Chip Wilson is his own employee of the month. Right there on his website, you can see a portrait of his smiling face, set within a cheap wooden frame and festooned with a gold star bearing the accolade. But in his colorful new memoir, Little Black Stretchy Pants: The Unauthorized Story of Lululemon (LBSP), the controversial Lululemon Athletica founder makes clear that, beyond ostensibly putting himself above his actual employees, he also feels superior to many of the women who wear the brand’s hundred-dollar yoga pants that have made him a multibillionaire. LBSP is dripping with contempt for the “non-athletic, smoking, Diet-Coke drinking woman in a New Jersey shopping mall wearing an unflattering pink velour track suit” who may now reach for a pair of Lulus.
As he tells it, the irreverent Wilson is the star of Lululemon’s success story. And by extension, he also sees himself as the victim of what he understands to be the athleisure company’s fall from greatness to mass-market mediocrity since he resigned as chairman in 2013. If newer employees continue to find the culture refreshing, Wilson explains, it’s only because “Lululemon is living on the fumes” of its former glory.
In this way, Wilson’s 400-plus-page volume often reads like a screed. It’s worth your time, however, because for all Wilson’s outrage at what the innovative company he created has become (and there’s a lot of outrage), he is still Lululemon’s largest individual shareholder, profiting from every single sports bra, headband, and pair of pants sold—to Olympic athletes, weekend workout warriors, and suburbanites alike.
Meet Ocean, Lululemon’s ideal woman
Launched in 1998, Lululemon’s original Boogie Pant was recently displayed in the Museum of Modern Art as a cultural touchstone, and Wilson justifiably takes credit in LBSP for seamlessly linking Lycra leggings to an aesthetic he called “streetnic” long before “athleisure” was on offer from Kohl’s to Carbon38. I sported my worn lacrosse shorts to work out well into the early aughts, and LBSP sheds light on how, back in 1998, “gym fashion was your worst throwaway clothes,” while today we live in a world in which yoga pants outsell blue jeans.
To read Wilson’s book is to be reminded just how women became sold on yoga pants (they take up a full shelf in my own closet). The now-ubiquitous garments project a distinctly 21st century ideal that Lululemon, under Wilson’s leadership, helped create. It goes something like: I’m so disciplined, I’m always en route to or from the gym; I’m so liberated, I don’t constrain myself in stiff denim or by a job that requires the restrictions of a suit or uniform. I value comfort, but I do not surrender to the bulky shapelessness of sweatpants; the Spandex embrace of my yoga pants both shows off my curves and, Spanx-like, creates them. Plus, I’m stylish and practical: My workout wear is designed for performance and it is designer.
Women are core to promoting this particular vision and the idea that one must be outfitted in Lulu to truly live it. The very picture of this ideal, painted by Wilson, is “Ocean,” the eternally 32-year old exercise and travel enthusiast who owns her own condo and represents the perfect Lululemon customer (rather, “guest”). Then, there’s the real-life army of employees (sorry, “educators”), who sell Ocean’s imaginary aesthetic and the aspirational lifestyle it accompanies in the Lululemon stores that have become fixtures in affluent zip codes over the last decade. One former employee remembered the idol as so vivid and resonant that her fellow educators aspired “to be Ocean.”
Of course, not everyone can be Ocean, which accounts for her appeal. And Wilson is nostalgic for the days when such exclusivity drove Lululemon. He reminisces about banning smoking in his Westbeach store (the snowboarding apparel company he founded) in the early 1980s, enraging many but only making his following more “fanatical” and tying clean living to luxury consumption in a way now familiar in the GOOP era. That rich, youthful yogi is also straight and an aspiring mother: Wilson describes Lululemon as built on “family values”—a conservative catchphrase—and alarmingly recounts “screen[ing] for people who wanted families…[we] wanted people to meet the perfect mate, have children, wanted the family nucleus to be an energy generator.” The company required women to discuss family planning with management as a workaround to that pesky human resources problem: pregnancy.
Ocean is likely also white. Wilson’s brand vision took shape amid the snow-capped peaks of Whistler and the sanctuary of Vancouver yoga studios, glaringly white spaces where it was apparently possible for him to find inspiration in yoga classes and in the trends of “hoodies” and “hip-hop inspired and gun-hiding” clothing without once mentioning race.
Oh yeah, and she’s skinny. Body-positivity activism has been ascendant for at least a decade, and Lululemon has been called out as “discriminatory” for failing to stock sizes larger than 12. But on his blog, Wilson implies that the experience of a plus-size shopper who finds no clothes that fit her is similar to his own search for extra-long shoelaces to fit his size 14 shoes. Having large feet, most people who have ever entered a store, much less founded a retail empire, can tell you, is nowhere near as fraught as shopping when nothing is made to fit you.
Wilson’s refusal to make clothes for larger women seems clearly more about cultivating a slim, young, feminine ideal than conserving cloth.
