Chip Wilson was practically late for his own wedding because he was too busy selling yoga pants.
The founder of Lululemon marks his 2002 wedding day as a turning point in his company’s life. What was then a one-location retailer in Vancouver, British Columbia, mushroomed into a $7 billion juggernaut. That made Wilson famous (and, at times, notorious). It made him a billionaire several times over, and helped launch a fashion category that did not exist before.
The yoga pant, as popularized by Wilson’s company, is the iconic apparel item of the fitness economy. In its utility and ubiquity, the sleek, expensive, casual piece of clothing epitomizes how fitness has shifted for many people from something we do to who we are. Giving people, especially women, something that doubled as activewear and streetwear reflected a broader move, Wilson says. “There was a mindset shift, toward longevity and health, and away from drinking and smoking and working.”
Today, Lululemon apparel, with its tiny, stylized a logo, is ever-present on the sidelines of soccer games, in carpool lines, at coffee shops, and on airplanes. The pants and tops spawned a raft of imitators, including some of the biggest names in athletic apparel, as well as a new term—athleisure—for the style of clothing that seems fit for the gym, but is worn many places besides. Such casualwear doesn’t come cheap, and the product’s popularity and price point (upwards of $100 for a pair of Lulu pants) points toward the affluence associated with this type of fitness fashion.
The Lululemon story is one of innovation and anticipation, peppered with missteps and misstatements, course corrections and rapid growth. It starts as a classic entrepreneurial tale, where a big thinker boldly moves in a way few of us have the guts to, and helps create a new market in the process. Chip Wilson saw a chance, and he took it, and he knew it the day of his wedding: “I said, ‘I’ve got something here,’” he says. “Either I’ve got to make it big or I’m going to get run over.”
Lululemon was born in 1998 when Wilson, who’d been in the business of surfing, skating, and snowboarding apparel and equipment, opened a store in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Lululemon name was the product of a 100-person survey, selected from 20 names. Wilson identified that the company needed to be more than a store, highlighting the community aspect of the endeavor. He wanted it to be a place where the staff was smart and able to engage customers not just on what they were wearing, but also about how they were living. “It was a people development company as much as an apparel company, because I only wanted to work with people I loved and respected,” Wilson says.
Vancouver was, and remains, the perfect laboratory for companies like Lululemon and entrepreneurs like Wilson. Gregor Robertson, the city’s mayor, is a tall, athletic guy whose preferred mode of transport is a bicycle.
Robertson says Vancouver, by design and climate, encourages the sort of culture embodied at companies like Wilson’s. “It’s a dominant way of life, to be outdoors,” Robertson says. “The combination of contemplative and active is part of the city’s DNA.”
Part of it, he says, owes to the way the city is laid out, with many buildings looking out toward the sea, rather than in, on each other. “We’re an outward-facing city,” he says.
Wilson says all of it changes the people who live and work there, down to how they define success. “An alpha male or an alpha female, they’re completely different,” he says, especially versus hard-charging financial hubs like New York. Where Manhattanites measure success on money or position, a Vancouverite’s more likely to brag about his or her run, ride, or hike. Wilson himself can barely have a conversation without a mention of, or invitation to, the Grouse Grind, an insanely vertical hike in Vancouver he takes on daily, if not more. He counsels that everyone benefits from sweating for an hour a day.
His timing was impeccable, and Lululemon became one of those companies that both benefits from and helps define a trend. Big money came calling. Representatives of Advent International, a well-known global private equity firm that backed companies like Party City and The Coffee Bean, first encountered the company at an outdoor sports equipment convention in 2004, having identified the broader wellness trend several years earlier. Six months after the first encounter, and a series of cold calls to the company by junior investors at Advent, the apparel maker said it was seeking funding.
Advent invested in Lululemon in 2005 with the idea of expanding the management team, product lines, and geographic reach. The next two years were frenzied, as Lululemon tapped executives from across the retail and consumer world and built a company that could scale its operations globally. From its base in Canada and a handful of other stores in the United States, Lululemon opened outlets in Los Angeles and San Francisco, among other American cities, and also went far afield, to Tokyo and Sydney.
