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Mind-bending truth
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untold story lululemon
What does a questionable self-help seminar have to do with selling yoga wear? By Alexandra Gill
shoppers into believing they can save the planet and look fabulous one Hempscious Hammer Hoodie at a time, lululemon and its growing ranks of unconventionally trained staff are well coached to convince them. You could say oqoqo is a natural metaphor for lululemon, which fancies itself more of a lifestyle than a clothing company. The company’s gung-ho corporate manifesto, which is stuffed into every shopping bag, encourages customers to drink lots of fresh water, perspire, love, choose positive thoughts and do one thing a day that scares them. “Do it now!” the tract urges. “The world is changing at such a rapid rate that waiting to implement changes will leave you two steps behind.” It’s no coincidence that some of the same phrases and lessons are taught by Landmark Education Corp., a controversial human-potential encounter group. Chip Wilson, the smooth operator who founded lululemon back in 1998 and built it into a national retailing >

revolution comes in various guises, to be sure. But the

oqoqo clothing store on Robson Street in downtown Vancouver feels more like a spa than the groundbreaking retail hub for global change it is purported to be. Oqoqo (pronounced oh-KO-KO) is the tree-huggable offspring of lululemon athletica, the phenomenally successful Vancouver-based sportswear company that turned Boogie Woogie stretch pants into the unofficial uniform for casual Fridays. Lululemon’s new line has yet to earn the same cult-like following, but don’t let the relaxed vibe inside this store deceive you. Huddled in a back corner, three smugly confident executives are excitedly chirping about Daryl Hannah. Earlier this afternoon, the Hollywood actor dropped into another oqoqo shop on West Fourth Avenue to shoot a video on the virtues of its fashionable hemp garments. The buzz is building. And if there’s any clothing company capable of gently brainwashing
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powerhouse now valued at more than $225 million, is a devoted Landmark convert. The 51-year-old surfer, snowboarder and father of five boys credits his success to The Landmark Forum, an intensive international 31/2-day training seminar. The program has garnered widespread criticism for, among other things, what some see as its boot-camp techniques, hard-sell recruitment tactics, heavy reliance on free labour, secretive nature and its links to Werner Erhard, a former Scientologist who developed the methodology. It’s a strange, even contrary, connection, seemingly at odds with lululemon’s carefully crafted image as an upstanding corporate citizen with strong, open-minded social values and a commitment to the Zen enlightened principles of yoga. But Wilson doesn’t see any disconnect. “After you’ve been in a ‘conversation’ like Landmark, you just don’t want to be discussing life with people who haven’t taken it,” Wilson says. In fact, he is so convinced of the Forum’s transformative benefits that he now offers the seminar as a “gift” to his entire management team and those who have been with the company more than a year. It’s expensive, he agrees. But “I pay $500 for someone to do it and I betcha I make $10,000 a year from them.” The company’s motives, however, stretch far beyond the profit ledger. Although not explicitly stated in the lululemon manifesto or anywhere else, Wilson says his plan is to continue swelling his business and to help introduce Landmark to new converts. After all, other companies have bought into the Landmark philosophy – including Monsanto, Apple Computer and Reebok International – as part of a growing movement. “Our goal is to change the world by expanding and training our people in personal responsibility and goal setting so they can then affect their families, their communities and, eventually, the entire world.”

i first heard about The Landmark Forum through a work acquaintance. Two years ago, he and his wife attended a weekend seminar to work on their faltering marriage. During the course, this father of three broke down and confessed to his wife – and 200 strangers – that he didn’t believe in monogamy. They’re now divorced. But hey, he does seem happier these days. And, like Wilson, he is an extremely successful businessman. Maybe there’s something to be

