Ayn Rand’s John Galt Stretches Out with Lululemon

Lululemon’s Atlas Shrugged-inspired bags give double meaning to the Hero Pose.

If you commute, you’ve probably seen women carrying lunch or a change of shoes in a bright red reusable bag with white messages about drinking water and doing scary things alongside figures in yoga poses. This is the signature “Lulu Bag.”

Recently, Lululemon switched things up and started giving out bags that read: Who is John Galt? Many people have seen it and wondered why that name sounds familiar. The question comes from Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged – which is sometimes referred to as the Tea Party’s bible.

Here’s the explanation, straight from Lululemon’s mouth: “You might be wondering why a company that makes yoga clothing has chosen a legendary literary character’s name to adorn the side of our bags. Lululemon’s founder, Chip Wilson, first read this book when he was eighteen years old working away from home. Only later, looking back, did he realize the impact the book’s ideology had on his quest to elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness (it is not coincidental that this is Lululemon’s company vision).”

If you have no information about the book or the author and trust the Lululemon blog, or even bothered to look into the phrase, the idea seems to be fairly benign: don’t settle for being less than you can be. But, at the core of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is this, “the virtue of selfishness.”

The bag, introduced early in the holiday shopping season, has gotten a fair share of press. The controversy has been covered on NPR, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Forbes and many others—even Steven Colbert chimed in offering the company a hat tip on the segment, “Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger.”

Founder Chip Wilson has declined interviews on the subject.

Will this be the straw that breaks the yoga giant’s back? For many, it just might be. Chip Wilson already got flack after being quoted saying he thinks it’s funny to hear Asians say the word “Lululemon,” and has said publicly that child labor isn’t so bad because kids get an opportunity to not be mediocre.

And this isn’t the first time that Lululemon has faced controversy over their bags. In December 2010, it was reported that, for about a year, the bags had lead in them. And back in 2008, bags were recalled when a 17 year-old found a hidden message revealed someplace between advice on jealousy and oral care: ” Some brief or quick-fix incidences when our minds are clear to be creative are….when drunk or stoned…just after an orgasm.”

Add to that the green-washing, corporate manifesto and strong bond with Landmark Education—a company that grew out of “cult” status EST. (At this time, every employee who reaches a certain level at Lululemon is “encouraged” to participate in Landmark Forum training.)

Nerve, quotes one Lululemon shopper as saying: “I don’t want people looking at me with that little logo on my pants or on my hoodie and thinking I’m going home to read Atlas Shrugged after, you know, downward dog.” And a commenter on the Lululemon blog wrote, ‘Rand’s philosophy is totally incompatible with the roots of yoga, but I suppose it makes sense for a conceited sportswear entrepreneur seeking full license to screw over anybody he wants to in pursuit of a buck.'”

NPR writes that while Ayn Rand is best known for her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, “The ideas behind them — her philosophy — have sunk so deeply into our political thought, most people don’t even recognize them as her ideas anymore.”

That’s what you call good branding.