By the end of 2007, the year of its initial public offering, Lululemon had 80 stores. Advent said, citing Thomson Reuters data, that out of 177 offerings that year, Lululemon was the third-best performing IPO. The company continued to consistently grow fast. Up until 2013, sales rose 30 percent or more for 14 straight quarters. The company posted its first $1 billion revenue year in 2012.1
Lululemon became a poster child for the industry, and for how private equity firms might exploit the trend toward fitness and wellness. This was a situation where an investor saw an opportunity not in the activity, but in the adjacent elements. Advent also saw what Wilson had identified: this wasn’t just about the clothes, it was about a way of life.
Advent created a case study it posted on its website as an advertisement of sorts for would-be future investments, and its own investors. Advent sold some of its stake in the IPO, and then sold down its ownership into 2009. When the last of those shares were sold, Advent delivered an eye-popping return to its investors, making eight times its original investment.
Wilson remained and stood as the company’s biggest investor, as well as an irascible spokesman for the business and the broader trend. Plainspoken, he was a journalist and TV producer’s dream, a popular conference speaker who kept audiences engaged. Which is of course what ultimately got him in trouble.
The first problem was product related. A popular version of Lululemon’s tight-fitting yoga pants were, it turned out, too sheer. In the course of a yoga class or any other activity that stretched the fabric, anyone in back of the wearer got a full view of whatever was underneath the pants. A well-read Bloomberg News story explaining the flaw after the fact ran under the headline “Lululemon Sheer Yoga Pants Undetected Until Bend-Over Test.” The company pulled the product amid a social media storm and offered refunds. The mistake cost the company 27 cents per share in earnings that year.
What should have been an unfortunate but straightforward product recall took a turn when Wilson appeared on Bloomberg Television. Pressed about why the product didn’t work right, he said women’s size and shape played a role. “Frankly, some women’s bodies just don’t actually work for it,” Wilson said, referring to the yoga pants. “It’s more really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there over a period of time, how much they use it.”
The backlash was immediate, and fierce. Twitter and Facebook feeds lit up denouncing his comments, forcing him to apologize, which he did via a video posted on the company’s Facebook page.
The stock dropped 4 percent in the wake of his comments, showing how wide his misstatements spread, how much it worried investors counting on the continuing popularity of the brand, as well as the insane power of social media in shaping public perception of a brand. Wilson’s much-heralded successor as CEO, Christine Day, had already announced her departure within months of the recall. She took a job as the CEO of Luvo, a company that makes healthy fast food.
Her replacement was Laurent Potdevin, who joined Lululemon from TOMS, the do-well-by-doing-good shoe company that donates a pair of shoes to a needy child for every pair it sells. Potdevin set out to put the company on better footing, assuring both shareholders and consumers that the company had learned its lesson and was focused on all the right things.
Wilson, still a board member and substantial minority shareholder, stayed vocal, for a time. He said publicly he was looking for a backer to finance a takeover of the company, through which he’d take the company private again. His preferred option was to change the board in order to change management. Words flew, and the stock languished amid the feud, as investors fretted about whether the company could recover amid an increasingly competitive market for its apparel.
In late July 2014, after weeks of negotiation, Advent stepped back in. No other investor was more familiar with the company and its potential. Advent saw a chance to get back in by buying half of Wilson’s remaining stake, roughly 14 percent of the company’s shares, for $845 million. In addition to diminishing the founder’s voice, Advent regained two board seats, filling them with two Advent partners instrumental in the original deal.
On the day of the announcement of Advent’s return, and Wilson’s implicit concession, the stock rose almost 4 percent. (Representatives of Advent and Lululemon declined repeated requests for interviews for this book.)
The next quarter made clear that something of a revival had already been underway. In September 2014, the company announced quarterly results that beat analysts’ estimates and raised its forecast for the full year. The stock jumped to its best price in three years.
The trigger, in addition to Wilson’s dilution by Advent, was the successful rollout of a line called & Go that was designed to be worn outside of the studio or gym and still fit the athletically casual mindset. Lululemon also saw a boost from its men’s line, both for workout clothes and for & Go apparel. In the intervening period, Lululemon stock bounced around. The stock dropped 6 percent in 2015, the third straight annual decline. The company found itself dealing with the decidedly unsexy and, at times, difficult parts of running a growing global business, including distribution costs and inventory management.