said for Landmark’s “power of being unreasonable.” Maybe it could help me quit smoking. So, two weeks after signing a contract with Landmark Education Corp. – absolving the organization of all responsibility in case of physical or emotional upset and making me vow not to publicize its methodology – I roll up to an aging office building in downtown Vancouver on a Friday morning for the first day of my Forum. The classroom is a plain beige conference hall lined with tidy rows of straight-backed chairs. There are about 170 people in the class, from 18 to 85, in all colours and shapes. For the next three days, from 9 a.m. to about midnight, we will be squeezed into this chilly room, with a 90-minute dinner break that we are instructed to spend with other attendees. There will be two other half-hour breaks each day, during which we will be asked to “share” our intentions with other classmates, create new “possibilities” for ourselves, and call people not taking the course to “enrol” them in our new possibilities. There are many rules. We must raise our hands before speaking. If granted permission to speak, we must go stand at a microphone. We must not whisper, snicker or have “side” conversations. Taking notes is not allowed. The consumption of drugs, alcohol, even Aspirin is strongly discouraged throughout the entire weekend – and at home. Food and drinks in the classroom (other than water) are strictly verboten. Unscheduled bathroom breaks are not recommended. A middle-aged woman goes to the microphone and sheepishly explains that she is a devout Christian and worries that the Forum might conflict with her religious beliefs. Our Forum leader, Rachel Davis, is emphatic. Landmark is not a religion or affiliated with any religious groups. The tools we will learn over the next three days will fit with any and all spiritual beliefs. That said, she then compares the Forum to a new set of clothes: if you go to a department store with the intention of buying a new outfit, you must take off the one you came in with to see if the new items fit. “Now, are you all ready to be coachable?” Davis barks into a headset. She is an athletic woman in her late 40s, with a short auburn bob and a Lauren Hutton gap between her front teeth. She reminds me of an acting coach: loud, charismatic, constantly on the move and full of exaggerated facial expressions. “Yes,” we all mumble in reply. Davis folds her arms across her body and shakes her head. “Is that the best you can do?” “No!” we shout back. On the podium, Davis rolls her eyes. For some reason, everyone starts laughing uncontrollably.

funny is not a word “Jen” would choose to describe The

Landmark Forum. “I felt very manipulated,” says the lululemon assistant store manager, who asked not to be identified. “I just don’t have time for contrived introspection.” Although the twentysomething university student is willing, almost relieved, to speak up about the unusual conditions of employment that required her to take the seminar, she is extremely worried about being identified as a silent nonconformist for fear that she might be demoted or fired. Jen was introduced to the Forum during her initial train-

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Clockwise from right: the San Francisco lululemon store; companyfounder Chip Wilson; the lululemon store on Toronto’s Queen Street West.

ing when she started with the company three years ago. Shortly thereafter, she attended an introductory meeting with several colleagues. “We were asked to create a ‘possibility,’ ” Jen recalls. “I said ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about’ and they attacked me. It was a friendly attack. I tried to understand, but it wasn’t really working for me. After that, it was something I feared doing for a long time.” Chip Wilson has never heard this type of complaint. He says he doesn’t know of any lululemon employee who has refused the Landmark training. And he certainly doesn’t see any potential downside. Wilson was 35 years old when he attended his first Landmark Forum. That was back in 1991, eight years before lululemon began. At the time, the former oil-industry economist was the co-owner of Westbeach Snowboard Ltd., a Vancouver-based surf-and-snowboard clothing line. Wilson, who had already dabbled in various New Age movements, was impressed by Landmark’s potpourri of mind exercises that purport to help you let go of past problems. In 1997, as he was preparing to sell that first clothing company, he returned to the Forum with his two business partners to help sort out some outstanding issues. “It worked,” marvels Wilson, who has since taken the course a third time (and The Advanced Course twice). “I learn more every time,” he says with characteristic gusto, squeezing our phone interview into a day full of meetings. With money in the bank, spare time on his hands and some nagging snowboarding injuries to heal, Wilson began to practise yoga. Within two months, as the class grew from about six to 60 participants, he realized the yoga trend was about to explode. As a marketer, he couldn’t help but notice that his classmates, mostly women, were all wearing bulky cotton shirts and shorts. As a designer, he knew he could create better workout clothes. By 1998, he had opened his first lululemon store in Kitsilano, Vancouver’s trendy beachfront neighbourhood. Since then, the company has exploded into 27 standalone retail locations across Canada, plus another nine in the U.S., Australia and Japan. Here at home, the popularity of these form-fitting garments is almost fanatical. Never mind the yoga studios: walk into any high school, shopping mall or grocery store across the country and you’ll find that funny omega-shaped lululemon logo splashed across someone’s derriere.

