Lululemon’s billionaire founder slams the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts

‘You’ve got to be clear that you don’t want certain customers coming in,’ Chip Wilson says

Olivia Hebert
Los Angeles
Thursday 04 January 2024 02:15 GMT
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Lululemon’s billionaire founder Chip Wilson blasted the company for prioritising diversity and inclusivity efforts over exclusivity.

In an interview with Forbes, the 68-year-old former athleisure 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 Mr Wilson has courted controversy and expressed disdain towards Lululemon’s “whole diversity and inclusion thing”, with him having repeatedly sparked outrage over his anti-Asian, sexist, and fatphobic comments.

In an interview for Bloomberg Television’s Street Smart in 2013, 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 see-through. “It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there.”

A Maryland Lululemon store clapped back at the then-CEO’s comments in a poignant window display that said: “Love: cups of chai/apple pies/rubbing thighs?” It was soon taken down and Lululemon posted an apology on Twitter, now known as X, saying that Mr Wilson’s remarks were not reflective of the company’s stance.

The businessman stepped down as CEO in December of that year, and two years later in 2015, would completely leave the company’s board. But before he was publicly ousted, he claimed that he chose a brand name including three L’s specifically because the sound does not exist in Japanese phonetics. “It’s funny to watch them try and say it,” he told Canada’s National Post Business Magazine at the time.

Despite his claims that inclusivity efforts would spell doom for the company in the long term, he has continued to profit from the company, having recently added nearly $4bn to his net worth since 2020 due to an 8 per cent rise in stake in Lululemon stock.

The Canadian company has been actively trying to shake off its reputation as a brand exclusively made for upper-middle-class white women via marketing and instating diversity and inclusion initiatives.

In November 2020, the company formed a new department named Inclusion Diversity, Equity, and Action - also known as IDEA - that was tasked to improve the diversity of staff and take the lead on DEI training, development, and discourse. Unfortunately, dozens of employees revealed that the move had been nothing more than tokenistic, and hadn’t amounted to any real, substantial change within the company.

Employees explained to Business of Fashion that the department’s creation was a move to protect the company’s reputation, rather than having the best interest of its employees and customers at heart. They claimed that the company would often deny Black employees promotions in favour of “less-qualified white counterparts.”

The company responded to the allegations in a statement to BoF, saying they have “made considerable progress since launching IDEA, and we are proud of the goals we have achieved, which include maintaining a continuous two-way dialogue with our people.”

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