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Lululemon’s Chip Wilson Is Finally Out, Leaves Trail of Women Issues, Moves On To ‘Next Lululemon’

in Business of Yoga, YD News
Chip Wilson in his Vancouver home | photo credit: Jeff Minton for The New York Times

Chip Wilson in his Vancouver home | photo credit: Jeff Minton for The New York Times

This New York Times profile on Chip Wilson may be more character-revealing of the man, the myth, the Lululemon, than the sheer yoga pants his company sold to thousands of women that set off a cascade of company missteps and public uproar. But were they missteps or did it just take see-through pants to open the flood gates and our eyes? The lengthy NYT piece coincides with Wilson’s announcement that he’s resigned from his position on Lululemons’s board and is moving on to new horizons and ventures including his wife’s “technical cashmere” company and his self-aggrandizing meditation site. (We imagine his tell-all book will also be out fairly soon.)

And it’s a good thing, too, because the poor clueless sexist millionaire says he feels like he’s “been in prison,” he told NYT writer Amy Wallace. It’s been a rough few of years for Chip, but it’s hard to feel sorry for him, especially when he’s never been sorry himself.

“If you are doing a brand well, you need to offend somebody, or you’re not standing for anything,” he told me. He remained a bit hurt, and a little mystified, by the drubbing he’d taken. “I mean, how women can say these things about me given everything I’ve done to build the women’s company?” he asked.

Why is everyone so ungrateful?

Wilson’s peace out move comes just a little more than a year after his resignation as Chairman, which occurred not too long after see-through pantscapade and his highly controversial comments that, ”Some women’s bodies don’t work for the pants,” and “It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs,” followed by his lame non-apology (“You hear that, ladies? Chip Wilson is sad that your chafing ham hocks made him put his employees through this difficult time,” Stephen Colbert remarked at the time), followed by customers reporting they had to bend over to prove their pants were see-through.

Was it all a misunderstanding? Of women, apparently.

Wilson’s lack of understanding women seems to stem all the way back to his awkward 20s and issues with being “socially inept.”

Chip Wilson’s first eureka moment came in a yoga class in 1997. Having grown up “socially inept,” he says, he had always been perplexed by women. Even in his 20s, he says: “I didn’t know how to be with a woman. Like, what do they really want?” But this awkwardness also turned him into a keen observer of women, and he devoted himself to trying to read their cues. What that course of study revealed to him, in his early 40s, as he looked around the mostly female yoga class, was that women wanted well-fitting athletic clothing that also attracted the eye.

So his utter misunderstanding of women and his proclaimed understanding of male gaze is what led him to create his highly successful business of butt-hugging pants.

“If I could eliminate the middlemen, have my own retail stores and sell the pants for $90 to $95,” Wilson recalls thinking, “I bet you women will buy billions of them.” He made some prototypes and asked his yoga teacher to beta-test them. She gave them raves: they were comfortable but tight enough to stay put; they were not sheer; as a plus, they made her backside look good. “I think that Lululemon was so successful because I was probably the only straight guy that was making women’s apparel, and I knew what a guy liked,” Wilson told me. “Girls ended up wearing it, and guys commented on it.”

Woo boy. Because women only wear what they wear based on what guys like. So Wilson hijacked the entire yoga world because he knows guys like to look at women’s butts? Or he knew that women don’t dress for men but do like things that make their butts look rounder. (He says he’s straight, but we’re starting to wonder, actually. This is not intended to be a dig by any means, just a simple thought that might actually clear up his female confusion. Suppression is a powerful drug. So is ego. In any case, we’re sensing some deep-rooted female issues here.)

Wilson explains his “muse” for the lulu target customer was a 32-year-old single professional woman named “Ocean.” She’s “engaged, has her own condo, is traveling, fashionable, has an hour and a half to work out a day.”

Ocean was the target market, he explained, because she was the woman who all women want to be. “If you’re 20 years old or you’re graduating from university, you can’t wait to be that woman,” he said. “If you’re 42 years old with a couple children, you wish you had that time back.”

Geez, enough, already. Although, it’s maybe starting to make a tiny bit more sense? Wilson has no clue when it comes to women, but he does have a very keen business sense, and a taste for controversial subjects.

This see-through pants stuff all, of course, after an incredible series of scandals and/or PR faux pas, however you’d like to put it, the company has seen through the years including the John Galt/Ayn Rand “Atlas Shrugged” debacle (which we’ve learned lulu CEO at the time, Christine Day, was not happy about), the ban on customers reselling their pants, the more recent Dalai Lama Center partnership, the list goes on. And who could forget the troublesome foundations of the brand itself? According to an interview with Canada’s National Post BusinessWilson named the company Lululemon because it’s amusing that Japanese people can’t pronounce the “L.” (“It’s funny to watch them try and say it,” he’s quoted as saying, though he now denies it.)

