Lululemon Founder Blasts Company’s Push Towards Diversity

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Lululemon founder Chip Wilson has criticized the company for its continued push towards inclusivity.

Numerous companies were targeted for consumer boycotts in 2023, notably Anheuser-Busch for advertising with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney and Target for its LGBTQ+ Pride products. The company drew months of attention and calls for boycotts that hurt its financial bottom line.

Lululemon made headlines last year for a different reason. Two female employees at a Peachtree Corners, Georgia, store were terminated for what the company described as breaching company policy after they confronted masked shoplifters. The company was deemed “woke” in the same vein as the aforementioned companies.

Wilson, who left the company in 2015, told Forbes in a new interview that he has a distaste for Lululemon’s “whole diversity and inclusion thing” and the appearance of the people in its ads, who he claims look “unhealthy,” “sickly” and “not inspirational.”

“They’re trying to become like the Gap, everything to everybody,” Wilson 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.”

“Chip Wilson does not speak for lululemon, and his comments do not reflect our company views or beliefs,” a Lululemon company spokesperson told Newsweek via email. “Chip has not been involved with the company since his resignation from the board in 2015 and we are a very different company today.”

Wilson has a $6.9 billion net worth largely attributed to his forming of Lululemon in 2000, taking the company public in 2007. But he later resigned as chairman in 2013 and removed himself from the business completely in 2015 following similar weight-related comments that offended enough of the company’s consumer base to cause change.

“Frankly some women’s bodies just don’t actually work for [the pants],” Wilson told Bloomberg in a 2013 interview. “It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there over a period of time, how much they use it.”

He later issued an apology that was posted online, though a petition went viral requesting more sincerity in addition to a change in Lululemon’s clothing styles to cater to those with larger sizes.

Joanna Schwartz, a marketing professor at Georgia College & State University, told Newsweek that one of the reasons that Lululemon is so successful is that it doesn’t attempt to try to cater to everyone, “but to just super-serve their core” of primarily female, affluent, athletic and young individuals.

“That has made Lululemon an aspirational brand that represents very high-quality, expensive goods that are rarely significantly discounted,” she said. “It’s also a lifestyle brand that is really captured by some of the word representations they create around their brand ideas, focus on intentionality, oneness and yoga.”

Wilson’s comments are “an almost definitional expression of coded language,” she added, which she says is somewhat odd considering that the company’s success helps his own bottom line. He still has a 7 percent stock in Lululemon, per Forbes.

“He clearly sees Lululemon as a brand where a large percentage of the population isn’t welcome,” Schwartz added. “In light of that kind of opposition, it’s really impressive that the brand has pushed against that to include a greater racial and ethnic diversity, and by addressing the brand’s formerly long-standing sizeism, which includes a focus almost exclusively on women’s sizes 00-10.”

Lululemon and its CEO, Calvin McDonald, subscribe to a variation of the typical Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) that is supported or admonished by consumers. It encourages Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Action (IDEA) that “focuses on systemic changes” following conversations with “underrepresented employees.”

“By standing up and funding IDEA, and creating our commitments, we are determined to be accountable, engaged and to act in allyship,” the company’s website states. “Our actions thus far include expanding the IDEA team globally, establishing employee-led resource groups (ERGs), and leveraging our brand and our voice to stand against hate and discrimination around the world.”

A customer enters a Lululemon store on June 2, 2023, in Corte Madera, California. Founder Chip Wilson condemned the company’s push towards diversity, equity and inclusion.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The initiative includes more funding for DEI-related objectives and an expansion of training, learning and development. IDEA has been allocated $5 million in its annual budget, with an additional $3 million towards the company’s social impact program, “Here To Be.”

“Lululemon is committed to creating and fostering an inclusive, diverse and welcoming environment throughout our organization and across our communities,” the company spokesperson told Newsweek. “We have made considerable progress since launching our Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Action (IDEA) function, and we are proud of the goals we have achieved.

“We also recognize that becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization takes time and is only possible through the sustained efforts of our leaders and our people. We remain steadfast in our commitment to become a more inclusive and diverse company.”

Schwartz said that Lululemon has traditionally not wanted to appeal to everyone and was a brand with an image initially crafted around a lack of diversity of ages, body types, and especially social classes. She said the diverse collections of models currently on their website, for example, is a newer development.

“I think [Wilson’s] point is that the brand has an exclusive image and he’s saying that they shouldn’t want to be all things to all people, which is a place where the Gap brands live,” Schwartz said. “There are, however, multiple benefits to having an inclusive brand image and a limit to how many wealthy, fit, young women you can sell to.

“So, as a brand, it can either do what it already does well or try to cater to more diverse audiences in an effort to increase [market] share. Despite the addition of a male line and including some larger sizes, they haven’t shown a serious indication of doing that. Their model representation includes a range of racial identity, but they also conform to pretty traditional heteronormative ideas of gender, fitness and beauty.”

In 2020, Lululemon hired a global head of IDEA whose team includes more than 20 members. That team grew to include four advisory committees, an executive steering committee, multiple task forces, and more than 11 work streams dedicated to inclusion.

However, the 3-plus-year-old initiative has had some negative ramifications, according to a story published by Business of Fashion in November.

The publication interviewed 14 current and former Lululemon employees, including sales associates, global ambassadors and corporate managers in the United States and Canada, who collectively described “a corporate culture that is unwelcoming of Black people.”

After the closing of Lululemon’s Hyde Park location in Chicago, six of the store’s 16 former employees reportedly filed complaints alleging racial discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an agency that investigates workplace discrimination.