Lululemon Names New CEO; Wilson Vacates Chair

by , Dec 10, 2013, 7:59 AM
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In moves that Lululemon maintains are unrelated — even if few observers believe that to be the case — founder Chip Wilson stepped down as chairman of the board yesterday as the company appointed Laurent Potdevin, currently president of Toms Shoes, to replace Christine Day as CEO after a six-month search.

A live webcast of a conference call discussing the moves will be available this morning starting at 9 a.m. ET. 

“Wilson, who founded the company in 1998 … is known to court controversy,” Reuters informs us in a bit of an understatement. He recently has managed to exacerbate a rapidly deteriorating situation we last wrote about just five weeks ago. 

Michael Casey, a former Starbucks executive and lead director of Lululemon's board for the past six years, will take over as chairman,” the wire service reports.

“Although he relinquished the CEO reins in 2005, Mr. Wilson has continued to wield varying degrees of managerial influence and flex the muscle that comes with his 27% of the company's shares outstanding, a role that caused friction with Ms. Day, a person familiar with the situation” told the Wall Street Journal’s Suzanne Kapner and Joann S. Lublin in an anecdote-rich story.

That included having a saying from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged printed on tote bags without Day’s knowledge in 2011, as Kapner and Lublin recount. 

“Mr. Wilson and fellow directors decided on his reduced role in November, a move designed to allay concerns that an incoming CEO would face similar interference, a person familiar with the situation said,” they write. Indeed, Potdevin told them in an interview: “I will be reporting to the board and not to Chip.” 

But Potdevin, as he indicates, has had some experience with an opinionated founder, as this Hypebeast interview with Toms founder Blake Mycoskie indicates. Before that, he was CEO of Burton Snowboards.

“The departure … caps a controversial year for Lululemon, which built one of the hottest brands in North American retail by selling stylish, high-priced yoga outfits to mostly young women,” writes Lina Saigol in Financial Times. “…In mid-March, Lululemon recalled some of its tighter-fitting yoga pants — accounting for about 17% of all its women’s pants — after realizing that they were made with a fabric that was too sheer.” 

Last month, Bloomberg Television's “Street Smart” host Trish Regan asked Wilson what was “going on” with the pants after letting him plug a one-minute meditation for busy people that he and his wife, Shannon, are promoting. 

Although “everything’s possibly blown up, there’s no doubt about it that we made a mistake,” he said, going on to talk about quality-control issues and then claiming: “The pants don’t work for some women’s bodies.” 

“So more likely they’ll be see-though in some women’s bodies than in others?” an incredulous Regan asked.

“It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs,” Wilson responded, “how much pressure is there over a period of time and how much they use them.”

He then issued a widely criticized video apology to employees, which earned an “Alpha Dog of the Week” skewering on “Colbert Nation.” Stephen Colbert’s staff dug up a string of Wilson’s faux pas over the years, ranging from seeming to blame divorce rates on women’s access to birth control pills to his “choosing a brand name with a lot of ‘l’s’ in it because the sound does not exist in Japanese phonetics, telling one journalist, ‘it’s funny to watch them try to say it.’” 

“Thousands of people have since signed an online petition demanding a real apology from Wilson and calling on Lululemon to start making yoga clothes in larger sizes,” Bethany Lindsay reports in the Vancouver Sun.

Whil, the one-minute meditation the Wilsons were plugging, promises that “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.”

Now if that sounds like something you could buy into, well, you can’t. At least literally. 

You see, “Whil is a brand about nothing” as the hed on the “Our Story” page proclaims. And if you click on the “Shop” button, large reverse type encased in a black circle tells you, “But you already have everything you need.” The tagline: “We promise nothing. You create everything.”

Sometimes, Wilson might add, silence is golden.

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