On Wilson’s blog, he also wonders why sizing would be framed as “such a women’s issue,” since, in his (uninformed) view: “I don’t believe society thinks any different about plus size men or plus size women.” His opinion on women who, unlike Ocean, eventually turn 33, is similarly obtuse. The fastest-growing segment of gym-goers is over 55 years old, and inspiring stories of elderly marathoners, weightlifters, and well, RBG, have powerfully disrupted the outdated idea that fitness is about finding a fountain of youth rather than feeling good at any age. Yet Wilson disdains a competitor for serving “older women [who] preferred looser clothing and were typically larger in size.” It’s because “this customer is not iconic” (Wilson pronounces it as if it’s a foregone conclusion)—and because outfitting these women means more material at greater cost—an inclusive brand could “never be a market leader.” Given that Wilson recounts happily manufacturing oversized, “fat” (his word) clothing when young, male customers demanded it at his snowboarding brand, Westbeach, Wilson’s refusal to make clothes for larger women seems clearly more about cultivating a slim, young, feminine ideal than conserving cloth.
Such deliberate ignorance is troubling coming from the founder of a womenswear company who calls out the “macho” vibe of brands like Under Armour, Adidas, and Nike that for years relied on “shrink it and pink it” as their guiding philosophy, but whose own POV mostly boils down to a more sophisticated form of misogyny.
The problem with power women
Women, Wilson writes, were led astray from the Good Life in the last few decades. He doesn’t name feminist activism as the problem, but his digs at “Power Women,” for whom breast cancer and “divorce seemed inevitable” due to taking the birth control pill, “lack of sleep, work-related stress, poor eating habits, and three-martini lunches,” make the target of his critique crystal clear.
These Power Women, Wilson describes with unmasked contempt, birthed a generation of “Super Girls” raised to believe they could do anything and who thus “dominated education” and played sports on the weekends they spent with their dads while their hapless brothers were “coddled by their single mothers.” Interestingly, Wilson first targeted Super Girls as the Lululemon demographic, but quickly became as disgusted with a subset of newly “zenned out” women who’d abandoned hard-driving corporate careers and flocked to the West Coast’s wellness scene but failed to shed a “Wall Street mentality” that distracted them from marriage and children. “We soon had to rid ourselves of these Balance Girls,” Wilson summarily explains.
Moral stewardship might seem like too much to ask of a clothing company. But given Wilson’s grandiose claims about “elevating the world from mediocrity to greatness,” and Lululemon’s undeniable influence on 21st-century wellness culture, it’s fair to wonder what that world might look like.
Considering Wilson’s pull-no-punches rhetorical style and the ease with which he makes grand generalizations about women, LBSP is curiously quiet on specific issues at Lululemon that have affected specific women. Like the gruesome murder of one educator by another at the Bethesda store where they both worked, which inspired an entire book by an investigative journalist. Wilson doesn’t even mention this tragedy, much less reflect on the alarming critique by a former employee that murderous rage was one“inevitable” outcome of Lululemon’s “cult-like” environment, which he takes pride in having created. The current corporate incarnation of Lululemon mostly comes under fire from Wilson in LBSP, but he never mentions one of its most damning traits: allegedly enabling, and covering up, rape. Wilson blasts Laurent Potdevin—the CEO who oversaw this era—as the board’s “mediocre-at-best” fourteenth choice for the job, but oddly never mentions why Potdevin was allegedly forced to resign: sexual misconduct and, according to some employees, fostering a “toxic boys’ club” culture.” These silences speak volumes about Wilson’s disregard for the very demographic that allowed him to ascend from “good to great,” one of the inspirational sayings sprinkled throughout LBSP.
The one issue Wilson does not dodge are his infamous comments about “some women’s bodies not working” for Lululemon leggings that were discovered to pill easily. Dethroning him from visionary to “the weird uncle the family must put up with,” this episode was caused, in Wilson’s mind, by over-sensitive women with thighs thick enough to touch, social media outrage, political correctness, and risk-averse executives, not his retrograde attitudes becoming increasingly out of step with an ever-more-woke wellness culture. Though Wilson remembers this moment as the worst kind of watershed, when he was forced to resign and “the history and culture of Lululemon were whitewashed,” he never deigns to engage with any of the critiques he minimizes as mere “uproar.”
Moral stewardship might seem like too much to ask of a clothing company. But given Wilson’s grandiose claims about “elevating the world from mediocrity to greatness,” and Lululemon’s undeniable influence on 21st-century wellness culture, it’s fair to wonder what that world might look like. Lululemon, however, has never been“a wellness company,” Wilson clarifies, pointing out he has no interest in “making sick people well,” just in giving “normal people the opportunity to be their best.”
But what about those of us among the apparently abnormal masses?
Why do we love leggings so much? One editor investigates. And as a palate cleanser to Wilson’s philosophy, here’s an in-depth look at why fashion has a size-inclusivity problem.
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