What It Was Like to Work at the Odd, Cultish Lululemon
“The best thing is, we’ll pay for your yoga, spinning, kickboxing — whatever! You’ll save so much money!” said the Lululemon manager during my interview. “Plus, you’ll be so healthy you won’t even need to worry about health insurance!”
“Fantastic! I love exercise!” I replied, smiling broadly and flexing slightly, hoping to land the job solely through enthusiasm and muscle tone. I had no retail experience, but I was tired of working at restaurants, and this seemed like a respectable place to bide my time and the easiest way to make money while I searched for something better. Free yoga, discounts on expensive clothes, a prime location in Union Square. At Lululemon, salesgirls are called educators and customers are called guests, a touch of class that helps to justify both the $100 yoga pants and the hours of life spent selling them.
I got the job, becoming a Lululemon educator one week after moving to New York. It was the first real thing I’d accomplished in the city, besides convincing an old co-counselor from camp to let me crash on his couch in Stuytown, where I slept in a living room dominated by games — Xbox, Wii, even an electronic putting green — belying the serious nature of my quest for a job, a life, that mattered.
Lululemon employee training was so tightly scheduled, I couldn’t help feeling like I was part of something important. Ten of us, new hires from Lululemons across Manhattan, gathered every day for about a week before any actual work began. After group yoga, the mornings were for lectures on willpower and videos on the importance of goal setting starring company founder Chip Wilson (“Oh, just call him Chip,” giggled one of the managers). Afternoons were for group folding sessions: long pants in fourths, capris and tanks in thirds, headbands and underwear in half; wrinkles smoothed with the flat of your hand.
Evenings were spent poring over the required reading: Jim Collins’ corporate self-help book “Good to Great,” which Chip was obsessed with. The message: “Good is the enemy of great,” don’t settle for a mediocre life. “Yes! Exactly,” I exclaimed — after all, wasn’t that why I’d left my Indiana hometown? Being hired by Lululemon began to feel almost providential.
On the eve of our first day on the job, all of us trainees got together for a last hurrah in the basement of the SoHo store. We drank kombucha and ate gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free cookies from Whole Foods while we crafted goal sheets: lists of our life goals for the next 10 years, to be framed and hung on the walls of our respective stores.
This put me in a bit of a pickle, since my goal was to leave as soon as I found an office job with benefits. But now Lululemon had invested so much time in what was called my “development.” Perhaps, as my empty goal sheet suggested, I really did need their help. After several crappy jobs, the steadiness of 9-to-5 was appealing — not having to run around, sweating, sucking up to people, dependent on tips — as was the idea of helping to make something that would last. But what would that look like? I liked to read, so I’d mostly been applying for editing positions. But I couldn’t write down such a half-baked goal for all to see.
Under the guise of getting another hemp-seed cookie, I leaned over and read my neighbor’s goals: run a marathon, do yoga teacher training, buy a country house. Easy enough. I copied her. I’d figure out my real goals later.
The first few days of work were heady, accompanied as they were by a flood of endorphins: spin class at 6 a.m., vinyasa flow at 8 p.m.; Saturday morning run clubs in the park and Sunday morning yoga classes in the store. Exercise — what sort, how often, the afterglow — was the main topic of in-store conversation, so if you skipped a day it was obvious and people asked if you were feeling OK. We were encouraged to choose our favorite method of exercise, but it was best if it was something other people liked too, since “The team that sweats together stays together!”
While everyone had something else they wanted to be — their “passion” — it always seemed to fit within the Lululemon rubric. I went on runs with Jo the marathoner who also made handbags; spinning with Catherine the triathlete who was also a dancer; yoga classes with Sam, who was also an actor and a personal trainer. “I spent my life trying not to be careless,” he rasped in his best Vito Corleone impression. “Real men stretch before they run.”
As a group we trooped from SpinCycle to YogaWorks to Jivamukti and back in brightly colored spandex. The instant camaraderie was appealing. In order to fit in, I avoided my favorite vices: baked goods, beer, Russian novels (“Such a downer!” Jo noted with an exaggerated frown upon spying “Anna Karenina” in my cubby).
We were positive. We were healthy. We were enthusiastic. While retail employees at American Apparel or Forever 21 might spend their half-hour breaks eating pizza or smoking in the alley, my co-workers and I did sit-ups and headstands, read the self-help books in the employee library, and talked shit about gluten. “Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life,” Catherine might read aloud from “Good to Great” while two juice-fasting co-workers balanced on their hands in the break room, which was really just a fluorescent-lit corner of the stockroom.