Putting it there are lululemon “educators” (i.e., staff ), as they’re called in lulu-speak. Although they earn a commission, their main job is not to sell the product, but to teach customers about the value of a garment’s moisture-wicking, anti-stink fabrics, zipper garages, key pockets and other nifty features that aren’t obvious at first glance. The new oqoqo brand, which now has three stores in B.C. and will soon expand into Ontario, requires even more education. “If you tell people something is made of soy protein, they’ll say, ‘Wow, cool. Why do you do that?’” says Libby Vance, manager of product development. The conversation, she explains, can then roll into the ethics of sustainable farming. “We want to change the nature of the clothing textile industry,” says Vance. “And that’s what we will do.” With the weight of the global environment resting on their educators’ shoulders, it’s no wonder lululemon pours tons of money into staff training, including The Landmark Forum. Lululemon foots the $495 tuition for the seminar, but this is just the first of four courses in Landmark Education Corp.’s “Curriculum for Living” that staffers are urged to keep taking. Vance, who joined the company last year, has already completed all four courses. “It creates a common language,” she says. “If there’s an issue, you have the conversation, then >
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SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, KATY RADDATZ/COURTESY OF

UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY/HAMIN LEE

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you leave it behind and move forward.” Others would disagree. “It’s not a friendly language,” says Jen. There are some employees, she explains, who slowly seem to morph into walking, talking Landmark machines.

three hours into my first Forum session, we

break for 30 minutes. Davis instructs us to introduce ourselves to at least three other attendees and share our intentions for the weekend. At the sandwich shop next door, I slump down at a table with two young lululemon employees and later discover there are 12 of them in this class. The rest of the afternoon is spent schooling us in the basics of the Forum and its peculiar, often maddening, Orwellian language. The word possibility, we learn, doesn’t mean what we think it means. “As we use the word here,” Davis says, reading from a manual, “it distinguishes a phenomenon that exists in and impacts the present, rather than its ordinary meaning where the word possibility represents an outcome or goal in the future that might happen or maybe will happen.” Live in the moment. ok, I get it. “Why does the language have to be so confusing?” I ask from the microphone. Davis stares at me – brows raised, head tilted – as if to suggest she can’t believe she has to deal with such an idiot. This is the first and last time she will call on me to speak. Criticism is obviously not encouraged. Of course, in Landmark-speak, this is just my “interpretation” of what is happening. By challenging the Landmark language, I am trying to dominate the conversation while invalidating the teacher. Being confrontational is probably one of my “rackets,” which people use to blame others and avoid responsibility. Rackets also prevent you from being “authentic.” As I continue to stand at the microphone feeling stupid, Davis suggests we think of ourselves as doctors. We have one language we use with our peers (or those who have also taken the course) and another language that we use with our patients (those who haven’t taken the course). But wouldn’t it be a lot easier, she cheerily suggests, if everyone in our lives spoke the same language? Ah, so that’s how the recruitment works. I think I just had my first breakthrough.

Training (est), the group that evolved into Landmark. He’d spent the ’60s exploring the West Coast self-improvement scene, dabbling in Gestalt therapy at the Esalen retreat, and eventually joined more organized groups such as the Church of Scientology and Mind Dynamics. In 1971, he quit his job and synthesized his studies into est. Erhard’s weekend seminars became infamous for their long hours, infrequent bathroom breaks and verbal abuse. Life is what it is, Erhard preached to his disciples, including Diana Ross, John Denver and Yoko Ono. There was nothing to “get,” he concluded at these “transformative experiences.” In 1991, Erhard fled the U.S. in the wake of a report on 60 Minutes that falsely alleged tax cheating and incest. Before vanishing, he sold his intellectual properties to his former employees, who renamed the company Landmark Education Corp. According to Landmark’s press materials, Erhard no longer has any financial interest in the company or position on the management team. But his brother, Harry Rosenberg, is the ceo. In 2005, the company boasted revenues of $76 million us from its more than 51 offices in 22 countries. Some detractors have charged that the Landmark culture can become all-consuming and destabilizing. But Joe Szimhart, a U.S. cult exit counsellor who has studied est and other large group awareness training seminars for nearly 20 years, refuses to call it a cult – and not just because the company has been quick to threaten legal action against anyone who uses the “C” word. As Landmark’s lawyers have pointed out, there are four characteristics considered common to a cult: members are persuaded to turn over their assets, they alienate themselves from family and friends, they believe in or worship a theology or doctrine, and they restrict themselves from activities outside of the cult. Landmark doesn’t advocate any of these. So is there anything wrong with it? “To me,” says Szimhart, “it’s pseudo-therapy.”

