Dec 13, 2013

Chipping Away at Lululemon

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Chip Wilson Lululemon photo lululemon-chip-wilson_zps0e76c41c.jpg

Chip Wilson is bad for business. He announced earlier this week that he will step down as chairman of the company he founded in 1998 -- a yoga-themed retail chain he created to address the scourge of feminism and named to mock the Japanese.

But the news just keeps getting worse for Lululemon. Yesterday the company took a beating on Wall Street after lowering its sales projections. Shares fell 11.7%.

Under the new chairmanship of Michael Casey and with new CEO Laurent Potdevin, Lululemon will try to rehabilitate its image and stock price.

Lululemon Athletica Inc (LULU.O) named a new chief executive on Tuesday and said founder Chip Wilson will step down as chairman, as the upscale yogawear retailer tries to expand globally and put a series of embarrassing quality issues and other gaffes behind it.

The company said Laurent Potdevin, most recently president of trendy footwear brand TOMS Shoes, will replace Christine Day as CEO in January and emphasized Potdevin's role leading TOMS' global expansion.

Lululemon, in the early stages of a push into Europe and Asia, was forced to recall some of its signature black stretchy pants in March because they were see-through. The incoming CEO said quality will be a top priority when he takes the helm.

"Product and quality for any premium brand such as Lululemon is absolutely paramount," Potdevin told Reuters. "It will be a very clear area of focus for me."

One hopes not insulting the public with one outrageous statement after another figures into Potdevin's plans because that would appear to be the larger problem. Most recently, Wilson announced that  women whose thighs touch are bad for their overpriced yoga pants. You can never be too rich or too thin to be a Lululemon customer. Their stores shun the over size 8 woman, burying a minimal selection of sizes 10 and 12 in the back. And if you're over size 12, forget it. Your ass is too fat for Lululemon's bottom line. Wilson explained that the extra fabric would cost too much, ignoring the obvious fact that other companies manage to eek out a profit making larger pants for far less than Lululemon's roughly $100 price tag.

Amazingly these aren't the worst things he's ever said or done. A rundown of some of Chip Wilson's greatest hits can be found here, such as his pontification on the toll feminism has taken on women's lives and health.

"Women’s lives changed immediately [after the pill]. ... Men did not know how to relate to the new female. Thus came the era of divorces," Wilson wrote in a blog post in 2009.

"With divorce and publicity around equality, women in the 1970′s/80′s found themselves operating as 'Power Women.' The media convinced women that they could win at home and be a man’s equal in the business world.... The 1980′s gave way to Power Women dressing like men in boardroom attire with big shoulder pads. They went to 3 martini lunches and smoked because this is what their 'successful' fathers did in the business world.

"... Breast cancer also came into prominence in the 1990’s. 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."

Strangely, these ideas didn't go over well with the store's customer base.

Also unpopular was his plan to stem the problem of youth unemployment in the Third World. Where most of us call that exploiting child labor, the forward thinking Wilson saw it as a way for impoverished children to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Then there was his childlike glee at the unintentional hilarity of Japanese people who "try to say" Lululemon. Wilson seems almost impossibly tone-deaf.

The ironic contempt of a yoga clothier for women's bodies that stray from a largely unattainable ideal has even alienated some of Lululemon's most ardent supporters. "Luluheads" lit up social media with their outrage over Wilson's comments about thigh "pressure." And at least two Lululemon ambassadors have written public kiss-offs.

"Chip Wilson can kiss my fat yoga ass," says Alanna Kaivalya, whose long relationship with the store included twice acting as an ambassador and teaching free yoga classes in their stores.

I have taught free classes for Lululemon all across the country, and only been paid in sweat-shop-labor-made Whisper tanks. I felt like it was good exposure, and I always try to teach when it's asked of me, but eventually something didn't add up. Why wasn't I feeling good about participating in these "community building" events? Because they weren't for me, or for the students, they were for Lululemon.

I mean, it's great free advertising, right?

Get a bunch of people in a vacant store filled with nothing but Lululemon product and feed them 60 minutes of free, good quality yoga. And when they're just coming out of their yoga buzz-filled shavasana, turn on the lights and start up the cash registers. Ka-Ching!

Brilliant move. Except, the yoga teacher has just given up her Saturday and will probably go teach three more paid classes that day just to make what she needs to pay her electricity bill that week.

Word to the wise: When a business is making a profit on your free labor, you're being exploited. This is something more and more TED speakers -- and TED refuseniks -- are learning. It's something I grokked early on in the new age marketplace. People who are passionate about their non-traditional careers and interests are a very exploitable commodity. Teaching yoga is a labor of love.

Kaivalya had also grown increasingly concerned about the LGATs and cultishness in Lululemon stores, as discussed here. But the final straw was the non-inclusiveness of Wilson's comments about women who happen to have thighs -- an attitude that stands so at odds with the principles of yoga.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela hung up her Lululemon ambassadorship because Wilson's thigh-bashing comments starkly revealed what has long been an undercurrent of misogyny in the store's corporate culture.

In 2010 I was flown to Vancouver to attend Lululemon's inaugural Global Ambassador Summit: three days of networking, exercise, and immersion in lululand. The organizers described it as an opportunity to "create awesome" and in many ways it was. At a roundtable discussion with a senior executive, however, I enthusiastically raised the idea of focusing more deliberately on pregnant women, whom I knew loved their clothes. The answer? A bemused snicker, and an explanation that Lululemon was about "aspirational fashion -- and there is NOTHING aspirational about pregnancy." I smiled weakly, astonished at the incongruence between this arrogance and the attitudes of the lulu team back in New York.

I immediately thought of this interaction when I heard Wilson's interview. That same macho derision toward female bodies, especially heavy ones. Most of all: a repugnantly familiar misogynist tendency to reduce a woman to her body parts. This cultural malaise reaches far beyond loudmouths at lululemon. The anti-choice movement is notorious for defining women as little more than uteruses. Ardent "lactivists" are guilty as well, disdaining women who choose not to breastfeed. Even the breast cancer awareness movement has embraced a do-it-for-the-boys campaign to "save second base." Wilson's comments, in correlating a woman's worthiness to wear lululemon with the distance between her thighs, (that's an inverse relationship, FYI) partake of the same disturbing trend.

There is "nothing aspirational about pregnancy." I don't even know how to begin to process such a statement. Chip Wilson has created a company that is utterly contemptuous of women's bodies. Perhaps it can be rehabilitated under its new leadership but I'm not optimistic. Wilson will still sit on the board of directors and will no doubt continue to exert a great deal of control over the direction of his brainchild. This is probably little more than a cosmetic change. Only time and clothing sizes will tell.

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