Inside Lululemon Labs, the cultish activewear brand's 11th New York City location that opened in March, there's not a single $100 yoga pant in sight. Instead, slimming pencil skirts, crisp blazers, and creased trousers—all in a distinctly N.Y.C. palette of black, white, navy, and gray—line the walls. Catering to New Yorkers, the store sells clothing designed for professionals but constructed out of the brand's high-performance materials. Behind the sales floor, the design team toils away in an office in the back.
It's the second store to come out of Lululemon's Labs concept (the first opened in Vancouver in 2009), a division within the company that produces small batch pieces designed specifically for a city's consumers, based on things such as weather, local style, and commuting patterns. Internally, Labs also functions as a kind of test run for the company's experimental designs as Lululemon continues to expand its offerings beyond performance wear. Pieces sold at these stores are like beta versions of Lululemon mainstays: The products that sell particularly well, like their popular mesh leggings, make it into the company's main line to be sold nationwide.
For a performance brand like Lululemon, which has large R&D department for testing new fabric and textile technology, selling their prototypes and analyzing the sell-through data makes sense. And as the technology of activewear seeps its way into everyday clothing, other brands have developed similar models. Instead of putting together case studies, these companies are making their customers the lab rats—essentially, letting the market play a hand in the design of their products.
For web developers and product designers, this type of iterative process is nothing new. App developers, for instance, will beta test a digital product on a select group of users and ask for feedback before it officially hits the market. Once it's out, they look to user data to inform incremental improvements that ultimately lead to a better product. Iterations are rapid and constant; just think of all the times your smartphone alerts you to an app update.
In the fashion industry, it's not as easy for the design process to be so customer-centric. Fashion is dictated by a rigid seasonal schedule and quick product turnover, leaving little room for iteration. And if a brand works through a retailer, that's just another layer between designer and customer. It's difficult to get direct and timely customer feedback.
That's where the "labs" concept comes in. "Labs is where we test our future concept," says Gihan Amarasiriwardena, the cofounder of Ministry of Supply, a company that makes high-end menswear out of performance material. Like Lululemon, MoS also has a Labs initiative where they sell small batches of experimental products. The company has a Facebook group of around 100 customers to whom they send products still in development and request feedback. Amarasiriwardena, who has an engineering background and worked a stint at the design consultancy Ideo, compares Labs to a Formula One concept car that gets tested on the raceway before a consumer version hits the market.
But when a product hits the MoS stores, that isn't the end of the design process. MoS watches how it sells, continues to solicit customer feedback, and then releases new, updated versions based on that feedback. Their new Seamless Jacket, for example, is an updated version of the Aviator II blazer, which was a redesign of the very first jacket MoS launched as a company.
From the very beginning, MoS knew that it wanted a blazer that would look professional but wouldn't restrict movement. Their first Aviator jacket was designed for movement and breathability, with the moisture-wicking quality of sportswear but with the lining of the traditional sports jacket. It sold out in four days. Yet when asked to give feedback, customers suggested that the jacket still needed a fuller range of motion. For the Aviator II, MoS removed the lining and built a special four-way stretch knit fabric.
The Seamless jacket takes the concept one step further: It is designed in CAD, then 3-D printed for seamless construction. It has a built-in ventilation system under the armpits and a specific knit that stretches around the elbows. While the first Aviator is no longer available, the Aviator II is still part of the line alongside its successor.
Key to getting feedback is having a direct-to-consumer business model. Both MoS and Lululemon require their customer service reps and retail workers to ask customers for feedback on designs. The men's athletic wear e-retailer Ten Thousand does it by selling prototypes online for a $9 discount through a program called—you guessed it—Labs.
For Ten Thousand CEO Keith Nowak, integrating customer feedback early on in the design process was always part of its business model. Larger companies that make high-performance sports gear—Nike, Adidas, Lululemon—have big R&D divisions that test the material. As a small company, Ten Thousand doesn't have that, so they went straight to their consumer with a discount option. After selling 150 of its first design—the Endurance Shorts—in a few hours, Nowak personally followed up with the people who bought them for their feedback.
Based on that feedback, the redesigned shorts, now called Foundation Shorts, have a zippered side pocket to hold keys or an iPhone. It also offers options for fit based on personal preference: Customers can decide whether or not to have a built-in liner and can choose between a seven-inch seam or a nine-inch seam.
Nowak says this kind of mass customization is only possible if you have a direct line of contact with your customers. "You have this chance to work directly with the people you're designing products for," he says.
Lululemon, of course, has a huge R&D division, somewhat ominously called the White Space, located at its headquarters in Vancouver. That's where the company does extensive testing to produce the high-tech materials that make up its athletic line. After the company had to recall some of their yoga pants in 2013 for being see-through (and the subsequent ousting of CEO Chip Wilson following some controversial comments), Lululemon has bounced back largely due to its new CEO Laurent Potdevin's dedication to design and development. He appointed Tom Waller, a veteran consultant for performance brands like Nike and a PhD in sports technology, to head the White Space and dive deeper into fabric development and construction.
But as the company known for helping along the rise of "athleisure" continues to move into more traditional wardrobe territory, Lululemon Labs is helping mitigate the risks.
Both the Vancouver Labs and the N.Y.C. store have their own design teams that are focus solely on designing for their city. Marcus LeBlanc, head designer of Lululemon Labs in New York says they meet with the core Lululemon design team once a month but for the most part have autonomy. After looking through the archives, consulting with R&D on fabric, and designing for about six months with his team, the first line sold through the store was tailored to commuters. A pencil skirt, for example, also has a zipper in the back around the knees to allow for more movement when biking or running for the train. In another example, a fitted blazer is made from the same waterproof fabric the company uses for parkas but looks sharp enough to wear into the office.
The Lululemon Labs store in New York just opened in March, but eventually the best-selling designs could make their way into the main line. This has happened a few different times with the Vancouver store, says Lee Holman, Lululemon's creative director (and another of Potdevin's hires). That's where the brand's mesh leggings originated, for example, as well as a water-resistant merino wool that is now used as insulation in a few new pieces. The water-repellant Trek Trouser, now carried through the main line, is an iteration of the Labs' Trouser Crop, made from the company's nylon/lycra luon fabric.
In recent years, social media and the rise of direct-to-consumer models has shifted a historically "insider" industry to one that would do well to interact directly with its consumers. For forward-thinking brands, an iterative, customer-centric approach to design is intended to give them a competitive advantage over stodgier industry stalwarts. Putting the time and effort involved in soliciting feedback and prototyping designs will pay off, the thinking goes, when you have a product that you know you're customers will want—because you asked them.
It stands to reason that this new model is being led by performance (or performance-inspired) brands, as testing and prototyping has always been part of that model. And although a small company like Ten Thousand has a lot more to lose than say, Lululemon, newer, smaller brands do have the agility to think like a startup and iterate without having to restructure a business model already in place. The risk comes when smaller companies have to scale up, and find their slower, feedback-driven design and production process might not work for producing large quantities.
Even at Lululemon, Labs can only produce small batches. There, at least, it has the support of a huge corporation (the company declined to comment on whether it has profited directly from Labs, only saying that it's had "a positive impact on our business and the industry"). For smaller brands, sticking to this model requires finding investors. Ministry of Supply started out as a Kickstarter project before raising $1.1 million in seed funding in 2013. Ten Thousand is in the process of closing a round of financing with angel investors.
It seems that designing like a tech company also means fundraising like a tech company. Fashion industry, meet Silicon Valley.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Ministry of Supply does not sell its prototypes. The brand does in fact sell prototypes in small batches to customers, then asks for feedback. The article has been updated.