Designers at Lululemon Lab store go beyond yoga and exercise clothes

VANCOUVER – It’s part store, part factory, and part design studio where shoppers flick through racks of clothes next to a designer quietly sketching at a table.

New ideas for pants and tops are pinned to a cork board in the corner. Rows of sewing machines whirr away behind the cash registers.

Lululemon’s Lab store is a bright sunlit space with high ceilings, steps from the Olympic Village and a short drive from where the Canadian athletic wear company opened its first store in Vancouver. It’s where in-the-know fans go to scoop up limited editions of designs that may make it into the retailer’s other stores.

But it’s mostly an ideas incubator for the retailer, where the designers go far beyond the stretchy black yoga pants that helped Lululemon become a household name.

In addition to the Lab’s take on yoga and exercise clothes, plenty of what is for sale isn’t for stretching or sweating. Elegant pants and skirts are draped over hangars. Dark coloured dresses and tops in neutral colours tempt shoppers. The designers are looking to dress their customers from morning to night.

“It offers something different, especially in Vancouver where they’ve had access to the brand for years now,” said Lacey Norton, the Lab’s general manager.

“We’re constantly looking at how we create a unique experience.”

Norton is dressed top to bottom in Lab clothes — a pair of navy blue crop pants, a collarless black fleece jacket and a linen top.

As the company deals with the latest complaints about see-through yoga pants and the quality of its fabrics, the Lab store is meant to push Lululemon beyond the lines of comfortable and flattering exercise clothes.

Lululemon recently named Tara Poseley, a former Kmart executive, as its chief product officer, filling a role left vacant by the departure of Sheree Waterson in April. Waterson left after the company was forced to recall its popular Luon pants because some turned out to be see-through.

RBC Capital Markets noted at the time of Poseley’s hiring that she did not have “significant experience” with technical athletic apparel.

“We realize her job is more encompassing than product design but, in our view, her predecessor’s ability to meld fashion with technical garments was very strong. Hopefully, Ms. Poseley can do the same,” the firm said in a note to clients.

The Lab, which opened in 2009, has three designers, 10 retail staff and about 30 on the production side sewing the clothes sold in the store. What isn’t made on site is produced in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, B.C.

Norton says the designers work to a tight schedule, keeping a sharp eye on fast-moving trends and designing very close to their actual production deadlines. Clothes for sale on the racks in the store in November were on the design board in September.

Unlike the retailer’s regular stores that are filled with colourful workout gear, most of the clothes here are black or muted colours. Greys. Burgundy.

Norton says part of the reason is practical — the runs of products they make are small, so they are unable to offer multiple colours of designs or custom prints.

She also says they are trying to offer something a little different, a little more timeless.

Clothes produced by the Lab are only available at the Lab, but sometimes designs, including Norton’s navy blue crop pants, crossover to the mainstream.

Once a month, ideas born in the Lab are presented to Lululemon’s main design team which will then take them over, sometimes tweaking the colours and fabric before launching it in the retailer’s other stores and online.

But Norton says the Lab is about more than clothes.

The store will host a gin tasting later this month, as well as a candle workshop. Next month there’s a book binding event and a onesie dye class.

“We’re also interacting with our community in interesting ways by dedicating our windows to local artists, hosting unique events within the space and working on a smaller scale to really create unique products,” she says.