The setting left something to be desired, but the message was enticing. Who wouldn’t want a great life? And some days it seemed like it was really possible. At one mandatory meeting, during which we discussed the merits of the paleo diet over chia seed pudding, Catherine was asked to talk about her experience with Landmark, a sort of group therapy-cum-self-help seminar that any Lululemon employee was invited to attend, gratis, after six months of work. A $600 life change, courtesy of Chip.
“It’s amazing,” she said, shaking her head at the inexpressible wonder of her own memories. “God, how do I begin? I grew so much over that weekend. The most empowering part was, you learn that everything is a story. So, like, if I’m sad, that’s my story. If I want to be happy, all I do is change my story! You can make your life look however you want. It was a huge breakthrough.”
Everyone clapped. I grimaced, feeling a rumble in my stomach that was either chia seed pudding or anxiety. How did everyone know exactly what they wanted their stories to be? I couldn’t even manage an honest goal sheet. And, though I applied rather aimlessly to two or three each day, I still hadn’t found an office job. By Lululemon logic, this probably meant I hadn’t properly written my story. But what should I be wanting instead?
Sam encouraged me to look for answers in yoga teacher training. “You’ll really deepen your practice,” he said. “And, you know, make some money.” Catherine, meanwhile, offered a ready-made story for me to adopt as my own. “Do you think Ocean would wear this?” she asked one day, modeling a purple hoodie and a pair of purple-and-white stretch pants in the break room. “Who’s Ocean?” I asked, and she sighed. “Who trained you? Ocean is our ideal customer. She does yoga every day, makes $100,000 a year, and dates a triathlete named Mountain.” I stared at her, nonplussed. Pityingly, she added: “Mary, we all want to be Ocean. That’s why we work here.”
“Won’t make $100,000 working retail,” I muttered, but fortunately she hadn’t heard. She was searching for an Ocean-appropriate headband. That night I sent out seven rÃ©sumÃ©s: copywriter, editorial assistant, researcher, even a handful of unpaid internships. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I was getting a better idea of what I didn’t: to dream of a $100,000 life while living a $15,000 one.
Tired from days of constant exercise and nights of writing cover letters, I began to sell stretch pants in a daze. “Yeah yeah, your butt looks great in those,” I’d mutter to the skeletal wives of investment bankers. Two months in, my manager questioned my commitment to the store ethos. “Your attitude isn’t as positive and energetic as it was when you started,” she said. “Coming here should feel like a party!” Scared of losing my job, especially now that I’d finally found my own place, a loft share in Bushwick for $500 a month, I assured her that it did; it really did feel like a party.
Increasingly, I found more to dislike in the co-workers who had been my default friends: the platitudes of Sam the yogi, dietary pressures from Jo the paleo, Catherine’s insistence that all my problems with the new schedule — which had me on the floor six days a week, making it harder to schedule interviews for jobs I wasn’t qualified for anyway — were a story that just needed to be told a different way. They in turn found me too set in my ways, not open enough to positive change or becoming a better me. “For a yogini you sure are inflexible,” muttered Catherine as she folded capris in thirds.
The months went on. I worked in a sea of brightly colored stretch pants and body dysmorphia. I sweat at least once a day, every day. I floated from home to work and back in increasingly stinky lycra; more and more dissatisfied, but guilty for feeling so — the onus was on me to change my story, but I didn’t know how. And so I remained, in stasis and spandex.
Then one afternoon I got an email about an emergency meeting. The store was brightly lit when I arrived at 9 p.m., high from a SpinCycle class. I sat in lotus position like everyone else in a circle on the floor. Our manager took a deep yogic breath and told us the news: a Lululemon educator had been killed by burglars in a Maryland store.
She’d been closing up with another educator, and they’d both been attacked, brutalized, tied up. Only one of them had survived.
None of us knew how to respond. We were all so jacked up on exercise that it was actually hard to feel sad, though we did our best, holding a candlelight vigil in Union Square. “She was one of us,” we said to each other in shock. She had died on her way from good to great.
