It seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime — the chance to lead one of the most revolutionary brands in sportswear, a company that had virtually redefined its market. But when Laurent Potdevin asked some trusted colleagues what they thought about the job, the response was nearly unanimous: Don't do it.
The warnings were understandable. The company in question was Lululemon, and it was in free fall. Founded in 1998, the self-described "underground yoga-clothing movement" had been a retail phenomenon, seemingly as focused on helping its mostly female customers harness their inner chi as on selling them freakishly flattering workout pants — which fit tidily inside those slogan-covered shopping bags. But in 2013, complaints started rolling in: Some pants were so sheer they may as well have been see-through. A $17.5 million product recall followed. Then, when founder Chip Wilson went on Bloomberg TV to quell investor fears, things only got worse.
"Frankly," Wilson said, "some women's bodies just actually don't work for it. It's really about the rubbing through the thighs." Stephen Colbert likened Wilson's non-apology to "lifting your leg to pee on customers and then blaming them for being wet."
Lululemon's once-fervent fan base went into revolt, the company's stock tanked, and Wilson resigned from the board. "Time had an article saying Lululemon would be one of the 10 brands that doesn't exist at the end of 2015," says Potdevin, who was being recruited to come in and fix the mess.
The CEO of Burton Snowboards from 2005 to 2010, Potdevin preferred sports cars and surfing to meditation and yoga. And he was no stranger to controversy himself: He had infamously caught flak for producing a line of snowboards decorated with vintage images of Playboy Bunnies. ("It was executed in a very tasteful way," he says. "Our athletes loved it.") Did he really want to take the reins of a woman-focused brand considered by many to be doomed?
But the more Potdevin studied Lululemon's problems, the more convinced he was of the solution: men.
"When I joined Lulu," he says, "the biggest surprise was how dry the pipeline of innovation was. There was nothing." So he immediately set to work on the task of pushing into the men's market. Potdevin knew he couldn't sell bros $150 yoga pants on the promise that they'd make their butts look good. He had to sell them upmarket technical apparel that was designed to keep them at the top of their game. In doing so, Lululemon would go head-to-head with brands like Nike, Under Armour, GapFit, and Rhone in the so-called athleisure market — apparel that sits at the intersection of technical athletic gear and leisurewear. (Even Wilson, displaced from the company he founded, is back in the game with Kit and Ace, an apparel line started by his wife and son.)
Athleisure wear is now a $97 billion industry. But you won't hear the term coming from Potdevin's mouth. "I hate that word," he says. "It's meaningless. What we do is being driven by function. What problem are we solving for athletes that they don't even know they have?"
Lululemon HQ operates out of a four-story office building in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia. An expansive atrium floods the lobby with natural light, and there's a vaguely futuristic vibe about the whole place. Not surprisingly, its conference rooms have names like Ashtanga and Vinyasa.
Potdevin, Swiss-born and genial, speaks English with a posh French accent, like a charming villain in a Bond movie. His office has commanding views of snowcapped Grouse Mountain, and there's a midcentury-modern couch next to an orange Shinola bike that seems more like a set piece than a commuting option. Potdevin recently remodeled the room, but only after 18 months on the job.
"There was a lot of turmoil," he says. "I was like, 'I'm not going to be that guy who comes in and builds his own Taj Mahal.' "
Raised in Geneva, where his father was an engineer at the European Center for Nuclear Research, Potdevin was competitive from the jump. His mom often told him that "second place is the first loser." When he was 12, his girlfriend dumped him for an older guy, and he can still taste the rejection. When I joke that wherever she is today, she's probably wearing Lululemon and paying full price for it, he smiles. "As she should," he says.
Potdevin started his career in Paris, working at luxury giant LVMH before running a factory that made Louis Vuitton accessories outside of L.A. He joined Burton in 1995 and was elevated to president in 2000, then CEO in 2005. His biggest coup was pushing the X Games crowd to embrace style, combining the company's technical apparel with street-inspired patterns like camo and plaid.
Inside Lululemon's R&D lab, code-named Whitespace, Potdevin gives me a confidential peek at the new gear they're working on. In one corner of the airport-hangar-size room, they've installed a turbine swimming pool where researchers test fabric buoyancy with the help of underwater cameras. Elsewhere, an automated knitting machine the size of a Hummer prints a pair of pants in 3-D. Brian Peterson, the director of innovation, tells me: "We have everything here that we need to hack a garment."
Finding the next high-tech fabric is everything in the hypercompetitive market. Nike recently introduced AeroReact, a material designed to detect when the wearer is sweating — and to loosen itself up. In January, Under Armour pushed further into wearable technology, introducing a $150 sneaker that links to your phone to track your performance.
Lululemon has its own newfangled fabrics, including Nulu, which it claims feels as close to being naked as a garment gets (without being sheer, of course). The company is also expanding its anti-stink technology, Silverescent, in which silver particles are bonded to the thread. And Lululemon just introduced compression liners in its shorts, so your junk doesn't chafe on a 12-mile run.
In Rio this summer, one team on the U.S. men's beach volleyball squad will wear limited-edition Lululemon shorts equipped with a microfiber side patch that athletes can use to wipe the sweat and sand from their hands.
The new focus on function seems to be paying off. Lululemon's men's business is on track to exceed $400 million in sales this year, and the company's online sales are up 25 percent overall.
"The men's business is definitely doing well," says Morry Brown, a Wall Street analyst at Wedbush Securities. "The resiliency of Lululemon over the last 18 months is pretty impressive."
Anecdotally, the stigma is waning, too. Potdevin outfitted his son's high school volleyball team in Lululemon. "They love it," he says. "The girls are like, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe you have Lululemon uniforms.' "
Lululemon's Kumbaya culture, as The New York Times called it, is also rubbing off on Potdevin. The guy who once bought a six-figure Bentley Continental Supersports in his half-sleep ("I was in Sri Lanka at our factory," he explains. "It was the middle of the night, I was jet-lagged, and I was on eBay looking at cars") has even started meditating. But it's not entirely what you may think. He tells me that he sat with Lululemon's Director of Mindfulness to calm his thoughts before firing a high-level executive. "I'm a lot kinder," he says. "I used to get snappy. Now I can take my kids to Disneyland for a day. Before I would have been like, 'Give me a drink or shoot me.' "
When I mention competitors who have criticized Lululemon's high prices, he pivots. "If you look at our shopping bags," he says with a straight face, "one of the quotes is 'Comparison is the enemy of all happiness.' " But it's hard not to be concerned.
Under Armour is aggressively going after the female market, signing model Gisele Bündchen to an endorsement deal for a reported $25 million. Not that Potdevin is sweating. Lululemon didn't need to pay for her endorsement, because it had effectively had it for years: A simple Google search spits out photos of her wearing Lulu on any given Sunday.
Still, if you'd told him 10 years ago that he would be starting meetings with group meditation, he admits, "I would have laughed. I would have said, 'That touchy-feely bullshit's not for me.' " While he has clearly drunk the company kombucha, the matter of that Bentley he bought online remains. His girlfriend, a freelance designer for Lulu, considered it an affront to Vancouver values, sniffing, "I'll never be seen in that." To Potdevin's credit, he says he had initially wanted a Tesla, but he balked at the car's three-month waiting list. "It was ego," he explains. "I was like, 'I'm not waiting three months.' " Put that on a shopping bag. Namaste.
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