on my second day of the Forum, my classmates are spilling their guts all over the place. One woman is on the verge of leaving her husband; a big burly artist stands up and bawls because no one takes his work seriously; one of the lululemon managers tells us all how she was date raped as a teen. Confession is just the first part of the process. During the break, we are encouraged to call the people in our lives we’ve been inauthentic with or hold grudges against, and share new possibilities we have created. Scattered through the hallway and roaming all the nearby streets, my classmates are madly punching at their cellphones and reading their scripts. “I’m so sorry.…” everyone seems to be crying. in the early days of lululemon, Wilson offered the Forum to all employees. But as it grew, he had to scale back to only those who worked in management. “Or anybody who has worked as an educator for more than a year,” he qualifies. Oqoqo’s Vance, who has worked in management for a number of large U.S. retail companies, including Eddie Bauer and Brooks, says she finds the lululemon corporate culture >

in 1971,Werner Erhard, a former used-car salesman from Philadelphia who was born Jack Rosenberg, founded Erhard Seminars

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Clockwise from right: est founder Werner Erhard; est participant Yoko Ono; the yoga craze inspired lululemon; Diana Ross, another est participant.

refreshing. “Most companies only want to develop you…for the job you’re doing now, but at lululemon and oqoqo, they really encourage you to shoot for the stars.” She will admit, however, that the Landmark training can be quite time-consuming. On Internet chat groups and web forums, disenchanted “Lekkies” – a nickname that has developed for Landmark enthusiasts – complain about how Landmark sucks you in, gobbles up your free time, creates a relationship of dependence and eventually cuts you off from people in your life who are not involved. For graduates immersed in the culture, Landmark even offers a dating service, job market and housing classifieds through its online forum, LandmarkConnect. The lululemon lifestyle, although not as all-consuming, functions in a similar way with its heavy emphasis on individual development and team building. “Laura,” a former Toronto store manager, says the extracurricular activities she was expected to fulfill were draining, and often troubling. “You have to submit your goals fairly regularly,” says Laura, who also asked that her real name not be used. “I was rewriting them so much, I began doubting myself.” Like Jen, she had problems with the Landmark influence. The insider language, she explains, could be wielded in passiveaggressive conversations. “People would say stuff like ‘You’re unhappy in your own life, so you’re jealous of other people who are happy,’ ” she says. “It was usually presented under the guise of Landmark – that old ‘I want to say this because I think it will help’ sort of thing.” She says she was never fully convinced of Landmark’s usefulness as a corporate training tool. “It’s invasive, having to expose personal issues with co-workers.” After two years with lululemon, Laura quit. But Jen isn’t ready to leave her job yet. Although she avoided taking the full Forum retreat for as long as possible – she says she was actually afraid of going – she eventually

caved because the fear of reprisal was even greater. She doesn’t know of anyone who has refused the training, so can only guess what the implications would be. “I don’t think they would immediately be fired, but I do think they would lose whatever status they had in the company.” Wilson confirms that if an employee didn’t enjoy the Landmark Forum or refused to go, there would probably be a weeding out process. “They’re not going to be happy in the company so they might as well find another place to work,” he says nonchalantly. That’s exactly what happened to Syd Beder and Alexandra Bennett Morgan, the fashion-industry veterans who extricated themselves from lululemon’s rapidly expanding empire after successfully launching the company’s first store in Toronto. They originally held the distribution rights to all of Ontario, but backed out of the potentially lucrative partnership because of their philosophical opposition to Landmark training. “[Wilson] said he could not expand with us unless we took the course,” says Beder. That was back in 2003. Beder and Bennett Morgan’s lululemon store on Queen Street West had just won the prestigious Cadillac Fairview arc Award for innovative retail concept. At the time, lululemon was on the verge of exploding across Canada. “It was a huge opportunity,” Beder reflects. He and Bennett Morgan toyed with the idea and did some research into Landmark. Ultimately, they decided that it was not a choice they would be able to live with. To them, the homogenizing training process and practice of recruiting friends and family into the program was anti-yogic. >

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GETTY IMAGES, JAMES WILSON (WOODFIN CAMP), SCOTT WINTROW/JUPITER IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES, FREDERICK M. BROWN

