profitably in men's because they already have the brand, the people, and the inventory," Davidowitz, who refers to Lululemon as the "Michael Kors of fitness," notes. "If they take an intelligent approach to the new men's stores, they can have a very positive impact and increase their earnings by 30% to 40%."

Lululemon's vision for expanding their men's market reach certainly makes sense. The fitness apparel category is growing four times as fast as the apparel industry on whole, according to market research group NPD, and a Global Industry Analysts report predicts the global category will hit $126 billion in sales by next year. Perhaps growing just as fast is yoga-specific apparel, Lululemon's bread and butter. A recent Yoga Journal study found that some 20.4 million Americans now practice yoga, and while men make up less than a fifth of that population, studies by the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics found that men spend twice as much time exercising as women do—and are therefore more likely to shop for appropriate attire.

It's become pretty clear that Lululemon can no longer sit back and rest on its female-centric laurels: Competition is fierce in the fitness industry, with companies like Nike, Reebok, and Adidas inhaling the money of male shoppers, and Lululemon must expand its offerings if it wants to compete. Plus, these rivals have their hearts' set on the female sports apparel industry as well.

Last year Nike appointed longtime company exec Amy Montagne vice president and general manager of Nike Women's. Montagne, who comes from a background in merchandising, is "responsible for expanding Nike's brand position with women and continuing to drive the current momentum within Nike's Women's business," a press release noted at the time.

Under Armour is coming for Lululemon's female fans, too. The Baltimore-based athletic company originally started out as a men's brand. When they attempted to dabble in women's apparel in 2003, it was "nine guys sitting around a conference room table" who thought they could just "shrink it and pink it," company founder Kevin Plank told WWD back in July. The company has since instituted a "womanifesto" to have their women's sales "equal or surpass our men's business in the future." They've since expanded their women's offerings significantly and are using faces like American Ballet Theatre's Misty Copeland and supermodel Gisele Bündchen in ad campaigns.

Lululemon may have a solid footing in the women's fitness world, but gathering more dudes isn't so simple. They've got the product down pat, as many Lulule-men can attest (they even sell bottoms called the ABC pant, which stands for "anti-ball crushing"), but when it comes to marketing, Lululemon is facing an identity crisis: While they sell apparel for both genders, the stores themselves are widely seen as just for the ladies.

Edward Hertzman, founder and publisher of retail and textile trade publication Sourcing Journal, compares the experience of going to a Lululemon outpost to going to a nail salon: "There's a level of discomfort to be surrounded by all women."

"The shorts will change your life, but there are severe masculinity issues when it comes to shopping for them," John Jannuzzi, GQ's senior digital editor, confirms. "Once I started wearing Lululemon shorts, I realized everyone around me at the gym was wearing them, but there's an unspoken thing with guys that the store is a woman's space and men are not supposed to go in there."

Hertzman notes that Lululemon products have been able to make their way to male consumers who have never stepped foot in any of the brand's stores thanks to women who shop for their husbands, boyfriends, fathers, and brothers. Of course, that strategy isn't enough for Lululemon to be able to legitimately compete against fitness apparel's giant players.

Jannuzzi believes Lululemon's new men's-only stores will indeed attract male customers by offering them their own space, much like J.Crew and Club Monaco have done by branching out into their own gender-specific shops. Lululemon has yet to share the new stores' strategy, but Jannuzzi thinks the future of the brand also depends on how exactly they execute: Will they mimic the yoga-fanatic employee model they have in the regular stores and hire male yogis, or will they attempt to hire CrossFit junkies and distance runners?

And then there's that logo: "That damn logo is associated with female yoga pants and is one thing that will definitely turn guys off," Jannuzzi adds. Lauren Kaufman, Vice President of Strategic Services at WGSN agrees it's something Lululemon will have to think about if they're serious about expanding their male reach.

"Logos are loved from the female perspective, but men and logos don't go hand in hand," she says. "Women see the logo as a sign of love, but since it's associated with the female shoppers, they could attract more male customers by making the logos less prominent."

Supply is another thing Lululemon will have to consider in the men's category. Lulu addict Lewis says he sometimes feels like a second-rate Lululemon customer. It's apparent the brand's main focus has been women, solely based on their inventory. The site currently lists 53 men's items, while there are well over 180 women's pieces. According to Lewis, Lululemon will have to increase its output if it wants the men's stores to be packed and popping.

"Right now, I feel like the offering is very sparse and there are so many categories to get involved with," he says. "Much of the clothing they make for men is loose-fitting, but more guys are practicing yoga or looking for running clothing that is tighter. They could be making more fitted clothes, or shirts for durability for CrossFit."

Hertzman agrees and believes that if Lululemon can figure out the right lifestyle hook and shopping environment, the male shoppers will definitely follow: "We're in a health conscious craze right now, from the Fitbits to the SoulCycles to juicing, and it's redefining how we look at beauty and sexiness and as a society. Lululemon is a brand that associates with this lifestyle, and if they can build the masculinity of their brand, they can bring the men's business with it."


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