Lululemon Courts Wall Street Jocks to Broaden Yoga Image: Retail

When 173 bankers, traders and analysts convene at Columbia University on July 28 for the fifth annual Wall Street Decathlon, the mostly male participants will be wearing Lululemon Athletica Inc. shirts and shorts.

What are Wall Street jocks doing donning gear from a yoga chain? It’s all part of Lululemon’s effort to persuade American men to wear a brand long associated with women. The Vancouver-based company, which is providing uniforms to decathlon participants, is adding more gear for guys to its assortment and plans to open standalone men’s stores in 2016. It’s also moving beyond yoga into such sports as golf and running.

The charity event, which last year raised more than $1.2 million for the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, is composed of 10 events ranging from football throws to bench pressing to an 800-meter run. While the decathlon introduced a women’s division this year, more than 86 percent of participants are men like Peter Prinstein, a 35-year-old adviser for Pacific Investment Management Co. in New York.

“There’s a ‘soft’ stigma around yoga and yoga-related things being for women,” said Prinstein, who says Wall Street decathletes are “pretty good ambassadors” for the Lululemon brand. “I think it’s a good fit.”

Transparent Pants

Lululemon’s push into menswear comes as the chain tries to rekindle growth and replace several executives, including Christine Day, who is stepping down as chief executive officer after the company inadvertently sold transparent yoga pants. While Lululemon has carried men’s clothing in Canada since its 1998 founding and in the U.S. since 2003, sales have remained stuck at about 12 percent of total revenue, said John Zolidis, an analyst at Buckingham Research Group in New York. So far, Lululemon has had more success with men at home than in the U.S.

“All my boxers are Lulu, I won’t wear anything else,” said Ryan Michaels, a 31-year-old human resources manager for Toronto-based TMX Group. He estimates that 75 percent of the guys on his hockey team wear them. In the locker room, “it’s always like, ‘Who has the brightest pair this week?’”

Michaels figures he’s spent about $10,000 on Lululemon gear over the last 10 years -- from track pants to underwear. As the company expands the assortment, it plans to attract men with “anti-stink” street clothes, such as the $98 Pivot Polo Silverescent, which masks perspiration so wearers need not change after playing tennis or running.

Beach Volleyball

The chain has been partnering with U.S. athletic events to help build a higher profile among American men. The Olympic men’s beach volleyball team wore Lululemon uniforms, and the yoga-wear maker supplanted Under Armour Inc. as the supplier of uniforms for the Wall Street Decathlon. This year, Lululemon went a step further by offering free yoga classes to decathletes for credit toward their fundraising goals.

Partnering with the decathlon connects the Lululemon brand with men who may see yoga and the clothing as feminine or only know the company through women in their lives, said Amanda Casgar, who is helping organize the event as part of the company’s grass-roots, community-building operation in New York.

“To wear Lululemon one time is to create a relationship with the brand,” Casgar said. “If I didn’t believe in it 100 percent and know these guys would fall in love with it, I don’t think it would be as obvious a partnership.”

Off-Brand Moment

A second aim is to turn Wall Streeters onto yoga, Casgar said. Pimco’s Prinstein attended his first class through the Lululemon partnership earlier this month. He was one of only two Wall Street men in the class, held in an airy SoHo loft well after the markets closed. The other, James Incognito, a 38-year-old trader from BNP Paribas SA in New York, wore an Under Armour shirt -- an off-brand moment at an event dominated by women in Lululemon tank tops and tights.

It was a reminder that Lululemon is far from alone in the market for men’s athletic apparel. Even as the yogawear chain chases men, Under Armour, founded by a football jock, is working to appeal to women. It’s the official supplier to a Baltimore yoga studio chain and opened a test store that eschews a locker-room vibe.

Lululemon must also compete with entrenched rivals such as Nike Inc. and Adidas AG that offer lower prices and sponsor high-profile athletes. Lululemon men’s short-sleeve running t-shirts start at $58, while at Under Armour they cost as little as $25 and at Nike they start at $38.

Shares Slump

Lululemon shares have slumped 9.2 percent this year, compared with a 21 percent gain for Nike and a 43 percent advance for Under Armour. Lululemon rose 2.2 percent to $69.21 at the close in New York.

Lululemon may need to build an entirely new image, said Nikoleta Panteva, a senior retail analyst at industrial research firm IBISWorld in Santa Monica, California. The brand may need to consider a new name for its menswear and will need to consider more competitive pricing and sponsorship agreements with prominent U.S. professional teams or players, she said.

With the decathlon partnership, Lululemon is looking to duplicate the cult-like following it has with women, said Alfred DuPuy, a managing director in the Toronto office of Interbrand, a New York-based consulting firm.

“When people like the product, they want to pass it on to other people, their tribe,” DuPuy said. “Brands can definitely evolve, the guy who’s telling you it’s girly today, in two years might say, ‘I love Lululemon, I get it.’”

Avidan Pell, a 23-year-old New Yorker who trades options at home, was introduced to the company six months ago by his girlfriend. Since then, Pell, a runner, says he has spent about $200 on shirts, shorts and socks from Lululemon.

While Pell said he isn’t embarrassed wearing the clothing - - even to a Mets game -- he’s glad the logo is small and is unlikely to bring up the brand with his male pals.

“I can wear them out and about without looking weird,” Pell said while browsing for a yoga mat at a Lululemon store. “This is something I use every day.”

Editors: Kevin Orland, Robin Ajello