For his part, Wilson was largely onto the next adventure. He put some of his Lululemon riches into a new family business, conceived and run by his wife, Shannon, and son, JJ, called Kit + Ace. That company is meant to pick up to some extent where Lululemon leaves off, with a higher-end line of clothes designed to be worn at work and throughout a nonsporting social life.
Fashion has played an interesting role in the evolution of fitness, informing how we look and even our goals in doing all this crazy stuff in the first place.
Today’s fashion, especially for men, raises a chicken-and-egg question when it comes to the modern body. That is, did we get skinnier to fit into tighter clothes, or did wardrobes slim down to cater to the fitter man?
What’s not in doubt is the bias in current fashion to a slighter build. Lost to history and Arsenio Hall’s closet are the double-breasted suits of the 1980s and 1990s (to wit, when I first typed double-breasted while jotting down notes on my iPhone, it autocorrected to double-breastfed; the term didn’t even exist, according to Apple’s vocabulary sensibility). Many pants don’t have pleats, as men favor flat-front suits and chinos that make it much more difficult to hide a few extra pounds.
The slim trend appears to be born, at least in part, out of the men’s metrosexual fashion of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when straight men began leaning toward looks previously associated with gay men. Television shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy begat lines at retailers including Banana Republic that incorporated looks and color palettes previously thought of as feminine. Advertising, too, took on a different tone, with models for apparel makers such as Abercrombie & Fitch appearing shirtless and lacking any body hair.
The rigors of the modern workout regimes served to push those trends further. For men, it became (mostly) acceptable to wear skin-tight shorts and fitted tops for cycling and triathlons—and to click through the aisles of Whole Foods in their cycling shoes afterward to pick up a smoothie. The more serious competitors (or those who want to appear serious) shaved their legs, chests, and arms to increase their personal aerodynamics on the bike and in the water.
Men also moved to tighter-fitting shirts, ditching the looser look that peaked in the 1990s. The trimmer fit is a throwback to the 1960s, spurred by a variety of cultural factors, including the popularity of the show Mad Men, set in a New York agency during the Sixties and Seventies. Celebrities, too, adopted the cleaner, slimmer look. Women noticed, and pushed their boyfriends and husbands toward that look. Once again, the Internet played a role, putting fashion in front of men’s faces.
Retailers reported flipping percentages of regular and slim fits. In 2014, 60 percent of Nordstrom’s men’s dress shirt sales were trim or extra trim, with the balance regular cut. Five years earlier, regular fit accounted for 60 percent.2 The same Bloomberg News story reported an increase in the extra-slim category, whereby designers were cutting several inches from a shirt’s width.
For both men and women, spending more time in workout clothes that doubled as carpool and coffee-run wear was the product of athletic clothes that were better designed and more stylish, a far cry from the mesh shorts and ratty T-shirts once acceptable for a jog around the neighborhood or trip to the gym. (We’ll completely skip over the era of the tracksuit as evening wear.)
Sport-specific clothing is a massive industry in its own right. For the triathlete, there’s Tyr, a family owned, Long Island-based company that started in the goggle-and-swimsuit business back in the mid-1980s and seized more recently on the triathlon frenzy.
Tyr’s story tracks the explosion in interest in endurance sports, and their move from fringe to mainstream. The company started in Huntington Beach, California, the brainchild of a former Olympic swimmer named Steve Furniss, who captained the 1976 U.S. swim team in Montreal, and Joe DiLorenzo.
Tyr takes its name—pronounced tier—from the Norse god of warriors, and stands as an example of an endurance company whose employees live its mission, and its products. The current CEO is Joe’s son, Matt, who took over running the company shortly after graduating from Villanova in 2008.
“In 1985, fitness was coming of age, and they wanted to make swimsuits that were fashionable and appealing,” the younger DiLorenzo says. “That was where we started. The tri was not nearly as developed as it is now. . . . We’ve grown along with the endurance fitness business.”
While Matt DiLorenzo grew up around the business, he wasn’t raised as a swimmer or triathlete, favoring more traditional youth team sports like hockey, basketball, and baseball. When he rejoined the company full-time after a few years on Wall Street, he signed up for a triathlon. “I thought, ‘I need to do this to understand what our customers go through,’” he says. “I got pretty into it.”
