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Lululemon wants to know if you want your pants to hug you or feel naked

The Lululemon ‘pant wall.’ (Courtesy of Lululemon)
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Lululemon customers will soon face a potentially awkward question when choosing workout pants: Do you want to feel “hugged” or merely “held-in”?

The retailer, which helped make workout clothes an acceptable everyday outfit, rolled out a revamp of its women’s workout bottoms Tuesday. All bottoms will now be categorized by “engineered sensations,” or how much they squeeze your body (known as “compression” in Lululemon’s lingo). The loosest pants are designed with lounging and yoga in mind; the tightest are meant for runners.

The update to its signature item, yoga pants, is yet another effort by the Vancouver-based retailer to beat back rising competition and reconnect with customers still wary after the company’s 2013 recall of see-through pants.

The new pants categories have whimsical names — relaxed, naked, held-in, hugged and tight — and are accompanied by some lofty promises. In press materials,  the held-in pants are said to have “strategically-placed zoning [that] keeps you feeling secure through your abs, hips, bum and thighs.” The traditional Lululemon fit is now called hugged and “engineered to feel like a comfortable embrace” — perhaps a dramatic description for garments that are destined to end up drenched in sweat.

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Antonia Iamartino, Lululemon’s design director of future concepts, said that the refresh was designed to solve a problem that she noticed when spending time with customers in stores.

“They would take [leggings] into the changing room and they would come out, and I’d look at it and say, ‘Actually, this is a little big for you. It’s kind of baggy in the knees, the waistband isn’t fitting the way it should. You actually probably want to go down a size.’ And the guest would say, ‘I just don’t want something that feels this tight.’”

In the new lineup, getting looser pants shouldn’t require going up to a larger size, it should mean finding a pant in the same size that simply is constructed differently.  In order to achieve this new range of compression, the retailer said it is introducing a new type of fabric it calls Nulu, which allows for a looser fit. 

This comes as the retailer is still trying to shake the bad publicity from the 2013 recall. It has also struggled to update its supply chain and quickly get new items into stores to better compete with a fresh crop of athleisure retailers that are churning out trendy pieces on a tight schedule.

And Lululemon’s new strategy, of course, could backfire. The retailer risks confusing shoppers with all of its new pants offerings, said Liz Dunn,  chief executive of retail consultancy Talmage Advisors.

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I understand what they’re trying to do, I get what the goal is.  But it does seem to add a layer of confusion,” Talmage said. “And to me, it suggests they’re still experiencing a bit of pushback about people’s perception of the quality of their pants.”

But Lululemon says it is ready to explain “sensations” and the difference between being tight and simply hugged.  

“We’ve done a great amount of training with our educators, and they’re all ready and up to speed to be able to have these conversations around feeling — which, it is a new conversation, and we are shifting that,” Iamartino said.

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