Lululemon founder’s full rant against yoga retailer skewers ‘appalling’ men’s line, DEI and more


Chip Wilson, the billionaire founder of Lululemon, is no stranger to controversy. But the Canadian-born entrepreneur has once again drawn scrutiny over recent comments made in an interview with Forbes about the yoga retailer’s push toward diversity and inclusion in its advertising.
Chip Wilson by Jamel Toppin for Forbes 5833_RET (1)

Chip Wilson by Jamel Toppin for Forbes

“I think through this whole diversity and inclusion thing that they’re trying to become like the Gap, everything to everybody. And I think the definition of a brand is you’re not everything to everybody” Wilson said in the now widely quoted section of the interview published Jan. 2, which also included his complaints that the men in Lululemon ads look “sickly” and the women are “not inspirational.”

The comments were part of a longer rant by the apparel billionaire against the company he once led. Wilson’s complaints span everything from the company’s foray into men’s clothing to what he views as over-inclusive marketing, straying from his original vision for Lululemon.

Though Wilson has no formal role at Lululemon anymore – he stepped down as chairman of the board of directors in 2013 amid backlash over blaming an issue with see-through leggings on “some women’s bodies,” specifically those with thicker thighs– he remains the company’s largest individual shareholder with an 8% stake (which accounts for 70% of his estimated $6.9 billion fortune).

The company responded to Wilson’s additional comments below by distancing itself even further from its former leader. “Chip Wilson does not speak for lululemon, and his comments do not reflect our company views or beliefs. Chip has not been involved with the company since his resignation from the board in 2015 and we are a very different company today,” a Lululemon spokesperson said via email.

Wilson’s comments are published in full below. [The following transcript has been edited minimally for clarity.]

Men’s Clothing

“If you look at about 30% of their men’s stuff, to me, it’s appalling. They’re making even dress shirts that have no style to them, but they’re just making a dress shirt to put it in there. I’m sure they get the fabric for $2 a meter and they make it. It’s in the Lululemon store so people are buying it because they think it’s technical. They’re buying it and wearing it, but it’s not.

But what’s happening is the margin on it is so huge that the merchandisers and everyone’s getting a bonus on the profit and the margins of a bad streetwear fashion product, which is only selling at a high price because of the Lululemon technical product. It ends up being what I call bad profits. Bad profits in a company like that lead to the Gap and eventually you can see Lululemon is making more and more streetwear and less and less technical wear.”

Poor Leadership and Strategy

“You can tell by the way [Lululemon] bought Mirror for like $500 million and probably by the time they got out of it, it probably will cost them like $800 million, and so it tells me they don’t really understand the business. I stayed away from technical [products]. You can see it failed for Nike and Under Armour for sure. It runs counter to the core way that the [Lululemon] business is set up to sell in the store and sell online. They would have been much better off buying a company called Figs, which is technical hospital scrubs, which was fashionable and then made technical.

That’s the kind of thinking that I think you have with a board now that’s old and doesn’t really understand [the company]. When they bought Mirror [in 2020], it took them about a year to fire the founder of that. So it tells me the biggest risk is the board doesn’t have the ability to work with people who are thinking 5-10 years out in the future.

The second thing is do they really understand the product? Glenn Murphy, who was the CEO of the Gap [Murphy was CEO of Gap from 2007 until 2014, before joining Lululemon’s board as co-chairman in 2017 and serving as chair until March 2022], has brought every bad thought about how the Gap runs to Lululemon … And you’re bringing that mentality to Lululemon, which was built up to be an anti-Gap kind of thing. It was technical and it was changing its styling every year, moving forward and thinking about functional fabrics and how that enhances people’s lives. Not let’s do an advertising campaign and make people think they’re happy, but let’s actually make a product that makes people phenomenal in every part of their life. And so I think that’s the biggest risk that Lululemon has – they don’t know how to work with futurists.”

Why Inclusivity Is Bad

“For Lululemon to have a big opportunity, they would have to risk and I think they would have to become a brand that people want. I think through this whole diversity and inclusion thing that they’re trying to become like the Gap, everything to everybody. And I think the definition of a brand is you’re not everything to everybody. And I’ll give you an example: When I opened my first surf-skate store [West Beach] and this was in 1980, I wouldn’t allow people in my store who smoked. I actually didn’t want customers who smoked. I didn’t want that connection to happen at all. And these people would leave saying, ‘I’m going to tell everyone not to buy in your store, I’m going to go to city council, I’m going to go to government. We’re going to shut you down.’ I thought it was so funny. Because what happened is that the people that were anti-smokers that were very healthy, they came into my West Beach store, and so I learned something from that.

And so when I started Lululemon, my very first manifesto line, which is what used to be on the bag — and that was 1998, so you have to take it in context — but it said ‘Coke and Pepsi are the tobacco of the future. Great marketing, terrible product.’ So what did I learn from West Beach? I learned what I don’t want. I don’t want people who are drinking Coke and Pepsi. Because I could see the obesity epidemic happening in the U.S. even in 1995.

I didn’t want people who were wearing the Lululemon brand who were drinking Coke and Pepsi, or eating McDonald’s, because the fast food industry was part of it at the time.

So what I’m really getting at there is Lululemon has the opportunity to become a brand, but in order to become a brand, you’ve got to be clear that you don’t want certain customers coming in. And right now I think they’re fearful. Instead of living out of possibility, they live out of the fear of media backlash of not including everybody–and it’s just something I don’t agree with.

I see brands coming out against Lululemon who have healthy people in their brands. So as opposed to having people who look very unhealthy to me on e-commerce, the men look sickly, the women I don’t know but they’re not inspirational in any case, so I think they have the opportunity to move into the health, fitness, longevity space where Lululemon was meant to be.”

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