The Tyr staff tend to be the same way—“healthy and somewhat fitness conscious,” DiLorenzo says, noting that “not everyone is doing a 10-mile run at lunch.” But there’s a high level of interest in the continuum of yoga, spinning, and running, or the obvious—swimming. “You can just grab a suit and goggles,” he says. “It’s all around you. It just kind of absorbs you, especially when you see other people doing it.”
That social aspect is a critical component of the broader movement, specifically as it relates to the business of fitness apparel. “America loves gear,” DiLorenzo says. “That’s what we like to do. You get to research it. It’s part of the experience and it’s fun.”
The gear is where technology plays an important role, in a couple of ways. There’s the technology behind the equipment and apparel itself, and then there’s the role social media plays in feeding the aforementioned obsession.
To that point, “shopping and research is part of the experiential component—that’s part of the social aspect,” DiLorenzo says. “You can talk and talk about this stuff. It may not make a difference, but the athletes are talking about it all the time. The forums and blogs are littered with ‘Have you tried this?’ It really builds that community.”
Among the most popular online communities is SlowTwitch.com, a sort of message board on steroids (which is also a topic, especially in the post-Lance Armstrong doping admission world) that’s grown to have its own newswire of sorts. The site is crammed with news and information—and opinions—with lots of partners and sponsors presumably clamoring to be heard by the visitors to the site.
Athletes of varying skills pile onto the site, providing advice, commentary, and straight-up bragging. On that site, as well as the Runner’s World message boards, it’s not uncommon for the bottom of a poster’s message to feature his or her personal bests.
Then there’s the technology that’s actually in the gear and apparel, technology that’s advertised relentlessly and promises to give weekend warriors an edge, any edge. As it is in the virtual world, real-world running and cycling groups feature almost nonstop discussions on shoes, clothes, and everything else a runner or cyclist might need, or think they might need.
Here, traditional media still plays a powerful role, with magazines like Runner’s World filling its pages with editorial and advertising that blends our enthusiasm for fitness and consumerism. Rodale, the publisher of Runner’s World, also owned the now-defunct Running Times, whose reader tended toward the more serious amateur athlete. Races buy full-page ads through the magazines, and smaller ads toward the back, alongside various products meant to solve problems from plantar fasciitis to chafing. Every other sport or activity has its own publication (or more) to keep competitors up to date. Yoga Journal is the go-to for that crowd. Cycling has Bicycling and triathlons have a number of titles, as well (there’s both Triathlon and Triathlete).
Buying what’s advertised got increasingly easier with the dawn of the Internet—much to the dismay of local independent retailers, who increasingly found their customers showrooming their stores (showing up, trying on shoes or other apparel, and then finding a lower price somewhere online).
The local running and cycling stores—like their counterparts in the bookselling industry—pressed their value around community, arguing that personal attention and expertise can’t be found on the web. While true to an extent, the amount of information and advice available from global sources a click or two away grew exponentially.
The Independent Running Retailer Association introduced a campaign to encourage people to shop at places near to them, rather than online or at a big box retailer. Called “Lace Up Local,” the effort noted that $100 spent at an independent store put $68 into the local economy, versus $43 at a national chain. Appealing to the notion that many races have charitable components, the group also reminded visitors to its site that local stores donate to local charities at twice the rate of the national chains.
The market Lululemon helped create continued to grow around it, as more-established retailers saw the market expand rapidly. Gap Inc., whose brands include its namesake chain, as well as the high/low pair of Banana Republic and Old Navy stores, bought Athleta, then a catalog business, in 2008 and made it part of its brick-and-mortar empire.
Athleta sought to exploit Lululemon’s fitness halo, while pressing advantages that came with being part of Gap. Athleta offered consistently lower prices than Lululemon—usually 30 percent less by one estimate—at stores often located in close proximity. While Lululemon had an intentionally small selection and rarely discounted merchandise, Athleta more frequently rolled out new lines and quickly put out-of-date merchandise on the sale rack.3
Wall Street analysts noted that Athleta stood to gain during Lululemon’s recall woes, as well as the broader growth of the category. The brand used Gap’s ample resources, especially in e-commerce, where cost-conscious shoppers often scoured for bargains. Gap also was growing its physical footprint aggressively; the company opened 65 Athleta stores in its fiscal 2014, and said it would open 30 more the following year.4 Athleta is aimed squarely at women—its slogan is “Power to the She.”