What it was not hard to feel was scared. Running sprints in the park had strengthened our fight or flight responses, and everyone was suddenly ultra-safety conscious. A new rule was instated that every closing shift had to include three people, instead of two, and always at least one male. Everyone left at the same time and we walked each other to our trains. I found comfort in this renewed solidarity with the very same co-workers I’d been increasingly annoyed with. It was us against the nameless, faceless bad guys.
A few days later I was home in my unheated apartment, enacting what had become my nightly ritual of eating sprouted almonds under an electric blanket while scouring online job boards, when I heard one of four new roommates shouting my name. “Yeah?” I shouted back.
“Dude! Did you hear the news?” Natalie, aspiring local newscaster and general busybody, cracked open my bedroom door and peered inside at me.
“Uh, no, I don’t think so.” Natalie stared back at me with horror, and reflexively I lifted my arm and sniffed. Sweating every day meant I was always a little gamey.
“That Lululemon girl who was murdered?” she prompted, and I nodded encouragingly, like the little boy on “Lassie” whenever she barked the location of a missing child.
“She was killed by that other Lululemon girl!” Natalie cried. “Read the news! It’s everywhere. Doesn’t that just make you feel so creepy? These are your people!” She took a step backward, out the door, as if I might jump out of bed and, unable to control my increasingly rippling muscles, strangle her on the spot.
I googled Lululemon. It was true: The educator did kill her co-worker, cutting herself and tying them both up afterward to make it look like a robbery.
In that moment, it seemed inevitable. As educators, we were pressed to be our best selves, treat life like a party, and never give up on greatness. If you were unhappy, angry, paranoid, just tell a different story. The idea that you could shape reality to look however you wanted suddenly seemed dangerous, easily abused, especially among my Type A co-workers, who exercised and worked and exercised and worked and ate so little that it was not really a surprise that someone, eventually, snapped.
I wondered what had been on the murderer’s goal sheet.
The Lululemon murder was all over the Internet: Washington Post, Huffington Post, Slate, the Daily Mail. But for a group that liked to talk about our feelings, the news went surprisingly undiscussed among Lululemon staff; when anyone did talk about it, they did so in furtive, fearful whispers. There was no emergency meeting. If we’d had one, I thought, it probably would have felt too much like one of those murder mystery dinner parties: Who would be the next killer?
I knew it wasn’t as simple as all that. My co-workers were good people, if relentlessly positive and obsessed with muscle tone. Still, I found myself avoiding them, my heart speeding up whenever the store closed and it was just us. Sometimes I even hid behind the mannequins to gather my courage, but they were too slender to provide much coverage. When I raised a butter knife to slice into a gluten-free almond banana loaf at one of the mandatory meetings, my hand trembled. We were all tainted. Any one of us could be the next to crack. Even me. Perhaps especially me. After all, nobody else seemed so dissatisfied.
It didn’t take long for my co-workers to go back to the way things had been, debating the merits of kickboxing versus Krav Maga, chickpea flour versus almond meal. But my folding technique grew sloppier and sloppier, and I preferred to get my daily sweat on alone, even skipping days now and then. I also threw myself into job applications with renewed vigor. I hadn’t known what to do when I moved to New York, so Lululemon had seemed like a decent option, but it didn’t feel that way anymore. The murder reminded me of everything I’d been avoiding by hewing to the always happy Lululemon way of life: the anxiety of choice, the fear of failure; not trying to be Ocean but rather taking the risk to be me — baked goods, beer, downer books and all.
About a month after the murder, we had a staff meeting at which our manager named the next people who would be eligible for Landmark. My name was on the list. That meant I’d been there nearly six months. I began to cry, right there in front of everyone. My manager took me aside and asked if I needed to talk.
She’d prepared for an upsetting conversation, closing the office door and placing a new box of tissues on the desk. But it was actually a relief to hear corroboration that I wasn’t fitting in. It would have been smart to agree to let myself get fired. I’d heard this process was slow, and I could’ve collected two more weeks of pay and free yoga classes. I certainly needed the money. But what I said was: “I think I just need to quit.”
Two weeks later I’d be offered a copywriter position, one of the many jobs I’d applied for, but for two weeks I lived a life of uncertainty and cheap beer, anxiety and bagels. Jobless and alone in New York City, I’d gone from good to mediocre. If we write our own stories, this was not one to brag about. Certainly not a story Ocean would cop to. It wasn’t perfect, but it was honest, and it was mine.