Did you think Chip Wilson was going to go gracefully?
The oft-criticized founder of yoga gear retailer Lululemon Monday said he was stepping off the company's board, later remarking in a New York Times interview, “I feel like I’ve kind of been in prison.”
It looks like he's taking his penchant for bold moves and nervy commentary to a new retailer, founded by his wife and son—where presumably he'll feel less hemmed in.
Chip Wilson's genius
Dennis “Chip” Wilson started up his first retail clothing company, surf-skate-snowboard-oriented Westbeach Snowboard Ltd., in 1979, and sold it in 1997, a year before founding Lululemon. Westbeach touts its brand as “an important part of Canadian snowboard history,” without mentioning Wilson’s role.
“Westbeach clothing is famous for its heritage, trusted for its performance and loved for its style,” its website declares. “The brand mixes strong colours and creative designs to product a collection full of attitude in which every piece makes a statement.”
Minus the “strong colors” part, that could be an apt tagline for Lululemon (which includes mainly muted colors in most of its lines). Wilson’s vision for Lululemon has been, at its essence, making activewear out of “performance” fabric in designs that flatter a woman’s figure. In typical brash, inelegant fashion, Wilson himself has maintained that that last part is actually for the benefit of himself and other men.
Lululemon thrived for years on its way to reinventing activewear. Even its biggest fans have called it a cult, though even that is a testament to Wilson’s marketing talent. Lululemon aficionados seem to be members of the "cool group," choosing a superior lifestyle of fitness and the Right Attitude.
Wilson certainly seems to have bought into the attitude part; he developed the retailer’s approach of splashing phrases on its totes like “Observe a plant before and after watering and relate these benefits to your body and brain,” “Sweat once a day,” “Do one thing a day that SCARES you,” and more inscrutable ones like “Children are the orgasm of life.”
But Wilson’s savvy went beyond his inspiring-and-strange sayings. Lululemon used the now-much copied approach of recruiting yoga teachers to become "brand ambassadors" to help sell clothing and offering free yoga classes in its space, bolstering a sense of community and guru-ness.
Even Lululemon’s big failure, production problems with too-sheer pants, was turned into “sheer genius” with a marketing campaign for a “Second Chance Pant.” The retailer patched up the pants and lowered the price — slightly — to $92, touting its approach of making lemonade out of lemons, though it's not clear who was buying.
That failure happened in March 2013 when the company’s signature yoga pant, made from a patented material, had to be recalled because it was too sheer and quickly pilled. The production problems didn’t ever seem to be properly addressed and continued well into October.
Then, the company's cultish image got an ugly slap when company founder Wilson said that only women too big to wear his pants would have problems with them. As it turned out, that wasn’t even Wilson's weirdest or most worrisome opinion. His apology only made things worse, and he was out by the second week of December.
The production issues and Wilson’s responses combined to form a retail debacle, and was drawn out enough to open doors to the competition. Now Lululemon must compete with activewear lines from apparel retailers and sports gear retailers, many at lower price points and many appropriating some of Lululemon’s best ideas, like technology-enhanced fabrics and yoga classes.
Where is Chip going?
Wilson has spent much of the last two years stepping away from company operations, and the last year or so fighting its leadership. In June he publicly criticized the board, calling out two members and accusing them of being overly concerned with short-term growth and not concerned enough with long-term goals and the brand. In August he cut his stake in the company in half.
While Wilson had maintained the title of chief innovation and branding officer, Wilson of late criticized the company he founded for abandoning innovation.
He had tried to sell the company on a “performance cashmere” fabric developed by his wife, who has since established a new retailer, Kit and Ace, with his son.
There are seven Kit and Ace stores in Canada and New York, and Wilson says he expects it to be doing $1 billion in sales in five years.
"I have achieved the goals I set when I came back, and after careful thought, I believe that now is the right time to step away from the board. I leave behind a new and talented management team and new board construct,” Wilson said in a statement.
“By stepping away from Lululemon I will now have more opportunity to work with my wife and son as they grow their new business, Kit & Ace," he said. "I am so excited for Kit & Ace because it is where street clothing is going. Shannon and JJ have caught the next wave."