Other retailers joined in, designing lines of clothes that could double as workout and hangout clothes. Urban Outfitters embraced the concept, adding an in-store element called Without Walls in a handful of outlets, which it planned to expand. The company created a big online presence for Without Walls, playing to its target market of young shoppers. The site featured products from brands such as Vans and Patagonia and the name is meant to evoke and encourage a lifestyle lived actively and outdoors.
In September 2014, Sports Authority introduced a new clothing line called Bloom. Calling it one of the company’s biggest launches in the past several years, a Sports Authority executive noted that it was aimed at the 25 to 40-year-old, and for wider use. “This is not just for the yoga studio, this is a lifestyle collection. Our objective is to cast a wider net within the yoga market.”5
Sports Authority described a plan to create small stores within a store dedicated to yoga, presumably to make affluent women shoppers more comfortable within a traditional sporting goods store where they’re more likely used to shopping for youth soccer cleats.
The athleisure trend was measured in a number of ways and like many fashions, the leading edge was with teenagers. A study in early 2014 found that leggings were the top fashion trend; activewear accounted for almost 30 percent of clothing purchases, up from 6 percent in 2008.6
Weekly lifestyle magazine InStyle wrote, “athleisure represents a bigger, and likely permanent, sea change in fashion. . . . The reasons are many, but the most obvious cause stems from people who are embracing healthier lifestyles, while also demanding more functionality from their wardrobes.”7
Under Armour made its way to the trend from another angle, starting with the hard-core male athlete initially—its name alone sounds like the polar opposite of Lululemon. Yet the Baltimore-based apparel maker moved swiftly into the athleisure market during the past several years, embracing it as a new way to appeal to its existing male customers as well as move deeper into women’s wardrobes.
As part of that effort, Under Armour pursued its previously successful strategy of signing up celebrities and athletes (or sometimes celebrity athletes). The company did a deal with supermodel Gisele Bundchen, as well as with ballerina Misty Copeland and pro surfer Brianna Cope.
The method illustrates the sharp contrast in the Lululemon and Under Armour business models. Lululemon sells only through its stores, relying on a high-touch, personalized approach dating back to the community built around the first Vancouver location. There are no paid celebrity endorsers, though Lululemon certainly benefits from famous people showing up Lulu-clad in public—or better yet, in the pages of celebrity magazines.
Under Armour, meanwhile, is practically ubiquitous in both advertising and retail, from its own outlet stores to department stores in every corner of the United States (again in contrast to Lululemon, which has resisted even going to suburbs of major metropolitan areas in favor of hip urban locales).
As with the sports themselves, the acceptance and proliferation of the apparel into mainstream retailers was a meaningful step forward, and was critical in establishing fitness as a lifestyle and not just a series of activities.
That’s what the Wilsons have in mind with Kit + Ace. The company’s name comes from a fictional man and woman whose lifestyle the apparel maker is meant to support. Its foundation is a trademarked concept, Technical Cashmere, which Shannon Wilson conceived to match her active lifestyle, and that of the affluent, on-the-go consumers like her. She and JJ Wilson, Chip’s son and her stepson, run the company.
Chip Wilson for the moment is an investor and consultant to the company, but in late 2015 made noises indicating he might engage on a more serious level with Kit + Ace. The company has already lured some former Lululemon executives into the Kit + Ace mix, where there’s also the same lifestyle/spiritual-oriented culture the Wilsons imbued at Lululemon.
At Kit + Ace, the mission is to lean further into the megatrend—athleisure and the active lifestyle—that made Lululemon successful and made Chip Wilson a billionaire. Wilson says his goal is to launch five companies, Kit + Ace being the first, that are adjacent to, but don’t compete with Lulu. After all, he’s still that company’s largest shareholder. Clothes may make the woman and man, but many in the fitness economy are spending as much time, and money, thinking—sometimes obsessively—not just about what they wear, but what they eat.
The food and fashion element of the fitness economy breaks down into two roughly defined parts—what we wear and eat that’s directly tied to the activities themselves, plus the derivative fashion and food choices coming from a lifestyle that favors a certain type of body and routine.
