Chip Wilson, the founder and former CEO of the yoga apparel brand Lululemon, has written a tell-all book about his life and the business he built — and it is one wild read.
Little Black Stretchy Pants, which comes out on November 27, is being marketed as “the unauthorized story of Lululemon” — fitting given that the famously controversial Wilson stepped down as chairman of the board in 2013, and hasn’t been on the company’s board since 2015. (Lululemon has also distanced itself from its rogue founder; Wilson’s name isn’t even on its “our story” page, and Lululemon declined to comment about the book to Vox.)
Wilson’s Lululemon kick-started the athleisure market boom. Its $100 “Wunder Under” spandex leggings became ubiquitous in the fitness world, and the company convinced wealthy women they needed its luxury gear for working out. In the 20 years since its inception, Lululemon has developed a cult following; women and men alike swear by its products, to the point where there are underground markets dedicated to buying used Lululemon goods.
Under Wilson’s stewardship, the company has also been dogged by controversy and media blunders, and developed a reputation for being insular, pretentious, and eerie at times, due to the company’s obsession with developing employees under the self-help movement Landmark Forum.
I have covered Lululemon for almost five years, writing about the company’s products, fan groups, marketing efforts, and workplace culture. I read Wilson’s book in part to learn if the media’s depiction of him as being “socially inept,” unfiltered, and arrogant was unfair.
I found little to convince me he has been mischaracterized. This is, after all, a man who said in a videotaped interview that Lululemon pants weren’t made to be worn by all women; scolded a reporter for being late and invoked the phrase “Jewish Standard Time”; and checked out a woman’s butt while being interviewed by another reporter. (His book’s front cover, it’s worth noting, is a photo of a butt, in Lululemon leggings.)
In the book, he’s similarly tactless, and it’s often cringeworthy to read; there are whole sections devoted to taking down specific Lululemon executives he disagreed with, and he claims to have singlehandedly invented the concepts of stretchy pants, minimalist marketing, and reusable shopping bags. He also refuses to take any responsibility for calamities he caused along the way, and instead paints himself as a victim of clueless CEOs, salacious media reporters, and disloyal board members.
Here are a few major takeaways about the world of Lululemon from Wilson’s account.
Lululemon was made to make women’s butts look good
Wilson sold his former snowboarding apparel business Westbeach Snowboard in 1997 and was living in Vancouver when he took his first yoga class. He’d been having back issues due to participating in triathlons, and he took a class at a local gym. Wilson noticed the instructor was wearing clothes from a dance apparel company, which was thin and sheer.
He says that made him think about starting a yoga apparel company and “believed that if I could solve the transparency problem, address camel-toe, and thicken the fabric to mask any imperfections, I could create a perfect athletic garment for women.” At the time, brands like Adidas and Nike were using the “shrink it and pink it” philosophy to turn men’s athletic clothing into gear that could be sold to women. His idea was to create clothing designed specifically to emphasize women’s figures.
Wilson goes on:
Accentuating what made people feel confident — wider shoulders, smaller waists, slimmer hips — meant Guests would feel and look good in our clothing. I realized that the shape of our logo provided a perfect contour to enhance the natural shape of a woman’s body. … There was a huge debate about where to set the seam lines on pants. Women told me they preferred side seams because when they looked in the mirror, side seams slimmed their hips. I wanted to move the side seams to the back to frame the bum and make the bum appear smaller. I persisted because I believed that eventually, men would tell women the pants looked great without really understanding why.
In executing the design of Lululemon stores, Wilson also writes that “the lighting would be perfect, and each room had to have a three-way mirror so a woman could be self-critical of her back side.”
Lululemon was created for “Super Girls”
Throughout the book, Wilson oscillates on whom Lululemon was created for. Initially, he talks about the opportunity to dress people who practice yoga regularly but also mocks that world, calling Yoga Journal a “mediocre publication wallowing in the depths of the granola world.” He also says Lululemon was propelled by “wealthy women” who could “‘buy’ time in their lives and were consequently often in great shape and very healthy.”
