The founder of the high-end athletic wear brand makes no secret about how he feels about DEI.
Maya Angelou told ya’ll: When someone shows you who they are, believe them. When it comes to Lululemon, you don’t even have to read between the lines. The high-end athletic apparel brand, which rose to popularity in the early 2000s with yoga-loving yuppies, has had more bad press than good. Even its naming has a shady racist backstory: In a 2004 interview with National Post Business Magazine, Lululemon founder and former CEO Chip Wilson said inspiration for the company’s name came from an observation that people of Japanese descent have difficulty pronouncing words with the English letter “L” in them. Seriously.
“L is not in their vocabulary. It’s a tough pronunciation for them. So I thought, next time I have a company, I’ll make a name with three Ls and see if I can get three times the money,” he said. “It’s kind of exotic for them. I was playing with Ls and I came up with Lululemon. It’s funny to watch them try to say it.” Wilson stepped down from his position as CEO in 2013 after he came under fire for controversial comments he made about women’s bodies in response to criticism of the quality of the fabric used to make Lululemon yoga pants. “Frankly, some women’s bodies just don’t actually work for [the pants],” he said at the time. “It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there over a period of time, how much they use it.”
Wilson’s comments didn’t stop customers from shelling out their hard-earned dough for their $100 leggings. Still, Lululemon has tried to distance itself from Wilson and his words and present itself as a brand for every body. In 2020, the company tried to right some of its past wrongs by rolling out a new Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Action (IDEA) initiative to increase staff diversity, improve communication between underrepresented staff and company leadership; and advocate for change. A quick look at the retail website shows models of color featured prominently on the page.
But according to recent reporting from Business of Fashion, current and former Lululemon employees say the IDEA initiative isn’t what it seems and allege Lululemon has “a company culture that is unwelcoming of Black people.”
“[Lululemon] makes you feel like it’s going to be supportive and you’re not going to be a part of the history of micro aggressive behavior, and it just isn’t the case,” said Kenosha Armstrong, a store operations lead. In a recent interview with Forbes, Chip Wilson said he’s not really down with all of that diversity and inclusion stuff the company is on these days. “[Lululemon is] trying to become like the Gap, everything to everybody,” he said. “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.”
Lululemon is doing damage control, having released a statement denouncing Wilson’s words. “Chip Wilson does not speak for Lululemon, and his comments do not reflect our company views or beliefs,” the brand said in a statement. “Chip has not been involved with the company since his resignation from the board in 2015, and we are a very different company today.”
But as @DAGHE so eloquently inquired on X, why would we give our hard-earned cash to a brand that has historically not embraced us?