Lululemon aficionados say that the much-publicized recall of some of the company's black luon (a proprietary nylon/Lycra blend) yoga pants — which could cost the company $20 million in lost sales — is far from the only quality control issue Lululemon has recently been troubled with. The world of Lululemon blogs — yes, they exist; they're like J. Crew blogs but om-ier — is crackling with stories and images of see-through yoga pants in colors other than black and purchased up to a year before the recalled March 1 batch. Other posts highlight problems with Lululemon's fabric dyeing that led to bleeding and color transfer. And in 2007, the New York Times tested fabric that Lululemon was marketing as made from one quarter seaweed and found it contained no seaweed at all, and was chemically indistinguishable from cotton.
Weirdest of all, however, are the numerous anecdotes from customers attempting to return pairs of the affected pants. These customers all say the same thing: that before agreeing to take the return, Lululemon store associates asked them to put the pants on and bend over so they could check the pants were really sheer. A typical Facebook post from a Lululemon customer:
I went into my local store to return my Astro pants and Invert crops, both purchased this month. I was asked to BEND OVER in order to determine sheerness. The sales associate then perused my butt in the dim lighting of the change room and deemed them "not sheer". I felt degraded that this is how the recall is being handled. I called the GEC to confirm this is their protocol, and they verified that yes, the "educators" will verify sheerness by asking the customer to bend over.
"GEC" stands for "Guest Education Center" — the Orwellian name Lululemon gives its customer service call center. "Educator" is a Lululemon sales associate. The company responded that the "bend over" test is not a standard company procedure and no sales associates should be asking customers to prove that any item affected by the recall is sheer before taking the return. But similar accounts from customers asked to bend over are all over social media, suggesting this is a widespread problem.
With Lululemon in the headlines for its poor quality control, there is increased scrutiny on the company founder, Chip Wilson. It turns out he's kind of a weird guy. Wilson stepped down as C.E.O. in January of 2012, but he remains the chairman of Lululemon's board. In 2011, he had the company print the Rand quote and Tea Party slogan "Who is John Galt?" on a line of tote bags. Many Lululemon customers found this strange. The company blog ran this post explaining how Rand had influenced the brand:
We place many of these constraints and limitations on ourselves which impede us from living our best lives. Think about it: we are all born with magical machines, aka human bodies, able to think, jump, laugh and run. We are able to control our careers, where we live, how much money we make and how we spend our days through the choices we make. Of course, there are situations sometimes where we aren't able to control what happens to us. Life can be hard, challenging and unfair. What we can control, however, is our reaction. We can choose to rise up and be great. [...]
Our bags are visual reminders for ourselves to live a life we love and conquer the epidemic of mediocrity. We all have a John Galt inside of us, cheering us on. How are we going to live lives we love?
We can choose $98 see-through yoga pants! The post ended with an Amazon link to buy Atlas Shrugged. The company motto, chosen by Wilson, is a distillation of Rand's ideas. Current C.E.O. Christine Day also describes herself as influenced by Rand and quotes her in interviews.
Side note: if I were to tell you that somewhere, out in this wide world of ours, there existed a libertarian C.E.O. of an apparel company who went by the name of Chip Wilson, and that ol' Chip, having read Atlas Shrugged at 18 and found it to be just so staggeringly touching and meaningful that he based his entire business philosophy on Randian Objectivism, you'd picture a guy who looks pretty much exactly like this, wouldn't you? I mean, it's spooky.
In 2005, Wilson drew heavy criticism for some rather naïve comments he made about child labor at a business sustainability conference. Wilson told the conference that he favored child labor because those kids need jobs. As reported by The Tyee:
According to those who attended BALLE BC conference, Wilson told the delegates third world children should be allowed to work in factories because it provides them with much-needed wages. They also say he argued that even in Canada there is a place for 12- and 13-year-old street youths to find work in local factories as an alternative to collecting handouts.
"I look at it the same way the WTO does it, and that is that the single easiest way to spread wealth around the world is to have poor countries pull themselves out of poverty," Wilson told The Tyee. [...]
when Lululemon started outsourcing to China, the company placed a controversial ad in Yoga Journal magazine showing a fake newspaper article with adults dressed in diapers, with bonnets and pacifiers, at sewing machines. Attached to the article is a post-it note from Chip asking, "How did this get out?"
The ad was meant "to elicit reactions on the global travesty of child labour in an ironic, humorous way."
"We're also sensitive of society's tendency to villianize corporations, and as we grow, we wanted to be proactive and deter individuals and the media from condemning an innocent, ethical company as unethical," Wilson went on to say in a press release.
Because the poor corporations who are "villainized" by the public are the real victims of child labor.
Like many prominent figures in the rag trade — the Changs, of Forever 21, American Apparel's Dov Charney, Abercrombie & Fitch's Michael Jeffries — Wilson seems a touch megalomaniacal. He talks to reporters about creating a Lululemon "constitution," a philosophy he bases on a mishmash of The Secret and the Landmark Education Forum. As Fast Company wrote of the company's guiding philosophy:
It wasn't built on the work of some Jobs-ian swami, however, but on the sources of Lulu founder and chairman Chip Wilson's own spiritual awakening. Wilson has mixed a heady self-actualizing cocktail from equal parts Landmark Forum (seminars based on the philosophy of Werner Erhard), the books of motivational business guru Brian Tracy, and Oprah-endorsed best seller The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne. He is now hard at work formalizing them in a Lululemon "internal constitution."
"It's the first time I've heard of anyone almost directly using the techniques of cults and applying them to their business," says Douglas Atkin, author of The Culting of Brands.
Though some may find it hard to believe that a middle-aged white man with an Ayn Rand persecution complex would have issues with women, Wilson wrote extensively about his theory that increased access to reliable contraception brought about divorce, and unhappy career women:
In the early 1970's, "the pill" came into being. The pill immediately transformed the sex lives of anyone under the age of 40, particularly teenagers. Suddenly females had total control over whether they wanted children and if so, when and how many. Females no longer had to "make" relationships work because with birth control came a sense of financial and life control. A sense of equality was established because women no longer had to relinquish their independence to a male provider.
Women's lives changed immediately. Men's lives didn't change however and they continued to search for a stay-at-home wife like their mothers. Men did not know how to relate to the new female. Thus came the era of divorces.
The post goes on to link unhappy career women with breast cancer, unhappy daughters of divorced career women, and "females" who want to have it all, but can't — so instead they do yoga. (Ka-ching!) If that's how Lululemon views its customers, no wonder the company doesn't care enough about quality to test its fabrics for sheerness (or colorfastness) before they hit store shelves.
Image via Anna Furman/Shutterstock