What he does make clear, though is that the brand was meant for a very specific type of customer: a demographic he calls “Super Girls.” This shopping segment were the daughters of “Power Women,” a group Wilson defines as a “female market segment in the 1970s and 1980s” who were divorced — which he claims was a result of the rise of birth control.
Men “had no idea how to relate to this newly independent woman” who “suddenly had significant control over conception,” and “thus came the era of divorce.” These daughters, he claimed, had single dads who got them involved in sports, and wanted to be like the male characters they saw in Saturday morning cartoons, “wearing capes and stretch fabric outfits.”
This demographic, Wilson writes, was “the best of the best.” For a 22-year-old college graduate, he believes “utopia was to be a fit, 32-year-old with an amazing career and spectacular health. She was traveling for business and pleasure, owned her own condo, and had a cat. She was fashionable and could afford quality.”
Wilson came up with the name Lululemon because he believed it would attract Japanese people
There’s long been a rumor that Wilson invented the name Lululemon because he thought it would be funny to listen to Japanese people pronounce it, and this comes up in the book.
Wilson writes how he came up with 20 names and logo possibilities, with one of them being Athletically Hip (the stylized A of the Lululemon logo comes from this original business name). He then recalls how he sold the name of a skateboard brand, Homless Skateboards, to Japanese buyers for a large amount of money because, he believed, “Homless” was a desirable brand name: “it seemed the Japanese liked the name Homless because it had the letter L in it, and the Japanese language doesn’t have that sound. Brand names with Ls in them sounded even more authentically North American/Western to Japanese consumers, especially the 22-year-olds.”
He goes on to write how he “played with alliterative names with Ls in them, la la la, jotting down variations in my notebook” until he came up with Lululemon. Wilson doesn’t explicitly say he created this name as a way to exploit Japanese shoppers or make them stumble, but elsewhere in the book, he makes fun of Japanese tourists for traveling to Canada and buying Roots clothes. Lululemon’s first ad was a photo of three girls wearing glasses and a Roots sweatshirt, with the tagline, “Trendy Clothing for Rich Japanese Tourists,” which Wilson said was message for his “Super Girls,” that they’d “understand the nuances and subconsciously want to be a part of the Lululemon ‘tribe.’”
Wilson had a vendetta against soda
One thing Wilson makes clear in his book is that Lululemon is not meant for soda drinkers. In the original set of brand values that were printed in stores and on Lululemon’s ubiquitous red shopping bags — the company “manifesto,” which he admits comprised “random statements about how I lived my life” — he initially stated that “Coke, Pepsi, and other pops will be known as the cigarettes of the future. Colas are NOT a substitute for water. Colas are just another cheap drug made to look great by advertising.”
Wilson writes that “Coke and Pepsi threatened to drown Lululemon in lawsuits,” but agreed to cut the line from the manifesto only after a Lululemon employee pointed out that the line made the company look dated, since soda wasn’t aligned with health anyway (though he writes that he “wanted our Super Girl market to know the Lululemon brand was not for soda drinkers”).
He goes on to say that in 2012, he was upset to find soda cans popping up in the office, because being anti-soda “was fundamental to our health culture.”
Wilson also refuses to refer to Lululemon as an “athleisure” brand because he is personally not a fan of the term, as he believes it connotes “a non-athletic, smoking, Diet Coke-drinking woman in a New Jersey shopping mall wearing an unflattering pink velour jumpsuit.”
Wilson only wanted to hire people who want children
As a workplace, Wilson writes, Lululemon “screened for people who wanted families.” He writes how the company wanted to thrive off of family values, but he also doesn’t see a problem with forcing his narrow idea of relationships and family.
He writes how “we wanted our people to meet the perfect mate, we wanted people to have children, and we wanted the family nucleus to be an energy generator.”
In his original manifesto, Wilson also included this line: “Just like you did not know what an orgasm was before you had one, nature does not let you know how great children are until you have them. Children are the orgasm of life.”
Wilson goes on to write about how Lululemon initially hired a type of employee he calls “Balance Girls,” who were “type-A Wall Street personalities,” but the company had to get rid of them because “they had been working 14-hour days in finance, were not dating, and could see no prospects for marriage or children.”
