“Oh my God, you have to try these leggings.”
This is how it begins.
If you still don’t know about LuLaRoe, the ridiculously popular clothing brand that’s built a huge customer base through private Facebook groups, there’s a good chance your introduction will come soon. You’ll hear a friend raving about LuLaRoe’s brightly patterned, “buttery soft” leggings, or you’ll be invited to an online sale or in-home party.
Or maybe the leggings will simply appear at your house, which is what happened to Tess Day, a 35-year-old mom of two in Seattle. “A friend of mine started selling LuLaRoe,” she says. “She dropped off a pair of leggings at my house and said, ‘Just try them.’ I put them on one night and couldn’t believe how soft they were. The leggings are the gateway drug to LuLaRoe.”
If LuLaRoe were any other brand, it might end there. But LuLaRoe is different. It doesn’t just sell leggings. It sells empowerment.
LuLaRoe is a direct sales company, which means you can only buy its merchandise from “consultants” who buy their inventory from the company and recruit more consultants to work under them (consultants receive 5 percent commission on their underlings’ sales). Consultants can choose how many pieces of the brightly colored clothing to order, but have no idea which colors and patterns they’ll receive (which can be nerve-racking when one considers just how bad the bad patterns can be). This, in turn, creates a sort of scavenger hunt for shoppers looking for rare patterns, styles, and sizes, causing them to join multiple groups hoping to be the first to claim new merchandise during Facebook sales or live “unboxings” streamed on Periscope. Between scooping up and ringing up leggings, LuLaRoe group members trade recipes, weekend plans, inspirational quotes, and thoughts on how to hide purchases from suspicious husbands. The online checkout process involves a Google spreadsheet.
To an outsider, it looks like chaos presented as a pyramid scheme wrapped in floral print spandex. But it’s obviously working: The company has experienced massive growth over the past few years. Started in 2012 by DeAnne Stidham, a single mom, LuLaRoe is still family-owned and extremely private about operational details. Official stats aren’t made public, but the numbers I got from consultants are staggering: The company now has over 30,000 consultants (that number could be as high as 70,000, but again, it’s hard to confirm), with a two- to three-month wait list (called “the queue”) for new sellers wanting to join the team. Once you make it to the top of the list, joining doesn’t come cheap. The initial inventory starter pack costs around $6,000.
Day, who estimates she spends 15–20 hours a week on her LuLaRoe business while staying at home with her two young sons, was able to pay back her initial investment in two months. “I have been able to start paying myself a little bit,” she says. “Some consultants don’t pay themselves for a long time because they’re reinvesting in their own inventory. Like any business, you have to spend money to make money.”
Starr Thompson, 35, a LuLaRoe consultant in Tigard, Oregon, knows this all too well. “My inventory arrived Dec. 7, 2015,” she says. “On Dec. 8, my husband lost his job.” Thompson, who had been working a couple shifts a week as a dental hygienist, suddenly found herself responsible for keeping the family financially afloat. With five kids at home, this was no easy task.
“I was freaking out because I had spent all our money [on LuLaRoe inventory],” she says. So she threw herself into the business, gained a large following on Facebook, launched a standalone website, hosted in-home shopping parties, and trudged to the post office every single day to ship out orders.
“In three months, I was making more than my husband did before he was laid off,” Thompson says. She supported her family for almost a year while her husband looked for work. Her current monthly sales? Around $12,000.
Thompson also sells DoTERRA, a direct sales line of essential oils, which helps explain both her preternatural calm and her success with LuLaRoe. Day also had previous experience with other direct sales companies, as did many of the consultants I spoke to. All of them said LuLaRoe was the most lucrative they’d ever participated in, because your income doesn’t depend on recruiting other salespeople, although it certainly helps. Thompson has 21 consultants on her team.
When I visited Thompson at her home, I got to see how entwined her LuLaRoe life is with her role as a mother. She placed orders online and responded to messages from customers while her two youngest children and two neighbor kids bounced around the racks of clothes in the next room. She was working, but she was able to give the kids attention, taking breaks to cut apple slices, change diapers, and dole out important lessons on graham cracker sharing. It’s a dizzying feat of multitasking, and a huge amount of work, but Thompson excels at it. “If not for LuLaRoe, I would have had to pay someone else to take care of the kids,” she says.
This is a thread that runs through so many LuLaRoe success stories, and according to the company website, it’s exactly why Stidham founded the company:
“She was a single mother raising seven children and trying to balance time at work and at home. She was desperate to find a way to be at home, be a mom and provide for her family.”
