At the entrance to Whitespace, in the basement of Lululemon’s headquarters in Vancouver, there are floor-to-ceiling frosted glass windows that turn clear as you approach, revealing an open layout laboratory rife with 3D printers, laser cutters, fusing machines, a massive h/p/cosmos treadmill, temperature simulation room, endless pool, stationary bike, heat sensing cameras and more, all played with by scientists, engineers, designers and technologists. It’s like entering into Q’s lab, for athletic clothes. With the frosted glass, the emphasis that no pictures may be taken, and the card-scanning, locked door, it feels very classified.
“That’s bullshit actually,” Dr. Tom Waller, Director of Innovation and Vice President of Whitespace, says. “It’s just used to impress people.”
Waller is a design type. He’s dressed in all black: button-down, pants, Nike Free shoes, Garmin watch — and he has a light 5 o’clock shadow. He’s fit, a triathlete (he’s doing an Ironman next year, and has done several half Ironmans), and has a clear British accent, somehow fitting in light of the surrounding laboratory (luh-bor-uh-tuh-ree, as Waller says it). And he makes obvious quickly that he’s a clear-glass, not frosted-glass, type of guy. In describing his design philosophy, he starts with what’s wrong with most philosophies. “R&D and Innovation seemed to be in the corner of everyone’s organization, rather than at the center,” he says. “My philosophy is about really pulling the walls down.”
Waller likes for things get complicated — things have to get complicated to truly understand them.
Easy to say, here. Inside these glass walls of the Whitespace, Waller and his R&D team of 30 people have free rein to research how clothes impact physical performance and the mental and emotional perception of athletic ability.
“The problem of understanding a person’s body is not that hard,” he says. “Looking at someone’s physiology, looking at someone’s shape, looking at the way someone moves, that’s pretty mature in the world. A lot of people have been doing that for a long time.” That’s not what fascinates Waller. “That still doesn’t really enable you as a person. To be fully enabled is to understand the psychological limit.” For that, Waller is talking about physical, mental and emotional inhibitors to full potential.
This is the tricky space. This is where Waller starts discussing things like “what does light feel like”; or how athletes are affected by “end peak,” or the greater value we give to things that happen at the conclusion of any experience; or how people’s preferences are influenced by experiences they’ve had and their perception of the world. If it all sounds metaphysical, it is — intentionally.
Waller likes for things to get complicated — things have to get complicated to truly understand them. That kind of complication has been a part of Waller’s thinking since he worked on his PhD in Sports Technology at Loughborough University, with Mike Caine, BSc PhD — one of the leading names in Sports Tech. Caine and Waller’s major innovation was moving Loughborough’s research focus from looking at physically engineered products — bats, balls, clubs, rackets — to looking, as Waller puts it, “at how we physically engineer a human.” The two continued this groundbreaking work at Progressive Sports, where, Waller says, “we started to find ourselves getting quite sticky, getting quite magnetic to other brands asking questions of quite discreet problems they were trying fill.” Progressive Sports clients now include Brooks, Asics, Puma, orca, Speedo, Spalding, Nike, Mizuno, Burton, and many more. After success at Progressive, Waller moved to Speedo’s Aqualab, where he spent four years before joining Lululemon, in 2012. “[Lululemon] is sort of the optimal combination of a company looking to disrupt the world and actually realizes what it takes to disrupt the world,” he says.
Anchoring that is this large, white-walled room, rife with felt cubes for chairs and fake grass on the floor and indie pop playing from the speaker system. The vibe is very startup-y. “This is the ‘do’ space,” Waller says, “the whole thing is an innovation space.” This is where they debate the feeling of lightness and other “critical attributes” that go into engineering a piece of clothing. “The feeling of ‘light’ is more than just the weight of a thing,” Waller starts in. “The feeling of ‘light’ is how it interacts with your body and how it flows in the environment that you are in. Whether it needs to be tight, it needs to be loose, it needs to be highly flexible or highly stretchy or cool to touch or warm to touch. All of those things come together in a certain sort of priority order to make you feel light.” Note the switch at the end: it is not about the clothing being light, it is about the person feeling light in the clothing.
“Regardless of what we can show in a laboratory, perception is reality,” he says. “So it doesn’t matter if we say this is going to make you faster, warmer, lighter; you have to experience that.”
To do that, Waller tries to look at factors with an association to what athletes think is possible. He looks at stretch and modulus (“the power of the fabric, the resistance to stretch”) and hand feel (“the touch of the fabric”) and even noise (sometimes a strength, but usually a negative — we often associate noise and crunchiness with something uncomfortable). Then his team engineers based on requirements for particular athletes in particular situations. “If we’re building a run product we’re working with a runner. And if we’re building a run product for warm weather, we’re working with a runner who runs in warm weather.” To that end, they use the Whitespace as a place of minimized variables, but often they take testing into the real world. “Regardless of what we can show in a laboratory, perception is reality,” he says. “So it doesn’t matter if we say this is going to make you faster, warmer, lighter; you have to experience that.”
Delving into complexity is never far from Waller’s psyche, especially when working with human athletes. “People always prefer what they are used to. So we have to be very, very aware when we’re creating a disruptive sensory experience,” he says. They use a perception-mapping tool — essentially, a set of direct questions — to interrogate an athlete’s perceptions, and then take that benchmark to understand useful data for their own purposes. Then they take that data back to the products.
The end result is, hopefully, clothing that inspires athletes to reach their full potential. If Waller has done his work right, he will have calculated all the physical, mental and emotional factors a garment will have on an athlete, and he will have reduced any inhibiting factors within that garment. It’s a complicated and nuanced and difficult process, one that fits with Waller’s timelines — he’s typically working five or 10 years into the future. (“The future is exciting, but I can’t talk too much about that.”)
Lululemon, and Waller’s team, is banking on him getting it right. If not, he’ll start again. It’s his disposition — an inevitable tick for a tinkerer, engineer, designer, inventor, athlete. “I’ve always been inherently dissatisfied with the world,” he says. “It’s what qualifies me to disrupt the world; I’m never satisfied with it. All I ever do is try to change it.”