The first is relatively easy to define—that’s the market for all the equipment we buy to run, bike, and swim, go to a class at a boutique, or practice yoga. Sporting goods stores are bumping up the amount of space devoted to these sports, noting the demand and high prices the apparel commands.
The second is harder to capture because it reflects a broader societal change that extends beyond getting fit. Then there’s the causality question—that is, does exercising more beget healthier food habits, or does eating healthier make us more willing and able to exercise?
Anecdotal evidence abounds. Take almond milk, a niche product if ever there was one. (Count me among those who didn’t even know it existed until a couple of years ago.) Many others have learned, apparently. By mid-2014, almond milk was generating $700 million in annual sales. One producer, WhiteWave, boasted six straight quarters of at least 45 percent sales growth.8 Part of what drove the uptake was athletes, as almond milk became a familiar topic on websites and blogs devoted to the best food for training. Like other fitness-related crazes, almond milk has its detractors, especially amid a historic drought in California. Creating almond milk involves adding a lot of water, a precious resource in a state that grows 80 percent of the world’s almonds.
The modern everyday athlete has fueled a segment of the food industry devoted to healthier choices. With professional athletes like Novak Djokovic touting the benefits of a gluten-free diet, what once was considered fringe is mainstream when it comes to eating, too.
Organic food moved from the purview of aging hippies and earth mothers to the mass market, especially the affluent segments, with the arrival and popularity of Whole Foods (jokingly called “Whole Paycheck” for its frequent sticker shock), as well as everyday grocery chains like Stop & Shop devoting significant shelf space to organic brands. Sales of organic products rose 11.5 percent in 2013 to $35.1 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic food growth averaged more than 10 percent growth a year (versus overall growth of roughly 3 percent) and accounted for about 4 percent of U.S. food sales.9
Part of this stems from a generally better-educated consumer. Books like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma are hard to forget for their insights into where our food comes from. More recently, Katie Couric and Laurie David’s documentary Fed Up provided a startling view of the obesity crisis and its causes, which brings up a major and troubling paradox: How, in an age of record obesity, is one segment so focused on health and wellness?
Academic research shows that healthy eating and affluence are linked and specific healthy foods are associated with higher income. A 2008 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition noted that “grains, lean meats, fish, low-fat dairy products, and fresh vegetables and fruit are more likely to be consumed by groups of higher SES (socioeconomic status). In contrast, the consumption of refined grains and added fats has been associated with lower SES.”10
This trend isn’t necessarily new. The researchers cite a study from the mid-1980s where a survey of British adults found non-manual workers consumed four times more whole grains than manual workers.11
The connection between a healthy diet and a regular exercise regime is not hard to make, though social mores play a role as well. The ability to eat rich foods in plentiful portions once was a sign of success and affluence. That’s a concept that dates back centuries, and held true well into the twentieth century. Think of the term fat cats. It was only in the latter half of the last century and the first part of the new one where phrases like “You can’t be too thin or too rich” came into vogue.
Owing to the complexity of how economics, nutrition, and exercise play off each other, arguments around affluence and exercise tend to feel circular—the rich have more information, easier access to higher quality foods, and the leisure time to devote to exercise. The poor have none of those things. What’s cause and what’s effect?
It’s clear that higher quality education includes more information about healthy eating and exercise. First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign is aimed at creating healthy habits for kids, including those who might not otherwise get the necessary encouragement around physical activity.
What’s not in dispute is the move toward healthier eating exploded. The term superfood gained traction, as doctors and nutritionists pushed kale, blueberries, and quinoa on a public eager for advice on how to eat better. Vegetarianism and the more extreme veganism took hold among a broader population. Mark Bittman, a New York Times writer (and himself a longtime runner), wrote a book called VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health . . . For Good that laid out a philosophy of eating to appeal to the modern, busy citizen.
The 6 in question was 6 p.m. and Bittman’s program, which he followed himself, called for a plant-based diet until the evening, at which point he gave over to his desires to eat meat and other foods that would fall out of a full-on vegan’s purview. It was radical in a way, in part because Bittman’s plan conceded our shared imperfection and many people’s unwillingness to give up the simple pleasures of good food (after all, many people took up a heavy exercise routine to be able to eat whatever they wanted, with little consequence, given their weekly calorie burn). He admitted to cheating on a regular basis—eating a piece of bacon for breakfast, for instance—but argued that following the general outlines allowed him to drop weight and boost his energy levels.
