In the 1968 movie (and 2001 Broadway musical) The Producers, the main characters, Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, mount an effort to create the biggest Broadway flop of all time. They seek out the worst scripts, they find the worst actors, and they take their show, “Springtime for Hitler: a Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva”, to the stage. Their goal is to collect as much funding as possible with the smallest amount of profits to be on the hook to repay investors.
I’m the end, the show doesn’t flop, as they had hoped, and instead becomes a roaring success. Hilarity ensues.
I can’t help but compare their story of business sabotage gone wrong to that of Chip Wilson and Lululemon. By all appearances, Wilson has done everything in his power to create a total failure of a company. What he ended up with, instead, was an unprecedented success.
A Name Straight Out of a Racist Joke
According to Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon, one of the reasons the company is called “Lululemon,” a made up word, is to seem exotic and intrinsically Western to Japanese consumers. Oh, that doesn’t make sense to you, either? Let’s dig deeper:
“A Japanese marketing firm would not try to create a North American sounding brand with the letter ‘L’ because the sound does not exist in Japanese phonetics,” Wilson wrote on the company’s blog. “By including an ‘L’ in the name, it was thought the Japanese consumer would find the name innately North American and authentic. In essence, the name ‘lululemon’ has no roots and means nothing other than it has 3 ‘L’s’ in it. Nothing more and nothing less.”
He later said, “it’s funny to watch [Japanese consumers] try and say it.”
Oh! So, he thinks Asian people don’t know how to pronounce “L.” That’s… that’s oddly racist.
According to a post at The Tyee, at the 2005 BALLE BC conference, Wilson “told delegates third world children should be allowed to work in factories because it provides them with much-needed wages. They also say he argued that even in Canada there is a place for 12- and 13-year old street youths to find work in local factories.”
Generally speaking, most companies won’t go on record to endorse child labor. Then again, Lululemon is not most companies.
When one thinks “yoga,” the name Ayn Rand probably doesn’t come to mind. Unless, that is, you’re Lululemon. In 2011, the brand began quoting Rand on their shopping bags. “Who is John Galt?” one bag reads. Galt, the protagonist of Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, wouldn’t likely find himself on a yoga mat. The search for permanent inner peace associated with yoga pretty severely clashes with the overarching themes of Objectivism Rand promoted in her writing.
Blame (Thank?) Smoking, Cancer, and Birth Control
Chip Wilson believes that the advent of birth control led to the “era of divorces,” as “men did not know how to relate to the new female” that came to exist in the post-pill world. He goes on to say that given that the “media convinced women that they could… be a man’s equal in the business world,” women found themselves less focused on staying in shape and more focused on finding success in business.
Wilson laments the existence of “Power Women,” who “dress[ed] like men in boardroom attire.” This lifestyle of working, smoking (“Power Women” smoked cigars because “this is what their ‘successful’ fathers did), and taking hormonal contraception led to a rise in breast cancer (according to Wilson, that is). The rise in breast cancer created a shift in priorities, with more attention being paid to exercise, paving the way for Lululemon to exist. Ta-da!
Ready to Pay Twice as Much for Comparable Quality?
Let’s say you can look past the various oddities and eccentricities Wilson and Co. have brought to Lululemon. After all, you’re buying a quality pair of yoga pants, not a company philosophy. Even if you can look past the aforementioned items, can you look past the cost ($88 to $128) Lululemon charges for a pair of yoga pants in comparison to that of Gap, one of their leading competitors in the world of sports apparel (cost for similar items: $34 to $65)?
We Can See Right Through You
Earlier this year, Lululemon recalled 17% of their yoga pants after it came to their attention that a number of their black Luon pants were unintentionally see-through. The company released a statement, “We want you to Down Dog and Crow with confidence and we felt these pants didn’t measure up.” Sure, this is certainly a tad bit unfortunate, but it seems like they handled the situation as best they could. That is, until Chip Wilson decided to come forward earlier this month with a statement of his own.
The Customer is Always Right
Chip Wilson appeared on Bloomberg TV on November 5th to discuss meditation. This should have been simple enough. Don’t say anything stupid. “What’s going on with the pants?” Trish Regan of Bloomberg TV asks. “There’s no doubt about it, we made a mistake.” There! Chip! Stop! He couldn’t resist, putting his foot in his mouth yet again. “Some women’s bodies just don’t work for it.” Chip! No!
Success Through Folly
I live paycheck-to-paycheck while Chip Wilson is a titan of industry, so obviously, he’s doing something (many things) right. My question, though, is, “how?” By all reasonable assessments, Wilson, like Bialystock and Bloom, has done everything in his power to sabotage this company. Openly supporting child labor, printing controversial phrases on bags, a racist origin to the company name, sexist viewpoints and philosophies, extreme markup on their product, defective inventory, and stating that some consumers simply shouldn’t be consumers. In spite all of this, the company generated $1 billion in fiscal year 2012.