Which of These Brands Is the Next Lululemon?

PHOTO: New brands are becoming more popular for fashion and workout wear.

The little horseshoe-like symbol that fitness fashionistas immediately recognize as belonging to the ubiquitous Lululemon may be becoming less prevalent in gyms and studios and giving way to smaller, up-and-coming apparel makers.

For years the Canadian company has been the go-to for gear wearable both in class and on the street. But after a series of missteps -- the most significant being the too-sheer pants debacle last year -- coupled with a rise in the number of fashion-lifestyle-fitness clothing competitors, some one-time Lulu loyalists are looking for the next big thing when it comes to dressing for the gym.

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Natalia Castle said she's now wearing Ellie, a company based in Santa Monica, California. "It's the same quality and way more affordable," she said. Plus, she said, the company isn't "prejudice toward women who aren't a size zero."

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A move toward other brands is something Annbeth Eschbach, founder and CEO of New York-based Exhale Enterprises, sees in the classes offered in her more than 20 high-end studios around the country and the Caribbean. She said that while a few years ago more than half of any given class would be wearing Lululemon, now it's a "complete mixed bag."

She said that while Lululemon is still selling well at Exhale locations, there has been a larger increase in sales among lesser-known competitors, including the company's own Exhale brand. And while there's no company as large as Lululemon in the fashion-meets-fitness apparel niche, Eschbach said "it's only a matter of time."

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Lululemon's first-quarter earnings report, the most recent available, showed an increase in online sales, but a 4 percent decline in sales in established stores.

At Exhale, which offers both yoga and its signature Core Fusion classes for $37 for a one-hour class, the well-heeled are wearing Splits59, Prism Sport, Michi and Trina Turk active wear. Price points for those brands are similar or more expensive than Lululemon.

“Women want niche-y boutique-y cool," she said.

And there's another, more familiar name fast becoming a staple among the fashionable and fit: Under Armour. Sold at a lower price point than Lululemon, the Baltimore-based brand that was once synonymous with professional and college athletes is now popular with the everyday fitness buff and is, according to one expert, "very bad-ass."

"I'm really starting to see the brand pop up in my cardio-dance classes," said Minal Mehta, co-founder and president of the dance-fitness program BollyX.

Eschbach said it's also becoming more popular at her Exhale locations. Under Armour reported a 36 percent improvement in revenue in the first quarter, compared to the year-earlier period.

Both women also agreed that Athleta, a division of Gap Inc., is poised to do great things in the marketplace. "Athleta is doing a great job partnering with fitness brands to host free classes open to the community," Mehta said. "I think these community efforts are working. I'm also seeing a lot of Athleta gear in my classes."

But don't put away your Lululemon gear just yet. "Lulu is still super cute and fashionable," Mehta said. "Lulu loyalists still swear by the line."

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