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Chip Wilson criticizes Lululemon for becoming like The Gap

Company's founder alleges that current CEO caters to the 'lowest common denominator'
Lululemon founder Chip Wilson has been in a war of words with the company's CEO Calvin McDonald | submitted

Lululemon Athletica Inc. (Nasdaq:LULU) founder and billionaire Chip Wilson has responded with a new salvo in an ongoing war of words with the company's CEO, Calvin McDonald. 

He also blasted Lululemon's board of directors for not being accessible and criticized what he considers to be a decline in quality standards at the Vancouver-based company in which he owns a substantial stake. While Wilson has been whittling down his ownership stake, he told BIV in 2022 that he owned about nine per cent of the company. The latest estimate is that he owns about eight per cent of the company. 

Wilson's March 11 LinkedIn post lamented "Lululemon’s slow march to becoming The Gap, with cheap acrylic sweaters etc., to chase margin."

He first equated Lululemon's quality to that of The Gap in a Jan. 2 article in Forbes.

Wilson added on LinkedIn, almost to underscore his point, that the company earlier this year hired a former creative director at The Gap. That man is Jonathan Cheung, although Wilson did not name him.

Wilson said when he ran Lululemon, its brand was "rooted in greatness and being spectacular," and implied that this is no longer the case. 

"Calvin is a good CEO but lacking vision as he allows the lowest common denominator too much leeway in his decision making," Wilson said of McDonald.

Conflict with McDonald arose earlier this year, after Wilson's Forbes interview, in which Wilson criticized Lululemon's "diversity and inclusion" efforts. Wilson added at the time that "the definition of a brand is that you're not everything to everybody" and "you've got to be clear that you don't want certain customers coming in."

McDonald shot back in a Jan. 12 LinkedIn post, where he stressed that "Chip Wilson does not speak for Lululemon – period. He has not been involved with our company for nearly a decade and his views are entirely his own. They are completely against what Lululemon stands for, the values of our brand today, and who we want to be for our global collective moving forward."

Wilson's retort this week addressed that directly. 

"Calvin McDonald is correct in saying I do not speak for Lululemon, but I choose to speak for exemptional [sic] employees and loyal customers," Wilson wrote.

"Calvin is misguided if he believes I have not been involved in the company in the last 10 years."

He said founding employees had a vision to "provide components for people to live a longer, healthier, and more fun life. In building our vision, we hired the best qualified person - in all cases. Our hiring practices and marketing were not about performative wokeism, but about hiring for a healthy lifestyle and personal drive."

Wilson said that he chose to leave the company's board of directors because he thought that as an insider he could not speak about the "inappropriateness" of directors and CEOs who put their own agendas before the company’s one.

"I left so I could speak directly to employees and core customers, who have always been my primary concern," he said.

"By stepping off the board, I mistakenly believed I could ask open public questions at the shareholder annual meetings. To insulate themselves, directors quickly moved from in-person meetings to virtual meetings to control uncomfortable questions. In concurrent meetings, directors chose not to answer questions." He then alleged that the directors were also sometimes not truthful. 

BIV sent Lululemon an email to ask if the company had any response to Wilson's allegations but did not get a response. 

Wilson closed his post by saying, "as a possibility, consider that Calvin may not be speaking for the great employees of Lululemon."

McDonald has posted on LinkedIn since Wilson's latest missive, but he did not address Wilson's post. Instead, he praised athletes who took part in a Lululemon-sponsored multi-day ultramarathon. 

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