It’s time we finally address the racist and problematic nature of Lululemon and its founder

By Emma O'Regan-Reidy

Published Mar 21, 2024 at 09:00 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

Over the past decade, lululemon has become synonymous with athleisure. When walking into any of the brand’s stores, it’s likely that nothing would catch you off-guard at first glance. The minimalist displays and imagery, the thoughtfully curated products and the high price points have become a given—something to be expected when buying workout apparel.

However, upon closer look, you may notice a few remnants that the foundation Chip Wilson, lululemon’s former CEO, laid in the company’s early years. For example, some of the reusable shopping bags still say that “stress is related to 99% of all illness” (a quote which Vox previously debunked, along with other questionable ‘facts’ displayed on the totes).

While you could attribute these ideas to the more hippie, woo-woo side of yoga, they also echo the brand’s problematic past, most of which boils down to Wilson, who’s been making tactless comments for years. Ever wonder: Why is lululemon called lululemon? Is lululemon racist? Or what was the most recent lululemon CEO scandal? Below, find the answers to all three questions—and then some.

 

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Lululemon’s history of racism

Despite lululemon ranking as the seventh largest apparel company worldwide—according to Forbes—many consumers still don’t know the lululemon name origin. Truthfully, it’s challenging to pinpoint exactly where Wilson answered the question: “why is it named lululemon?”, most likely since the original comment has been swept under the rug for years.

The closest answer I could find was in a 2005 article in The Tyee, an independent online news magazine based out of British Columbia, Canada. As told by journalist Scott Deveau, “Wilson is no stranger to controversy. He named his high-end yoga wear company lululemon because he thinks the trouble Japanese people face pronouncing Ls works as an extra marketing tool for his product in that country, according to a National Post Business Magazine article which awarded him a special citation for product innovation and marketing.” Unfortunately, the link to the National Post Business Magazine article now leads to a 404 on lululemon’s website. However, further quoting the article, Deveau documented that Wilson said that “it’s funny to watch them try and say it,” when speaking of Japanese consumers and his brand. Lovely stuff.

@milksandmatcha

To be fair he is no longer with lulu… #mit #college #student #school #lululemon Necklace from @themjewelers #themjewelers

♬ Good Vibes (Instrumental) - Ellen Once Again

Wilson stepping down as CEO of lululemon

This interview from 2005 points to lululemon’s history of racism as well as the beginning of an array of media blunders from Wilson in years to come. Over time, this coalesced into his eventual fall from grace. In December 2013, Wilson eventually resigned as chairman of lululemon’s board of directors after he (unsurprisingly) made controversial comments about customers’ bodies. CNBC reported on his departure at the time, explaining that: “Wilson’s resignation comes after a media firestorm about remarks he made in an interview, following criticism of the company’s products for being too sheer and pilling.”

According to CNBC, Wilson told Bloomberg: “Frankly some women’s bodies just don’t actually work for [the pants]. It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there over a period of time, how much they use it.” Many customers were offended by his comments—and rightfully so. As a result, an online petition urging the brand to create more size-inclusive clothing (and for a more sincere apology than Wilson’s now-deleted YouTube video) was created and shared widely.

Chip Wilson in the present day

So, what is Chip Wilson up to now? In his years post-lululemon, the billionaire has taken on an array of other business ventures related to athletic and technical apparel. Most notably, he told Forbes in January 2024 that he’s spent the past few years behind the scenes at brands like Salomon—aka those viral trainers with the bungee cord laces. He aims to transform these outdoorsy, functional products into something that is more stylish, seasonless and that can be worn every day, particularly by more women.

Apart from athleisure, Wilson also set up an organisation, Solve FSHD, which aims to stamp out facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD)—a rare disease Wilson has suffered from for decades—by 2027.

 

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A post shared by Chip Wilson (@chipwilsonofficial)

Moreover, the former lululemon CEO has also continued to make tactless remarks about the brand he founded. Most recently, he was interviewed by Jemima McEvoy for Forbes. Though the profile was largely about his current business ventures and what he has in store for the future, McEvoy notes that Wilson couldn’t help but talk about lululemon—even though “the two representatives he travelled with signall[ed] that it’s time to wrap up.” At this point in the conversation, he airs out his grievances with how the brand is now run since he’s left.

For starters, he isn’t a fan of what he calls their “whole diversity and inclusion thing.” He goes on to say: “They’re trying to become like the Gap, everything to everybody. And I think the definition of a brand is that you’re not everything to everybody… You’ve got to be clear that you don’t want certain customers coming in.”

Even with all of the backlash over the past decade, it seems Wilson will continue to be controversial, to say the least. If you want to hear his (very detailed) side of the story, you can do so on his website. Here, you can scroll through excerpts from every chapter of his 2021 book The Story of lululemon—including a FAQ page. And while he isn’t formally a part of lululemon anymore, it’s still worth considering how his legacy and ideas continue to live on through the store; just something to think about before you click “add to cart” on another pair of Align pants or a Scuba hoodie.

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