My own super-food discovery of sorts was steel cut oatmeal, made with almond milk instead of dairy milk, and topped with some brown sugar and blueberries. I swore by it in training and folded it into my routine, preaching its attributes to just about anyone who would listen. I was one voice among many, apparently. McCann’s, an Irish oatmeal maker whose history dates back to 1800, in 2005 sold 1 million tins in a year for the first time.
Activity-specific food and drink—the stuff we consume right before, during, and after running, biking, and working out—grew into a huge business in its own right. By 2009, sports nutrition, not including sports drinks, was a $4.6 billion market worldwide, according to researcher Euromonitor.12
The subsector devoted to energy drinks was massive in its own right. Gatorade and Powerade, as well as niche drink brands, broadened their marketing from team sports to individuals, promising hydration for the high-octane weekend warrior.
The sports drink category—pegged at $6.9 billion by one researcher in 2012, was predicted to grow to $9.3 billion by 2017—on the strength of the powerful existing brands as well as new companies.13 In addition to products like Muscle Milk, which caught on with endurance athletes, there were other well-funded entrants. Basketball star Kobe Bryant said in early 2014 that he invested in a sports drink called BodyArmor, which was founded in 2011. Bryant struck a deal to invest $4 million to $6 million, for roughly 10 percent of the company, Forbes wrote at the time.14
Among the most surprisingly popular markets is the one for gels—energy, protein, and caffeine delivered usually through single-serving foil packets that fit in a shorts pocket (there’s an entire line of shorts under the brand Race Ready, that has specially designed pockets for gel packets). They’re attractive to runners and cyclists because they’re easy to consume on a run or ride. Among the most popular brands were GU (pronounced goo) and PowerGel, a line of gels from the maker of PowerBar, a popular protein bar.
While relatively small compared to the market for sports drinks, there were still 18 distinct gel manufacturers in the United States in 2014, according to a website called Energy Gel Central. (The fact that such a site exists is both impressive and scary.)
In each case, the makers and marketers were looking for, and promising, an edge to the average athlete looking to be above average relative to his or her peers. In any regular running or cycling group, and in the pages of the magazines and websites devoted to each sport, there’s constant talk about hydration and nutrition. It’s the source of pre-race sleepless nights, and fodder for post-race post-mortems. Too few fluids (or too many), the wrong food (or the wrong amount) all are valid reasons for not reaching one’s race-day goals. Constant experimentation is the norm.
As 2015 drew to a close, Moelis’ Kapoor was spending more time looking at the food section of the health and wellness ecosystem. She knows investors are looking for big markets and a huge part of the shift to a healthier lifestyle involves more awareness of what we’re putting in our bodies; in meetings with companies she frequently hears words like fresh, clean, transparent. “It’s an active space, and a massive category,” she says.
While still focused on the body, Chip Wilson is also intrigued by the mind. Wilson is an investor in whil.com, a website meant to bring meditation to the masses, in bite-sized chunks. Its tagline: everything’s gonna be alright. A subscription-based service, the website and associated app deliver tailored, brief meditations meant to relieve stress, help you sleep better, improve your relationships, and boost creativity.
Wilson is especially interested in mindfulness in the workplace, keying off his experience building distinct employee cultures that not only acknowledge, but celebrate, the everyday blurring of lines between our lives and our work. It’s also an acknowledgement that while we focus so much on our bodies, it’s our minds that may need even more attention.
Having spent years encouraging his teams to be active, Wilson is now using the Kit + Ace staff as a test case for whil in the workplace. Most meetings start with a meditation grabbed from the site, lasting from one minute to 10. For Wilson, it’s a reflection of his own evolution. “I used to be able to satisfy myself with a 10-K in the morning,” he says. “Now that’s not enough to keep me focused throughout the day.” The ability to drop meditative sessions into the workday sets him, and he says his colleagues, to be more successful.
The focus on physical fitness leads, it seems, to a deeper search for meaning. And that helps explain why the ancient practice of yoga moved from the fringe to the mainstream and into a starring role in the new economy of mind and body.