The Latest lululemon Debacle: Do My Thighs Make These Yoga Pants Chafe?

11/13/2013
Earlier this year, lululemon, which hit $1.4 billion in sales last year and turned in an astounding 18.4 percent profit margin, landing at No. 2 on Apparel's Top 50 Report, came under fire after customers complained that the fabric of its yoga pants was too sheer.

The company admitted that the pants "didn't meet its high standards," issued a recall and a refund offer to those who felt they were revealing too much. What really blew the story out of the water, however, was when lululemon CEO Christine Day said that customers of the pants should bend over and have someone inspect whether the leggings are sheer. Why? "The truth of the matter is the only way you can actually test for the issue is to put the pants on and bend over," Day said on a conference call at the time.

Now the company has its back against the wall again. (And if that's a cement wall, please make sure not to rub your lululemon pants against it. That's part of the problem, people!) A conversation with Bloomberg that began with lululemon founder Chip Wilson and former lululemon designer Shannon Wilson talking about their new meditation venture, Whil, which promotes 60-second power meditation sessions, quickly turned back to the sheerness issue ? although not before Chip Wilson shared the fact that the only time he has for meditation is while he's in the bathroom peeing.

Chip Wilson, when asked about the pilling problem with lululemon pants in an interview on the Street Smart segment of Bloomberg News, said, "There's always been pilling. 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 actually don't work for it. … They don't work for some women's bodies."

Then, when asked if the pants would more likely be see-through in some women's bodies, he responded, "I don't think that. … Even our small size would fit an extra large. It's about the rubbing through the thighs, [and] how much pressure is there."

At this point Shannon Wilson jumps in, perhaps trying to steer the conversation away from women's bodies,  to note that the problem is with how the pants are used, i.e., are the wearers sitting on cement, which will cause quicker wear of the fabric.

The big story here has been women's thighs, but if you ask me, it seems that it's not only some women's thighs that Wilson calls into question. Some women also exercise really poor judgment when getting into a car, using seatbelts that don't work. (What on earth is he talking about??) They also exercise really poor fashion judgment, wearing purses that don't work. (Note to Wilson: it's hard to find purses that match your fully-exposed derriere.)

In the interview, Wilson says: "There's no doubt about it that we made a mistake. The thing is when you push technology — we're a technology company — something's going to happen every now and again. We don't have the advantage [as you do with] software, being able to go over the internet and fix the software. We have an actual physical product. When there [are] a thousand things that can go wrong on a technical fabric, and when three of those things go wrong at any one time, something's going to happen, and it's almost impossible to build a quality control case for each one of those combinations."

So is it quality control, or women's thighs? Whatever the problem, lululemon should reign in its spokespeople. Companies such as Nike, Athleta and Under Armour are only too eager to take a share of the yoga pie. In an apology posted to the Lululemon Facebook page Wilson said, "I'm sad. I'm really sad. I'm sad for the repercussions of my actions, I'm sad for the people of Lululemon who I care so much about that have really had to face the brunt of my actions. I take responsibility for all that has occurred, and the impact it has had on you. For all of you that have made Lululemon what it is today, I ask you to stay in a conversation that is above the fray. I ask you to prove that the culture that you have built cannot be chipped away."

Judging by the vitriolic comments left by customers on the page, the apology may not be enough for some of them.

What's next for the company? The search is on for a new CEO, and hopefully the person who steps into that spot will turn things around for the retailer relative to the quality of its products and to its image as a leader in its space.

As Wilson notes, women come to lululemon because "we may not be so much of an athletic apparel company as we are a leadership company. We're in the leadership development business. We really believe that's our differentiation  — how we work with our people, how we treat our people and how our people treat our customers."
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