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Chip Wilson Is the Perfect Guru for Our Yoga Culture

You're probably more like Lululemon's offensive founder than you think

The Washington Post/Getty Images

Chip Wilson understands the soul of the modern woman. You might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. After all, the 57-year-old billionaire Lululemon founder and former CEO has been in the news lately for a series of statements that seemed designed to make any woman reach for the nearest heavy object.

First, there was the unearthing of a 2009 blog post in which Wilson, musing on the founding of Lululemon and the rise of yoga over recent decades, attributed it to societal factors, or … something.

Breast cancer also came into prominence in the 1990's. I suggest this was due to the number of cigarette-smoking Power Women who were on the pill (initial concentrations of hormones in the pill were very high) and taking on the stress previously left to men in the working world.

Then, there was his appearance on Bloomberg TV last week, in which he declared that not every woman could wear the company’s famous (and pricy) pants, some of which were recalled earlier this year for being see-through. “Quite frankly, some women’s bodies just actually don’t work,” he said, shifting the blame rather dramatically. “It’s about the rubbing through the thighs.” He’s since apologized.

This isn’t the first Lululemon controversy. The company has, in the past, come under fire for producing clothing only up to a size 12, which Wilson defended by saying that that the extra fabric for plus-size clothing would ruin his profit margins. In 2007, the company sold apparel that was marketed as seaweed-based fabric, “VitaSea,” that would somehow impart minerals, amino acid and nutrients to wearers; a New York Times investigation found it was cotton. (Wilson’s response “If you actually put it on and wear it, it is different from cotton. That's my only test of it.” The shirts did have 6 percent spandex.)

Wilson, who has striking blue eyes and a Mr. Clean mien, is also somewhat famous for his adherence to the principles of Ayn Rand, whose objectivist ideas seem at odds with the holistic, accepting, and seeking pathways espoused by most yoga gurus. In 2011, Lululemon put out a series of bags that read “Who is John Galt?,” referring to Rand’s most famous character. It kicked up a bit of Internet controversy, but didn’t do much to depress sales, which, until this year’s recall, had more or less done nothing but grow since the company’s founding in 1998. This year’s projected revenues are in the neighborhood of $1.6 billion.

Famously, the CEO of Whole Foods, another company much beloved by liberals, is also a Rand devotee and staunch libertarian. It’s easy to dismiss these men as flukes, or to categorize them as savvy capitalists who were able to spot which way the cultural winds were blowing and create a set of products that would serve the wants of the continent’s upperclass. But that hard-right Galtian spirit hasn’t seemed to turn anyone off. In fact, Lululemon has been so successful because, not in spite of, its founder’s combination of woo-woo New Age-iness with a sharply competitive spirit. It’s the same approach many American women (and men) bring to buying organic, to drinking fresh-pressed juice, and yes, to yoga. There is a boom market in ostentatious wellness these days, one that is underpinned by the same synthesis of seemingly opposite impulses—to achieve, and to bliss out—that drives Wilson. His customers are much more like him than many would care to admit. If you seek spiritual enlightenment through yoga and fasting, go to India or the 1960s. If you want to have the best-looking ass in line at Starbucks, try Lululemon’s free Saturday class and a pair of $82 Wunder Unders.

Wilson, who was born in California but moved to Canada as a small child, dropped out of the University of Calgary for a time to work on the oil fields in Alaska. As he relates in his ongoing, episodic web-published autobiography with the uplifting title 40,000 Days And Then You’re Dead (Wilson operates under the assumption that we’ll all live to be 109.5 years old), it was there that he decided he wanted to make some real scratch. Instead of blowing his oil-field haul, he bought a rental property, sight unseen, back home. Wilson then spent nearly two decades making apparel for men—snowboarders and skateboarders—with nothing approaching the success he’d later enjoy. He now refers to it as his 18-year MBA.

Wilson was in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighborhood, a classic case of a former bohemian enclave gone upscale, when he took what he says was the city’s very first organized yoga class. Wilson was hooked, but he also noticed that the target audience for yoga seemed to be women in their late 20s and early 30s. He’d also seen a stat that said 58 percent of college graduates—that is, the group that was most likely to have disposable income—were women. Lululemon was born.

