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Lululemon’s Chip Wilson Is an Unlikely Empowerment Guru. That Could Be Why He’s a Billionaire.

Chip Wilson with several look-alikes at his book release pop-up in SoHo. Photo: Mark Abramson

Chip Wilson is the founder of Lululemon Athletica, but you probably remember him as the guy who resigned as the chairman of Lululemon’s board after suggesting, more or less, that problems with some of the company’s pants were due to women’s being too fat for them, and not to inferior materials.

“There has always been pilling,” he told then-Bloomberg Television anchor Trish Regan in 2013. “The thing is that women will wear seat belts that don’t work or they’ll wear a purse that doesn’t work or, quite frankly, some women’s bodies just don’t work for it.”

Part of his argument was that some women’s thighs were rubbing together, causing the pants to pill. This diagnosis of user-error-through-thiccness was received poorly by the company’s customer base.

Lululemon had already faced turmoil in the lead-up to Wilson’s gaffe and departure. There were challenges to its market-leading position in high-end women’s athletic wear from established competitors like Nike and Gap, who were copying Lululemon’s innovations and incorporating them into less expensive products; there was the see-through pants problem in addition to the pilling pants problem; and Wilson had been in open and distracting conflict with the company’s CEO.

But removing him from the chairmanship did not seem to improve the company’s fortunes, at least not quickly. For four years after he stepped down, the company continued to underperform financially and on the stock market.

And so Wilson has self-published a book — titled Little Black Stretchy Pants — that is part memoir, part management manifesto, and part argument that Lululemon erred by pushing him out. Whatever his rough-edged faults, he contends, he had a vision for the future of athletic apparel, and the company has struggled without it.

Photo: Jed Egan

The hardcover edition of Little Black Stretchy Pants doesn’t have any text on the cover — Wilson’s name appears on the spine, and the title appears on the back. All that’s on the front is a butt and thighs clad in black Lululemon stretch pants and showing a pronounced thigh gap.

The butt is Chip Wilson’s.

How do you tell whether a company is underperforming? It seems like the answer should be obvious: If profits are up, the company is doing well; if they’re down, it’s doing badly.

As Wilson describes in this book, he has made at least one brilliant business observation. In 1998, having sold his snowboard company and looking for what to do next with his life at the age of 42, he took up yoga to address his back pain. And he found that the young professional women in his yoga classes did not have quality, functional athletic clothing specifically designed for yoga.

His instructor wore dance leotards, which were shiny and unnatural feeling, and too form-fitting for all but the slimmest women. So, working from a fabric he’d used to make underlayers for female snowboarders, he developed the black stretch yoga pant that made Lululemon a global brand and Wilson very rich.

The problem is that once you come up with a brilliant way to make a better yoga pant, your competitors are likely to copy it. And over time, customers will start to figure out that your product is just a commodity — especially if you’re also having the sort of high-profile production problems Lululemon was having in 2013, which might inspire loyal customers to shop around.

To stay on top, you need a steady stream of innovations to help you stay ahead of your competitors. But Nike and Adidas and Gap are also run by smart people. Is Wilson the guy who would have forecasted all the apparel trends that would make lots of money for Lululemon shareholders forever, had he not been squeezed out? Or is he just the guy who had one great idea about pants?

“My prediction is that in 20 years we’ll all be wearing Olympic, like, Lycra clothing, all day long, because it’s really the most comfortable thing to wear,” Wilson told me over coffee last month.

“Tight?” I asked him.

Yes, he said.

“I think we’re gonna get 3-D food, which will taste just as good as [what] we have, but it will be so amazing to eat that, what we’re bringing into our bodies, we’ll have bodies that — all people’s bodies will actually be fit,” he said. “And then I think if you look at Olympic athletes, they have to wear Lycra, and they have to wear it tight into their armpits and crotch for total movement, and I think that we’re just at the start of this thing about being in movement all the time in our life, getting off our butts, because I think that at the end of the day, people want to live a longer, healthier, more fun life, and that will never go out of style.” After I expressed confusion at the concept of “3-D food” (is there another kind?) he clarified that he meant food made with 3-D printers.

The idea that synthetic, 3-D printed food will make us all so healthy and so active and so hot that we’ll be dressing like U.S. Olympic luger Chris Mazdzer when we go to work at our offices is, well, a very big idea — certainly, a much bigger idea than black stretch pants. A successful, insurgent company like Lululemon is likely to have been founded by a person who thinks like this: Someone who comes up with ideas nobody else would think of, and who defends them in the face of naysayers and criticism. The problem is that a lot of the ideas these people come up with are bad.

Wilson has had unfortunate timing in releasing his book. After struggling for four years following his departure as chairman, Lululemon’s stock price is up 91 percent in the last year — a time over which the S&P 500 has gained just 4 percent. Other athletic apparel stocks have performed strongly over the past year, but not as strongly as Lulu’s.

The company appears to have conquered its product quality and merchandising problems and figured out how to excel at selling online. It is once again outpacing its peers on sales growth.

Of course, since he still owns 13 percent of the company, there are few people who benefit more from Lululemon’s finding its footing than Chip Wilson, even if they have done it without his advice, and even if they have done it more through incremental steps than through the sort of big-think ideas he is fond of.

But Wilson still has ideas he wants to get out there — if not to Lululemon’s management, then to other entrepreneurs. And he specifically wanted to self-publish his book, despite the fact that he says there was interest in it from established publishers.

“Then you kind of go through all the editing, and taking this and changing things, and I am more on the creative end,” he said.

I pointed out that this reminded me of the way he had chafed at the bureaucratization of Lululemon: What if a book editor might have had good ideas about editing, like a more professional marketing department might have advised him that putting an Ayn Rand quote on Lululemon bags would alienate liberal customers?

“Could be,” he told me. “Could have been good. And I am sure, because I am not a writer, I am sure they are going to look at it and go, ‘My god, this is a mess, I could have done it a whole lot of different ways better.’ But people have said that to me my whole life. A creative person wants to do what a creative person does.”

The book, honestly, is a bit of a mess. A recurring theme is Wilson’s opining on topics far beyond his range of expertise, such as the causes of rising breast cancer rates: professional stress, too much drinking, and incorrectly dosed hormonal birth control, he posits. (During our meeting, Wilson also told me that ibuprofen causes cancer by causing people to push through pain instead of listening to their bodies.)

But it’s useful as a window into the mind of a certain kind of entrepreneur, one whose supreme confidence in his own vision was essential both to his rise and to his fall. The gaffes that led to the end of Wilson’s chairmanship of Lululemon had a common theme: In certain key ways, he did not really “get” the brand’s heavily female customer demographic. And yet, in other key ways, he “got” them far better than any of his competitors. Which is why he’s a multibillionaire, even if he’s no longer on the inside of the company that made him one.

Lululemon Founder Chip Wilson on His Next Big Idea