“At our last meeting, prior to selling, we met at the Four Seasons Hotel. I sat across the table and said, ‘Chip, I may take the course, but what happens if I don’t buy in?’ He looked at me and I could tell it was over.” With financing from the Royal Bank, Wilson bought them out. Beder went on to open his own lifestyle store, Lileo, in Toronto. In the meantime, lululemon has grown into a national retailing powerhouse with its sights on massive global expansion. Revenues have doubled every year for the past four years and are now estimated to be about $120 million. In the past year alone, the company has added about 400 members to its staff of 650. To facilitate further expansion in the U.S. (where the company already has seven stores), Wilson cut a deal last December with two Massachusetts-based venture capital firms, Advent International and Highland Capital Partners. The firms bought a 48 per cent stake in the company. Wilson is still lululemon’s chairman and chief product developer. Advent's Robert Meers, a former president and ceo of Reebok International, has become the new ceo. Wilson doesn’t predict they’ll have any philosophical differences. Meers attended the Forum in June, but was already enrolled (so to speak) in the program from his days at Reebok International, which provided specially designed one-on-one Landmark business training for its corporate executives through Landmark’s Education Business Development division.

floor,” she says. “Your mother got mad. You made it mean life sucks. It doesn’t mean anything except the meaning you gave it. Your life is empty and meaningless, and it’s completely meaningless that your life is empty and meaningless. Don’t you feel better now?” Oh man, do I ever need a cigarette.

back at my forum session, the entire class is

chanting in unison: “My life is empty and meaningless! My life is empty and meaningless!” Most people are smiling. Some are laughing. One person is practically falling on the floor in hysterics. But a lot of people really don’t get it and are extremely upset. “My husband is about to leave me, everything is a mess,” cries the Christian woman who expressed her spiritual concerns on the first day. “No, I don’t believe it. My life can’t be empty and meaningless.” Davis has no sympathy. “You’re being absurd,” she tells her brusquely. “When are you going to get it?” This meaninglessness, Davis eventually explains, is the big breakthrough we’ve all been waiting for – the $500 secret to a new world of infinite possibilities. “You were four years old and a plate of butter fell on the
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legally, companies such as lululemon are well within their rights to expect staff to attend learning seminars as a condition of employment. If someone doesn’t want to go, they can be terminated as long as the company provides severance. “Employers can require anything of their employees that doesn’t contravene human rights legislation,” explains Jennifer Conkie, the principal partner at Conkie & Company, a Vancouver law firm with a special interest in employment and human rights issues. Employers have a duty to reasonably accommodate their employees’ requests, but these accommodations usually refer to issues such as wheelchair ramps or needing time to deal with a sick child. And Landmark certainly isn’t the only strange corporate training fad. Companies have tried everything from winemaking to circus lessons to build better teams. But do their jobs hinge on participation? Does the training involve recruiting friends and family? And does the training organization continue to call participants at home for weeks after the initial course is over, trying to persuade them to sign up for more (I must have received at least a dozen calls before Landmark stopped harassing me). Back in the oqoqo store in Vancouver, there are no Landmark slogans posted on the white walls. When a shopper enters, there is no talk about “enrolment” or “possibilities.” Instead, Libby Vance extols the virtues of a reversible, black and turquoise, strapless tube dirt dress to a young woman. When the customer emerges from the change room, Vance adjusts her bosom and demonstrates the different ways the dress can be folded. The lululemon-Landmark connection exists only under the radar. But if Landmark is really such a wonderful tool, why not plaster it all over the lululemon manifesto along with all those other helpful tips for leading a healthy, fulfilling life? The clothing company is obviously doing extremely well. Chip Wilson is deeply committed to the training. His managers have learned how to be “unreasonable,” yet there hasn’t been a mass revolt so they must be happy with the results. Or are they? Jen is still working as a lululemon assistant store manager, but has learned to suffer her aversion to Landmark in silence. She will admit the Forum seems to have helped some of her co-workers change their lives for the better. “Or at least they think it’s for the better,” she says. Still, she often feels guilty for not buying into Landmark. “I enjoy working for lululemon – very much. I want to grow. I want to go places,” she says in frustration. “If everything else about me is in line with the culture, why am I so resistant? Is there something wrong with me? I’m sort of a traitor because I really think they have our best interests in mind.” 

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