Even the name of the company was focus-grouped, the winner among 20 options in a 100-person survey. The company’s symbol, the flouncy horseshoe logo that seems like it could be an imitation of a yoga pose, is in fact a stylized  “A” standing for “Athletically Hip,” a rejected brand-name option but one that spells out quite clearly the market-share Wilson sought. The name Lululemon was created, past marketing materials have explained, because it sounded “authentically North American” and would appeal to the Japanese market, apparently a region in which he foresaw potential growth. “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.” It’s a funny role-reversal: Yoga more often involves Eastern culture adapted to appeal to Westerners.

Rand isn’t the only guru Wilson's looked to. Just as Lululemon stores now feature a mish-mosh of gear for all kinds of work-outs—running, swimming, and of course the original yoga—the company’s philosophy is a bit of a grab-bag. The Secret, the self-help book that Oprah made famous, Steven Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Brian Tracy, a motivational speaker, also were crucial to his formulation of the company’s culture, codified in an “internal constitution.” Employees were dubbed educators, and Wilson came up with something called the “6 and 13 rule.” If a customer had looked at something for six seconds, the ‘educator” had 13 seconds to educate her on it. Wilson chose the numbers randomly, but anyone who’s read as much self-help as he has knows that people love the clarity that specificity promises, even when it’s made up. Employees (and his ex-wife) were encouraged to attend the Landmark Forum, a share-your-feelings organization that has been compared to Scientology for its cultishness. In fact, "It's the first time I've heard of anyone almost directly using the techniques of cults and applying them to their business," a branding expert told Fast Company of Wilson in 2009.

There can be a cultish aspect to wearing Lululemon, too. For the nonwealthy, you need to truly believe there is something transformational to your soul involved in dropping more than a hundred dollars on something to sweat in. (Ironically, given Wilson’s recent comments, one of the basic appeals of Lululemon is that its fit flatters non-stick-thin women, too.) Of course, it’s not the clothing that is transformative, the Lululemon purchaser would say. It’s the activity you do in the gear that transforms, and if wearing something that manages to be both highly functional and sleek gets you on the mat, then it is worth it to buy those pants. And that cute neon yellow bra. And that other cute neon pink bra, because the girl in your class who can do side crow like a boss has the same one. And that pullover, because the studio can be really chilly during final shavasnya, you know? And those pants for wearing over the other pants for the walk home. And the coat, definitely, because that is basically a vital investment piece for the active lifestyle you will soon be embodying. It also symbolizes membership in a tribe the way Ugg boots or black Kate Spade purses did for a similar crowd in slightly earlier eras. Yoga’s growth in the West and the growth of yoga fashion in the West might be more of a chicken-egg situation than you’d think.

For his next act, Wilson and his wife are promoting something called Whil. It’s a “brand about nothing,” and the premise does sound rather Seinfeldian. It’s a 60-second meditation concept. (“Step One:  Power Down. Step Two: Power Up. Step Three: Power Forward. … In 60 short seconds, you can shut down your brain, restart it again, and get the same clarity and creative energy as 90 minutes of yoga, a 10K run, or 30 minutes of mind-blowing sex.”) He pioneered it by closing his eyes on the john. It was the only time he had to meditate, says Wilson (though a Freudian presumably would have other thoughts.)

He’s also searching for a new CEO. (Wilson, who remains the company’s chairman, stepped down from that role in 2005; the last CEO came from Starbucks.) This one, according to an ad Lululemon posted publicly, presumably in more of an act of brand-awareness than job-hunting, needs to have Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, and Ellen DeGeneres on speed dial and use her “ third eye to channel innovation.” Know how to win, in other words, but also know how to couch winning in terms of enlightenment. In that infamous Bloomberg interview, Wilson referred to the company as a technology company. That he sees himself as somehow in line with Silicon Valley is unsurprising—there, too, there is an ethos of saving-the-world alongside saving-the-bottom line.

Salvation, capitalism, and virtue have always had a complicated relationship in American life. There’s the prosperity gospel strain in our cultural DNA, and there’s the abstemious, judgmental Puritan one. The current vogue for spending a lot of money to be competitively healthy—by putting on, say, pants that are readily identifiable as a Lululemon or carrying around a status symbol $10 green juice—manages to nicely marry our national obsessions with wealth and being holier-than-thou. That Lululemon is of course Canadian is part of its vaguely-but-not-totally hippie-ish branding. (Sure, they’ve got universal health care, but it’s not like they’re Sweden or anything. Remember NAFTA!) But perhaps most crucially of all to its business model, though, Lululemon has finally allowed image-conscious urban women to be full, unembarrassed participants in the true American dream—wearing sweatpants in public.