Lululemon Customers Asked 'Who Is John Galt?'

Yoga sports apparel store Lululemon has sparked controversy with new shopping bags that promote a novel by Ayn Rand. The bags have the words "Who is John Galt" on them — a phrase from the book Atlas Shrugged. Lululemon founder Chip Wilson is a fan of the book. Guy Raz speaks with Globe and Mail reporter Simon Houpt, who is covering the response to the bags.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And I'm Guy Raz. If you buy apparel from Lululemon, it's pretty likely you're familiar with tree pose, warrior one or downward facing dog. The retailer sells high-end, stretchy yoga clothes for those yogis wanting to make a fashion statement and Lululemon seems to be hoping that, in the midst of savasana or meditation, some yoga practitioners will ask themselves this question. Who is John Galt?

That question is on shopping bags that Lululemon recently started to give out and it's got some of the company's core customers up in arms, vowing never to shop there again. To explain why, we're joined by Simon Houpt, who has written about this for the Canadian newspaper, the Globe and Mail. And Lululemon, by the way, is based in Canada.

So, Simon, first of all, remind us, who is John Galt?

SIMON HOUPT: John Galt is a sort of shadowy figure from the 1957 novel by Ayn Rand known as "Atlas Shrugged." Essentially, he's taken to be a protagonist who embodies self-interest.

RAZ: And Lululemon says that Ayn Rand, the author of the book - she influenced the founder of the company, Chip Wilson, at a young age. How so?

HOUPT: He read the book when he was away from home, I gather for the first time, when he was 18 years old. And he was just profoundly influenced by the lesson that he drew from it, which is that if we all pursue our own self-interest, then the world can be a better place.

RAZ: Now, for some - many, actually - Lululemon customers, this is not sitting well. They are not happy about this. What have they said to you?

HOUPT: Oh, boy. They've said to me and they've said online, certainly at our website at the Globe and Mail, that this is completely contrary to the teachings of yoga, that yoga is, in fact, a core component of building community and that the notion of self-interest, in fact, runs completely against that.

RAZ: You mean, they don't get into yoga after reading "Atlas Shrugged"?

HOUPT: I have yet to find a yogi who has done so.

RAZ: Right. Yeah. On the company's blog on its website, they try to explain this, essentially saying, look, society encourages people to be mediocre. This quote urges people to break free of - and this is a quote - "the constraints and limitations on ourselves, which impede us from living our best lives."

Explain why the company decided to put this on the side of their bags.

HOUPT: Well, I do have some trouble with that because, in fact, in reaching out numerous times to the company, they actually refused to speak on the record to offer their opinion to me. However, in the blog post you refer to, they do offer an explanation and they believe that this book inspires people to embrace greatness rather than this life of sad disappointment, which apparently where all the rest of us are leading.

RAZ: Two stories that whenever we do them on the air, I've done them on the air, get the most response. One, any interview with Ron Paul. And two, anything on Ayn Rand. So, I wonder if this is sort of a, actually a smart way to get more business, right, because you might get all these objectivists all of a sudden taking up yoga. We, by the way, also tried to contact the company to speak with Chip Wilson. He's not available to talk about this.

HOUPT: That's entirely possible. However, at least at the moment, it does seem – the evidence suggests that Lululemon has severely alienated its core constituency. Certainly here in Toronto, the moms in the fantastic-looking Lululemon pants are discussing this in the school yards and the yoga studios and they're not at all possible. And so, it's possible that Ron Paul followers will suddenly embrace yoga or may buy a fantastic-looking pair of pants. And at the very least, it just means that Ron Paul will have some followers who just look great from behind.

RAZ: That's Simon Houpt of the Globe and Mail in Toronto, talking about Lululemon's new shopping bags. They are a tribute to the ideology of Ayn Rand. Simon, thanks.

HOUPT: Thank you, Guy.

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