Trendy Meets Historic: Up-and-coming active wear brand inhabits Biltmore Village landmark

A hot Canadian exercise outfitter. Free Saturday yoga classes. In a century-old building that was a landmark drugstore. And a grand opening that sparked a brand-new craft beer named for it. What could possibly be more … well … Asheville?

That’s what decision makers at lululemon athletica thought, too.

The manufacturer and purveyor of “yoga and running clothes for sweaty workouts” is now ensconced in the old Biltmore Drug Store building at One Kitchin Place in the heart of Biltmore Village’s enclave of upscale clothiers and eateries.

The store, which had operated for about a year on Lexington Avenue downtown, opened in the Village Christmas week, just in time to ride the crest of last-minute shopping fever.

“I think they said they did $36,000 worth of business on their first day in Biltmore,” says Bill Bell, former proprietor of Bell’s Traditionals, who owns the property at One Kitchin Place.

The lululemon store (yes, the name is all lower case) was the brainchild of Skip Wilson, a veteran of the surfing, skating and snowboarding businesses who had become an enthusiastic yoga student. Wilson found that yoga – particularly intense yoga – gave him the same relaxed and energized after-feeling he experienced from the strenuous outdoor sports. He also had a hunch that he wasn’t alone and that yoga, with its integration of the physical, mental and spiritual, was poised to break from a niche discipline into a popular one.

Wilson also considered that loose cotton clothing was not appropriate for sweaty power yoga. He had become familiar with, and a champion of, fabrics that combined the “wicking” properties of natural fibers with the durability of man-made ones. One such material was Luon, a Lycra-nylon blend which can be woven in several different ways and has become lululemon’s signature fabric. Armed with this alternative idea, Wilson opened a design studio that offered yoga classes at night. He began manufacturing his clothing and had his yoga instructors and students wear and critique it.

By the time he actually opened his first store, in the beach area of Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1998, Wilson eventually created not just a line of clothing but an integrated system of apparel, philosophy and practical advice. “The idea,” the company says, “was to have the store be a community hub where people could learn and discuss the physical aspects of healthy living from yoga and diet to running and cycling as well as the mental aspects of living a powerful life of possibilities.” Trouble was, business became so brisk that staffers did not have time both to sell product and give customers the personal attention that had become the store’s operating model.

So lululemon decided to flip the model. “The focus of training shifted solely to the lululemon educator or staff person. “Our goal was to train our people so well that they could in fact positively influence their families, communities and the people walking into our stores,” the company’s marketers say. The merchandise would then sell itself, according to the individual customer’s personal goals. This almost-missionary approach is borne out in the company’s overall marketing plan. In addition to full-fledged stores, such as the one in Biltmore Village, lululemon maintains a number of showrooms, which carry representative products rather than complete inventories and which are only open part of the week, leaving lululemon instructors time to be “out in the community.”

The lululemon store got a marketing boost when Highland Brewery, the largest and most diverse maker of craft beers in “Beer City USA,” marked the store’s grand opening by hosting a combination yoga session and beer tasting, at which it unveiled Davasana Pale Ale, described as “a classic American pale ale brewed for lululemon athletica.”

The store offers a complimentary yoga class Saturday mornings from nine until ten. The motto “rx: yoga” is now inscribed on the black ceramic tile floor of the old drugstore.

“I wish they could have found a way to keep the old soda fountain,” Bill Bell says. “It was onyx and marble and it was a beauty.”

During the 1960’s, Bell was a manufacturer’s rep for several lines of traditional men’s clothing. Operating out of his car, he traveled the circuit of nearby college campuses holding trunk sales until he had put together enough capital to invest in property in Biltmore Village, which had fallen into a state of benign neglect. One of the village’s few was its drugstore, which dated frrom the 1920’s. In 1971 Bell learned that the proprietor was planning to retire and decided to make a move. “I offered old Doc Jarrett $38,000 for it,” Bell recalls. “He took it and walked out with his hat and a book. He never looked back. I never knew what the book was.”

Bell installed The Pappagallo Shop, featuring that line of upscale ladies’ shoes, in the drugstore and acquired the former bakery next door. He moved the fledgling Bell’s Traditionals, which had been housed in the Biltmore Estate gatehouse, to that location, where it operated until the early 1990’s, when Bell closed the business and leased the premises to Joseph A. Bank Clothiers.

As the gift shop which had replaced Pappagallo in the old drugstore began to wind down operations, Bell and his son began searching for a new tenant. “We noticed that lululemon was the second-fastest growing line in America, and we already knew how well the yoga business was doing in town,” Bell says. “We put two and two together.

“We went down to Charlotte to see their store there,” Bell recalls, “and we almost didn’t find it. They’re very understated and all we saw was their logo.” (The red-and-white lululemon logo is actually a stylized “A” for “Athletically Hip,” a name that was once floated for the company but “failed to make the grade,” though lululemon liked the design so well it decided to keep it.) The Bells and lululemon came to a meeting of the minds and the rest, as they say, is history – and, as lululemon is quick to point out, the future.