Lululemon Founder To Women: Your Thighs Are Too Fat
Back in March, clothing retailer Lululemon recalled almost 20 percent of its women’s yoga pants after customer complaints that they were see-through. In a statement at the time, the company responded the right way—by taking responsibility for the flaws in its product and pledging to fix them:
“Our stores and ecommerce site received some black luon women’s bottoms that didn’t meet our high standards. The materials used in construction were the same but the coverage was not, resulting in increased sheerness. We want you to Down Dog and Crow with confidence and we felt these pants didn’t measure up.”
“We keenly listen to your feedback and it is paramount to us that you know we’re listening….We are working with our supplier to replace this fabric…We are committed to making things right so if you purchased product from our store or on our website and you think it is too sheer, we welcome you to return it for a full refund or exchange.”
That statement was tone perfect, the kind of corporate response that should have just been repeated verbatim during any subsequent media interview. But company founder Chip Wilson disagreed—and late last week, he found a way to obliterate any of the goodwill his company’s recall and apology had earned.
Lululemon Founder Chip Wilson: “Women will wear a seatbelt that won’t work, or a purse that doesn’t work, or quite frankly, some women’s bodies just don’t work for it.”
Reporter Trish Regan: “They don’t work for the pants?”
Wilson: “They don’t work for certain women’s bodies.”
Regan: “So the pants might be see-through on some women’s bodies, but not on others?”
Chip: “No, no. Because even our small sizes would fit an extra large. It’s more about the rubbing through the thighs.”
Before addressing Wilson’s fat-shaming, it’s worth mentioning his more general condescension toward women. I’ve known a lot of women through the years, and I’ve never known them to wear seatbelts or use purses that “won’t work.” He must run with an interesting pack of women.
But the worst part of this statement is the implication that his product’s flaws are due to fat women who keep squeezing their chubby thighs into otherwise well-manufactured pants.
All Wilson had to do was repeat his company’s March statement: “We are committed to making things right so if you purchased product from our store or on our website and you think it is too sheer, we welcome you to return it for a full refund or exchange.”
Instead, he took the opportunity to attack women for selecting the wrong size or using his pants incorrectly. Even assuming for a moment that he’s at least partially right on the facts, any smart communicator knows it’s a bad idea to alienate your customer base by shifting the blame onto them.
And that’s especially true when the product they’re selling is intended to help customers find inner peace.
Chip Wilson released a video apology. Oddly, it appears to have been directed to Lululemon employees instead of the company’s customers. Employees are an important constituency that deserve to be addressed – but not to the exclusion of other critical stakeholders (like the customers who keep the company in business).
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One of the issues I see with apologies like this is that they’re allowed to be made at all. There are endless case studies of lower-level employees responsible for public relations or social media who make similar gaffes on behalf of the companies or brands they represent and are immediately sacked while senior management explains their transgressions and “appalling” and “not in keeping with our values” as an organization. Yet a man like Chip Wilson–who is not only the founder of Lululemon but the chairman of the board–is allowed to make a very public gaffe and simply say that he’s “really sad” about the effects of his comments while “taking full responsibility” for what has occurred. I’m sure that any number of PR pros who have lost their jobs because they used poor judgement in the line of duty were similarly sad, and similarly took full responsibility for their actions, but were nonetheless ousted because of their errors–and because they could be ousted. Rob Ford is allowed to lie about drug use, later apologize for it, and even later be caught making death threats in a drunken rage, and is still allowed to be the chief executive for the largest city in Canada. This is the problem–that executives are in fact not being held to a higher standard than their employees, and do not suffer the same sanctions that others below them would suffer were they to make the same mistakes. That is what makes these apologies hollow. Watch Chip Wilson make his apology above. You’ll see his eyes stray below the screen to what are likely notes he’s referring to in his presentation. Notes that most likely were drafted by a PR professional dutifully tasked with helping him repair his and his company’s reputation. A PR professional who would nonetheless find him/herself on the outside looking in if s/he said in public what Chip Wilson said. A terrible and regrettable double standard.
This ‘apology’ is horrendous. It sounds more like he’s annoyed with what he’s had to go through, as opposed to his regret at a poor choice of words. There is no mea culpa here: it’s a message to employees, not to those women he fat-shamed.
Poor, poor statement.
He also needs a better teleprompter position for his obviously read “apology” to employees.
I’m dumbfounded by the irony of his closing words:
“…that the culture that you have built cannot be Chip-ped away”