The company identified a need—a desperate need, to use their own words—and pinpointed a lucrative solution. While outsiders may refer to LuLaRoe as a “mom cult” because of the thousands of women scrambling to sign up to become consultants, just beneath the cheery floral surface of the company’s success lies an ugly truth about modern-day America: One income isn’t enough to support a family anymore—and two barely cover the costs of childcare.
In individual family systems, as well as society at large, women are the ones expected to take this bad math and make it work: cut coupons, get creative with budget recipes, get a side job, pick up the slack at home. Direct sales have long been a popular option for moms looking to make some extra money (Mary Kay’s pink Cadillacs may be an easy punchline, but the company’s 3.5 million consultants rake in $4 billion in annual sales). Add to that the ease of selling and promoting through social media, and LuLaRoe has quickly become the top choice for those who are able to scrape together the $6,000 startup cost.
“Beneath the cheery floral surface of the company’s success lies an ugly truth about modern-day America: One income isn’t enough to support a family anymore—and two barely cover the costs of childcare.”
Seeing how many women now rely on LuLaRoe to support their families, many question how sustainable its business really is. According to the consultants I talked to, the company is now selling one million pairs of leggings a month. But as more and more consultants join up and more Facebook sales groups are created, is the company heading toward oversaturation or just getting started?
Well, it depends on who you ask.
LuLaRoe has an F on the Better Business Bureau site, mostly due to complaints about poor quality clothing and an arduous return process for damaged items. Countless YouTube videos and customer reviews reveal major quality-control issues, from leggings ripping after one wear to clothes arriving with holes and inconsistent sizes. LuLaRoe consultants say the quality-control issues are part of the company’s “growing pains,” and express sincere hope that they’ll be resolved soon.
However, not everyone who’s sold the brand is so optimistic. A consultant who wished to remain anonymous insisted the company’s troubles were far more serious. “LuLaRoe is unprepared and mismanaged … to the point of disregarding the effects of oversaturation.” She described a period from November 2015 to January 2016 known to consultants as “The Great Leggings Drought,” when LuLaRoe couldn’t keep up with the demand for their signature product from a rash of new consultants. “On our chat rooms and team pages, you’d see, ‘LEGGINGS ARE UP! GO GO GO!’ and by the time you’d log in, they’d all be gone.”
Her experience was echoed by another former consultant, Amy Schaeffer, who wrote an op-ed describing back-orders, delayed shipments, and faulty merchandise. “Damaged items began to arrive, and arrive late, three weeks after they had taken $700 out of my bank account,” she writes. When the corporate office didn’t return her calls, Shaeffer “began eating the cost of damaged items with no replacements.”
Quality control issues are a major burden for consultants, but it’s clear a few rips aren’t stopping customers from returning to LuLaRoe. And that’s because they’ve tapped into a market they understand—everyday multi-tasking women who come in all shapes and sizes, women who because of pregnancy or C-sections or chasing kids around need more comfortable clothing.
“Someone in a Facebook group asked what other moms were wearing after their C-sections,” says Amber Alderin, 30, a stay-at-home mom in Salem, Oregon. “I’ve had two and was always super uncomfortable in clothes afterward. We’re talking seven-plus years of being uncomfortable, or looking like a mess in sweats! Someone suggested LulaRoe, and another local mom who is a consultant was tagged, and the rest is history.”
Many LuLaRoe customers I talked to were dealing with changing bodies during or after pregnancy, and echoed Alderin’s sentiments when she told me, “LulaRoe has made me comfortable in my own skin again.”
Others, like Christiana Odum, a 33-year-old graphic designer in Nashville, Tennessee, were drawn in by the wide range of sizes and those famous prints. “I’m a plus-sized lady who loves color and patterns and those aren’t easy to find. I appreciate that LuLaRoe carries extended clothing sizes, allowing almost everyone to shop with them.”
Millions of women have been consistently ignored and dismissed by the mainstream fashion industry. The average American woman wears a size 16, but shopping for clothes outside “standard sizes” (0-12) is still not an altogether pleasant experience. LuLaRoe is trying to change that.
“With LuLaRoe, I don’t have to go try on a million things in a department store only to be left frustrated and hating my body,” says Alderin. “I can get up in the morning, dress comfortably, and look totally put together.”
After two back-to-back pregnancies, adds Day, “It’s freeing to feel cute again.”
By literally buying into LuLaRoe, consultants have a customer base they already understand and likely have access to. The empowerment from their work comes not just from being businesswomen, but by helping others feel better about themselves and building a community.
“It’s so fun seeing other women out in LulaRoe,” says Alderin. “It’s like a secret club. You’ll get a knowing nod, a smile, or they’ll say, ‘Love your LuLa!’ LuLaRoe makes me feel like I am a part of something more than just being a mom.”