The stores have an extremely particular rule of how to talk to customers
Throughout the book, Wilson’s account of how he developed the business illustrates some autocratic tendencies, with specific rules for how employees should approach goal-setting and lifestyle. The most striking example is his 6/13 rule, which was an exact formula of how and when store associates, or “Educators,” as they are called, could talk to customers.
The rule was that “if a Guest was looking at a product for six seconds, an Educator had a thirteen-second window to educate them about the item. Barring any follow up questions, the Educator would then leave them alone until they looked at another item for around six seconds.” Wilson writes that this method would work because “our Educators [would] impress customers with their sheer knowledge of and enthusiasm for the item.” While it might sound like a shopping nightmare for some, it also might explain how Lululemon’s sales per square foot were in line with Apple and Tiffany & Co.
The brand has a long history of controversy
In his account of the Bloomberg interview in which he said Lululemon pants weren’t right for women whose thighs rub together, Wilson says the publication edited his words and presented them out of context. (For the record, Bloomberg did not isolate that portion of the interview, and Wilson did say that “it’s really about the rubbing of the thighs.”)
He also insists that Luon, the proprietary fabric used for Lululemon leggings, which many people complain pills after many wears, didn’t pill because of poor quality but because women were squeezing into sizes that were too small for them.
Wilson takes no responsibility for offending women; instead, he insists the media is rooted in sensational reporting. He points to another time in 2007 when the New York Times challenged him on a clothing line called VitaSea, which he claimed was made with “seaweed-based technology … that would make the shirts anti-stink, as well as moisturizing for the skin of the person wearing it.”
The Times published test results that showed the clothing had no seaweed in its particles. Wilson calls this “mean-spirited” in the book but does not offer an explanation for the results; instead, he pivots to claim the story was probably planted by an investor who wanted to short the Lululemon stock, and that the reporter probably received “a backroom payoff.”
In one especially bizarre chapter, Wilson basically defends Nike, which in 2001 was accused of using child labor. He says he “felt bad for Nike,” and sides with the company over the reports.
“In North America, I noticed there were some kids not made for school, who dropped out with nowhere to go,” Wilson writes. In Asia, if a kid was not “school material, he or she learned a trade and contributed to their family. It was work or starve. I liked the alternative.”
Wilson boasts that to respond to the Nike story, he decided to make the whole thing into a joke. He appeared in an ad in Yoga Journal with a few Lululemon employees, “dressed in diapers and baby outfits at sewing machines in one of our factories.”
In the book, Wilson writes that “if we were ever accused of child labour, I would just agree.” He then goes on to joke that “my own children have worked in the business from the age of five with no pay; working young is excellent training for life” — a tone-deaf take on child labor, especially coming from a white, Western billionaire.
Elsewhere in the book, Wilson mentions that “stores created tongue-in-cheek windows with a controversial political or social point of view.” When the brand opened its first store in Vancouver, he took out an ad in the paper promising free clothes to anyone who showed up to the store naked — and plenty did, including some who he said “couldn’t have been been older than fourteen.” Wilson describes this type of publicity as “worth millions and so much more fun than a standard press release.”
Lululemon’s $12 headbands are actually just scraps
In Wilson’s account of how Lululemon went on to sell yoga apparel outside of women’s leggings, he tries to paint a picture of resourcefulness. When searching for the best type of material that would later become Lululemon’s $68 yoga mats, he admits he scrounged in the trash of a supplier to find the address for a source of materials in Asia.
In another anecdote, Wilson writes how he saw bits of fabric being discarded inside factories and he was trying to think of ways to use them: “One of the seamstresses used to take the ends of the pants she cut off and wear it as a headband because her hair got in her eyes while sewing. We thought, ‘what a great idea! Let’s take these pant ends and sell them!’”
Headbands, Wilson goes on, ended up becoming one of the brand’s best-selling items, thanks to “young girls who used them to differentiate themselves amidst a sea of school uniform.”