They must be giving away Kickbooty pants, I figured, when I saw the crowd at Athleta's new Mall of America store at 6 p.m. on Monday night. But no—no free pants, no discounts even. Just caprese skewers, plastic cups of wine, and enthusiasm for the Gap Inc.-owned athletic brand drove women to MOA to christen Athleta's second Twin Cities location, which happens to be just a few doors down from Lululemon. It's a strategy Athleta has been shamelessly repeating across the country, as Bloomberg recently reported — and it seems to be working. Athleta is, on average, less expensive than Lululemon, but its workout apparel is by no means cheap (the real deals are just a few more doors down at Gap, where I buy most of my GapFit workout clothes during the frequent 40 percent off sales).
What I observed at the Athleta party was a customer slightly older that the typical Lulu girl, who is perhaps not built for one of those super snug Lulu branded zip-ups. Athleta, with its woodsy decor, stretchy apres workout dresses and casual leather accessories, feels more geared toward its customer as a whole—the woman who puts on stretchy black pants with the intention of working out, but gets sidetracked by carpool and grocery shopping— rather than its customer the runner, the tennis player, the Zumba instructor. There, I said it: as friendly as the staff is at Lululemon, the brand can feel intimidating. Still, I recently tried on yoga pants at both stores, and Lulu's, without question, were superior—the fit, the quality, the details. Even so, I couldn't bring myself to spend $98 on pants to sweat in. So power to Athleta for succeeding head to head, and creating its own community.