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Lululemon hits branding sour note with Ayn Rand-inspired bags

John Bucher
Lululemon's controversial "Who is John Galt?" bag

I'm a Lululemon customer. And, yes, I'm aware it's not a brand loyalty most men admit easily. As I sit here, typing, in fact, I'm wearing a pair of Lululemon "Game On" boxer briefs, which are decidedly cozy.

What's decidedly uncozy is the company's apparent embrace of the controversial philosophy of writer Ayn Rand. In late October, the company began emblazoning its shopping bags with the phrase "Who is John Galt?," a catchphrase from the 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. The book, which derides altruism and claims self-interest is the path to a better world, is a perennial favourite among free-market conservatives and laissez-faire capitalists, especially in the United States.

Is the steely ethos of every man for himself the note Lululemon is trying to hit? Or has the company whose calling card is positivity, "flow" and harmony just blown a sour note?

I went down to Lululemon's Eaton Centre location to have a look for myself. The first thing I encountered at the store were my own queasy feelings about the new-age spiritualism of the place.

There's the shop itself. Look over the shoulder of the lean, lissome clerk nearest you and you're likely to see a framed placard. In it is an affirmation: "I will be the district manager of Lululemon Vancouver by 2013," read one I saw. "I will sing on stage with Lady Gaga by 2016," read another. They're statements of goals made by employees with, one has to assume, the encouragement of Lululemon management.

Has the brand become schizophrenic? Repeated throughout Lululemon's online manifesto is praise for the virtue of "living in the moment." (Not only is it the way to maximize creativity and focus your conscious mind, the company says; it "could be the meaning of life.") But striving and straining toward future goals has little to do with living blissfully in the present. How can one practice mindful acceptance while declaring war, Galt-like, on modern life's "culture of mediocrity."

It's a logical gulf that a recent Lululemon blog post only widened. In it, a staff writer explains that founder Chip Wilson, who read Atlas Shrugged at 18, found inspiration in the book's call to "elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness."

"Many of us choose mediocrity without even realizing it," the blog went on. "Why do we do this? Because our society encourages mediocrity. It is easier to be mediocre than to be great."

While many commenters applauded the post, others were outraged. "You know who else loves Ayn Rand?" writes one. "The sick, selfish Republican creeps like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor. I will shop elsewhere."

The tone of commentary on a Globe and Mail article about the controversy was more bemused. "Love it!" wrote one ironic reader. "Lululemon markets peace, love, meditation, smiles, happiness--and a flawed and irresponsible social attitude." And another: "I'm holding out for a The Virtue of Selfishness hoodie." (The Virtue of Selfishness is a collection of Ayn Rand essays, published in 1964.)

Could Who is John Galt? mark the beginning of a broader Randian advertising strategy at Lululemon? The idea has its appeal. No longer would Lululemon shopping bags be swaddled in the soft-focus New Age truisms that made the company famous:

"Friends are more important than money."

"Children are the orgasm of life. Just like you did not know what an orgasm was before you had one, nature does not let you know how great children are until you have them."

And: "What we do to the earth we do to ourselves."

Instead, they could bear some of the flinty phrases that made Ayn Rand infamous:

"When one saves the guilty from suffering, it is the innocent whom one forces to suffer"

"I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

And: "Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction."