Lululemon CEO’s Inclusive Effort Draws Ire From Its Billionaire Founder

Lululemon's founder isn't the first retail exec to say they don't want certain customers in their stores.

Lululemon Athletica store exterior, Ponce City Market
Lululemon is often associated with a premium and aspirational image. John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

Lululemon Athletica, the athleisure apparel brand famous for its $118 yoga pants $68 tank tops, wants to make itself look more down-to-earth under the leadership of its CEO Calvin McDonald. But McDonald’s effort to build a diverse and inclusive brand doesn’t sit well with the company’s billionaire founder, Chip Wilson.

In an interview with Forbes published on Jan. 2, Wilson slammed McDonald’s branding strategy as trying to make Lululemon look like “the Gap, everything to everybody.”

“I think the definition of a brand is that you’re not everything to everybody,” he said. “You’ve got to be clear that you don’t want certain customers coming in.”

Wilson, who founded Lululemon in Canada in 1998, stepped down as the company’s CEO in 2013 after famously saying on Bloomberg Television that Lululemon leggings, one of its top-selling products, “don’t work for some women’s bodies”—a comment widely seen as a jab at plus-size women.

Wilson eventually left Lululemon’s board in 2015 but still owns about 8 percent of the company, which currently claims a market cap of $60 billion. Wilson has an estimated net worth of $8.7 billion.

McDonald, a former LVMH executive, took the helm of Lululemon in 2018 and has launched a series of campaigns to promote the premium apparel brand’s commitment to diversity but with limited success. In late 2020, he formed a new company department called Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Action (IDEA), tasked with increasing the diversity of Lululemon’s staff and expanding the company’s DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) programs.

Though Lululemon claims it has made “considerable progress” since launching the IDEA department, multiple employees have come forward and said that it was more of a publicity move and that company often denied Black employees job opportunities in favor of “less-qualified white counterparts.

Also in 2020, Lululemon held yoga workshops marketed with themes like “decolonize gender” and “resist capitalism,” which quickly sparked criticism on social media accusing the brand of hypocrisy.

Retail executives’ troubled history of saying terrible things

It’s not the first time Wilson stirs controversy with his  discriminatory comments. He famously said he came up with the name “Lululemon” because it’s hard to pronounce in some languages—for example, the sound “L” doesn’t exist in Japanese phonetics. “It’s funny to watch them try and say it,” he told Canada’s National Post Business Magazine in 2005.

He is not the first apparel brand founder to rebuke the industry’s efforts to champion women of all shapes and sizes, either.

In 2006, then Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries told Salon Magazine that his company’s clothes were made for “the attractive all-American kid” and that “a lot of people don’t belong” in them. Seven years later, Robin Lewis, a co-author of the 2013 book The New Rules of Retail, claimed Jeffries had told him he only wanted “thin and beautiful people” in his stores.

In 2018, Victoria’s Secret’s then marketing chief Ed Razek told Vogue that trans and plus-size women do not exemplify the “fantasy” the lingerie brand was trying to sell. He even received support from the company’s owner, Les Wexner, who said at a company meeting that “nobody goes to a plastic surgeon and says, ‘Make me fat,'” according to a New York Times report in early 2020.

Lululemon CEO’s Inclusive Effort Draws Ire From Its Billionaire Founder