And then there was the time he connected the success of Lululemon and the increase of breast cancer and high divorce rates to “Power Women” who were on the pill taking on work-related stresses only previously assumed by men.

“Breast cancer also came into prominence in the 1990s. I suggest this was due to the number of cigarette-smoking Power Women who were on the pill (initial concentrations of hormones in the pill were very high) and taking on the stress previously left to men in the working world…. Ultimately, Lululemon was formed because female education levels, breast cancer, yoga/athletics and the desire to dress feminine came together all at one time,” he wrote in a lulu blog post.

Again, women issues.

However, it only gets better (worse?) for Chip and lulu, especially after the pants problems, and especially in terms of the company’s financial outlook, as NYT‘s Wallace explains:

Within two months, Lululemon’s stock price had dropped by nearly a third and Wilson had announced his resignation as chairman. Thus began what Wilson thinks of as his incarceration. Over the next year, his net worth would plummet 47 percent, according to Canadian Business magazine — to just $2.1 billion. As Lululemon’s biggest shareholder, and as a member of its board, he says, he was told by the company’s executives that it was his fiduciary duty to refrain from further public statements.

Instead of shutting up he’s just leaving.

Back in August, Wilson sold half of his stake in Lulu and made $845 million for it, which he says was “everything I wanted.” His wife Shannon has also left the company and started a new clothing line called Kit and Ace with their son J.J. which Chip says primed to be the “next Lululemon, so to speak.” The company focuses on machine washable “technical fabrics” like their trademarked “Technical Cashmere” and $80 t-shirts that could soon rise to be lulu’s rival. There are already seven Kit and Ace stores open in North America (five in Canada, two in US) with 95 more planned for the US in the next four years. To get an idea of growth, Wilson’s five-year sales goal is $1 billion.

Kit and Ace’s muse? There are two.

Kit, a 29-year-old single woman who, Shannon told me, “is looking to buy her first apartment, but is still renting. She works in the creative area, like in graphic design or fashion, and loves to bike on weekends”; and Ace, a 32-year-old similarly groovy guy, who drinks strong coffee, “likes to go to breweries and hangs out with his friends. He does CrossFit once a week and spins three times a week, loves brunch on the weekends.”

Add a trust fund and pretty sure that just described why Brooklyn is going to hell. We digress.

Part of Wilson’s in-depth interview took place at the treacherous Grouse Grind hiking trail in Vancouver where he, a publicist (both outfitted in Lululemon) and the journalist ”had to occasionally cling to ropes to keep from plummeting into a mossy abyss,” because the location gave him “a Zen feeling and kept him in the moment, just as yoga once did,” Wallace writes. This location also gives him a chance to see his clothes in action and stare at women’s butts because, “It’s my job,” he said. “I have to look.” Priceless.

Our perhaps favorite part of the NYT piece is where Wallace says “the way Wilson spoke reminded me of the airhead fashion model Ben Stiller plays in “Zoolander”…more than once. There’s definitely a sort of “blue steel” effect going on and we wouldn’t be too surprised to see the unveiling of a Wilson-esque Center For Children Who Can’t Read Good and Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too (probably through his whil.com pet project, which he describes as “the new face of meditation” and where he’s been described in a promotional video using the words “Brilliant. Genius. Cult following. Visionary.”)

While some of us might wish Chip Wilson would just go away and enjoy traversing the mountains of cold hard cash Scrooge McDuck style in his mansion made of luon, we don’t really see that happening any time soon. The good news is, it seems he’s taking a much needed break from the yoga world, and hopefully his savasana is a realllly long one. (Side note: by our calculations, Wilson may be out, but he still owns 13.5 percent stake in Lululemon, which means he’ll still make money from it, for now.)

What’s clear in all of this is that Lululemon, a yoga-inspired company, was never really founded in yoga to begin with. Even though it can be seen as one of the catalysts, or at least a helping hand in, bringing yoga into it’s popularity today, for better or for worse. Go ahead with your “technical athleta-leisure” and “business athleticism” wear, Mr. Wilson. But, please, for the love of Metta, don’t set your sights on co-opting meditation next. Our zafu-seated butts are fine, thanks.

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2 comments… add one

  • VQonce

    Chip Wilson will never be forgotten. The Unstoppable household deodorant line has an actress actually mouthing, ” I want my yoga pants to smell like I sweat money” …

    Legacy to Corporate Amerikan commerce …

  • Well, Chip stays consistent over time. “Not his fault”. We won’t see changes in his behavior until he becomes more self aware. I hope that happens for him. Meanwhile. what does a millionaire need? Good investments. I am sure he has good advisors and will find his financial future solid.

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