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Chip Wilson, Former Lululemon CEO, Is Keeping His Signature Brand of Drama Alive

The bad rep Lululemon had was often really just Wilson.

Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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Chip Wilson may no longer be a part of Lululemon officially. But it doesn’t mean his signature brand of drama — one that became associated with the yoga apparel company — is gone.

Even though he’s been absent from the company he launched nearly 20 years ago for some time now — he resigned as chief innovation and branding officer in 2012, then as chairman of the board in 2014, then from the board completely in 2015 — Wilson owns plenty of stock in the company and is still keen on causing trouble. Apparently, the board completely ignored Wilson’s questions during a shareholders meeting over the summer. So in typical Chip Wilson fashion, he resorted to drama... by taking out an ad on a bus stop in Vancouver.

“Lululemon Buy Under Armour Now!” the sign reads in big letters. “Lululemon’s business model is to have no debt and $1 billion in the bank and to be ready for an extraordinary opportunity. Under Armour is now weak. They have junk bond debt, too much inventory and technology purchases they cannot monetize.”

The bus stop ad, Wilson told Canada’s The Star, is “classic Chip Wilson Lululemon marketing” because “it makes people think.” It’s supposed to be a joke; he doesn’t actually think Lululemon should buy Under Armour, but is trying to make the point that Laurent Potdevin, the company’s current CEO, lacks leadership qualities. Even though Lululemon has “better products, a better business model and was founded on sounder principals,” as The Star says he told them, “it is undervalued in the marketplace relative to Under Armour.”

This might seem like a pretty outlandish thing to do, but it’s also pretty on-brand for Wilson. Lululemon faced a ton of backlash in the past five or so years, but the issue often wasn’t the brand — it was its leader. This is the person who stated that Lululemon leggings aren’t meant for women whose thighs rubbed together. He also scolded a reporter for arriving 15 minutes late, checked out a woman’s butt in front of another reporter (only to grin and flatly state, “It's my job. I have to look”), and once said he gave Lululemon its name because it would be “funny to watch [Japanese people] try and say it."

Chip Wilson with his wife Shannon Wilson and son JJ Wilson at the opening of a Kit & Ace store in Boston
Wilson with wife Shannon Wilson and son JJ Wilson at the opening of a Kit & Ace store in Boston.
Photo: Paul Marotta/Getty Images for Kit and Ace

Some of Wilson’s most unsavory qualities still linger on Lululemon like a residue. In the meantime, Wilson is taking his high-drama brand to other companies. As the CEO of Kit and Ace, the essentials line started by his wife and son in 2014, Wilson is giving the brand an overhaul, focusing less on technical cashmere and more on “running mindfulness” with meditation classes in stores. Kit and Ace now even sells pants with hidden phone pockets, the Los Angeles Times reports, so you can “stash your cell and sneak in some app-guided meditation on your lunch break.”

Wilson told the Times this isn’t a move “to generate sales,” but is one that’s “about doing something that’s bigger than ourselves.” Which, well, LOL.

Veering wildly into the meditation trend (which is surely just having a moment) isn’t on the level of past Wilson theatrics — but if the impulsive bus ad is any indication, it may be just a matter of time. No company should tolerate an executive who objectifies women’s bodies, among other inappropriate behaviors. But CEOs with outsize personalities have, it seems, become some kind of norm; and such CEOs often eclipse the companies they run, becoming more of a brand than the brand itself. Whether such executives do true damage to their brands — and whether their brands can survive — is always a risk companies run (see: Dov Charney at American Apparel, Mike Jeffries at Abercrombie & Fitch).

Lululemon has moved on without Wilson, but he is keeping his own brand alive and well. I imagine that as he presses on with Kit and Ace, there will be plenty more drama to observe — and much as I hate to admit it, I am very much here to watch. Wilson might be a train wreck, but the train wreck is also, frankly, captivating. * Grabs popcorn... *