From anti-Asian to fatphobic remarks: A history of Lululemon’s public scandals and gaffes

This isn’t the first time Lululemon and its founder have sparked public outrage

Olivia Hebert
Los Angeles
Thursday 04 January 2024 21:34 GMT
Related: TikToker explains reason why Lululemon got its name

Athleisure company Lululemon has recently come under fire after founder and ex-CEO Chip Wilson made derisive comments about the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts.

In an interview with Forbes, the 68-year-old former CEO insisted that making Lululemon products more accessible would hurt the brand. He told the outlet: “They’re trying to become like the Gap, everything to everybody.”

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

This isn’t the first time the company and its founder have sparked public outrage, with Wilson having a history of anti-Asian, sexist, and fatphobic comments. Lululemon has made headlines in recent years after some of its employees accused the company of performative activism and tokenistic campaigns.

Long before he left the company, Wilson claimed in 2005 that he chose a brand name that included three L’s specifically because the sound does not exist in Japanese phonetics. He told Canada’s National Post Business Magazine at the time: “It’s funny to watch them try and say it.”

Wilson, in particular, was ousted from his role as CEO after comments he made in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Street Smart in 2013 led to backlash. At the time, the founder responded to mounting criticisms that the company’s popular leggings were low-quality and see-through, telling the outlet that they were not meant for everyone - namely, curvier women. “They don’t work for some women’s bodies,” he said, blaming women’s bodies for the leggings becoming sheer. “It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there.”

One of the company’s retail stores in Maryland called out the then-CEO’s words in a poignant window display, writing: “Love: cups of chai/apple pies/rubbing thighs?” The company had the display taken down and Lululemon issued an apology on Twitter, now known as X, distancing themselves from Wilson’s remarks.

The businessman stepped down as CEO in December of that year, and two years later he completely left the company’s board. The Canadian company has since tried to shake off its elitist reputation as a brand exclusively made for upper-middle-class white women, by enacting a diversity and inclusion initiative and inclusive marketing campaigns.

In September 2020, the company faced backlash for promoting a Zoom workshop about “decolonising gender”, with instructor and brand “ambassador” Rebby Kern, as an opportunity to “resist capitalism.” The workshop was marketed as a course that would educate people on how “gender constructs across the world have informed culture and the ways violent colonialism has erased these histories to enforce consumerism.”

Critics pointed out the hypocrisy in a billion-dollar-valued company encouraging consumers to take a stand against capitalism, while the company itself profits off of capitalism. “Lululemon hosting a workshop to resist capitalism while selling us $180 yoga pants is peak 2020,” Kevin Duffey wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. Mattea Merta added: “WHY are you pushing an anti-capitalist Marxist workshop when you ONLY exist because of capitalism?”

In November 2020, the company formed a new department dubbed Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Action - also known as IDEA - to improve the diversity of staff and take the lead on DEI training, development, and discourse. Dozens of employees, however, revealed to Business of Fashion that the move was performative and wasn’t in line with the company’s true ethos. They added that the new department hadn’t enacted real, substantial change within the company like it pledged to do so.

Employees claimed that the company would oftentimes choose to promote “less-qualified white counterparts” over Black workers. They told the outlet that IDEA was created to protect the company’s reputation, instead of having the best interest of their employees and customers at heart.

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