What Lululemon Could Learn From Abercrombie About Fat Shaming

A co-founder of Lululemon said his yoga pants just aren’t built for “some women’s bodies.” That's just a bad business decision.

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Lululemon Plans Expansion With Surging Cash From Yoga, Running
Benjamin Norman / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Clothing at the Lululemon retail store in New York on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010.

Correction appended: Nov. 13, 2013, 10:36 p.m. E.T.

Last week, Chip Wilson, one of the co-founders of Lululemon, blamed the problems the yoga-apparel company has been having with its pants on the size of women’s thighs. Lululemon had to recall a line of its pants in June because of complaints that when women bent over to do downward dog, the fabric became see-through. And, in the past month, customers have been grumbling that the new pant material pills — which is particularly enraging given that they cost about $98.

In a Bloomberg interview on Nov. 8, Wilson said in response to questions about the pilling and see-through pants, “Quite frankly, some women’s bodies just don’t work for [the pants] … It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there over a period of time.”

These comments were followed by expected (and understandable) feminist outrage here, here and here.

After a week, and an online petition asking him to say he’s sorry, Wilson responded by releasing a teary video — on the company’s Facebook page. He apologized to his employees for the repercussions of his actions, saying several times how “sad” he was about everything he’d put them through because of all the bad press. He didn’t, however, apologize to the consumers.

Clearly the feminist arguments against fat shaming are falling on deaf ears at Lululemon. But even if the torrent of criticism hasn’t inspired Wilson to change his tune, maybe this will: if you keep espousing the philosophy that only skinny people can buy your pants, you’re going to lose a lot of money.

The fact is that there are a lot of plus-size shoppers out there. In 2011, the average dress size for American women was a 14, which is considered plus size. And the plus-size market generates $19.4 billion in women’s-clothing sales alone, according to figures from NPD Group. That’s 18% of the women’s total clothing market. Hoping to get in on some of that cash, Forever 21 created a plus-size brand in 2009. H&M followed suit in 2012. This year, Donna Karan and Tommy Hilfiger added their names to a list of high-end designers offering plus sizes, joining the likes of Oscar de la Renta and Anne Klein. Some stores are even displaying plus-size mannequins in hopes of making the clothes more relatable to the customers.

But according to the Huffington Post, some former Lululemon employees have said that discouraging plus-size customers has actually been part of the brand’s strategy. A size 10 or 12, which are the largest sizes they make, can be hard to find in an urban Lululemon store. And no customer wants to endure the embarrassment of asking a clerk to go find a bigger size.

In limiting its total addressable market when its stock price hasn’t fully recovered from the recall scandal almost half a year ago (share price is approximately 20% lower than before the transparent-pants debacle in June), Lululemon is losing a lot of potential profit. Consumers are expected to spend $332 million on athletic wear sold at plus-size women’s-clothing stores this year, according to estimates from market-research firm IBISWorld. And that doesn’t even include plus-size athletic gear that will be purchased at stores that don’t sell exclusively plus-size items.

It seems that Wilson has made different economic calculus. In a 2005 interview with the Calgary Herald, he said plus sizes take 30% more fabric to create, which means he would have to charge higher prices for them. That’s something he would never do, he said at the time, because plus-size people are sensitive, and the company would experience fallout. “It’s a money loser for sure,” he said. “I understand their plight, but it’s tough.”

But Lululemon’s biggest competitor, Athleta, creates larger sizes for its brand for a comparable $90, and they’ve come out on top. Athleta has been responsible for much of parent company Gap’s success in recent years, according to Randal Konik, an analyst at Jefferies & Co. quoted in the Wall Street Journal.

Even companies that have espoused the mantra “skinny is cool” for years are caving in. In 2006, Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries said in an interview with Salon, “A lot of people don’t belong [in Abercrombie] clothes, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody either.” Last week, Abercrombie announced it would offer XL and XXL in order to try to resurrect the brand that’s been dramatically declining in popularity.

Yoga and Pilates — the activities Lululemon’s pants are supposedly designed for — are centered on Buddhist-inspired mantras of compassion and understanding. Slogans like “Spread love” and “Friends are more important than money” decorate the company’s bags, website and store walls. Lululemon’s yoga-mat tote bags are branded “namaste,” a traditional Sanskrit greeting that is supposed to signify a mutual acknowledgment of people’s inner spark. That philosophy most certainly clashes with the idea of excluding those who don’t have enough of a thigh gap.

Even if Lululemon isn’t worrying about whether its marketing meshes with its sales policies, it would have to admit that this has been a public relations year from hell, and that affects the bottom line. Lululemon should be taking any business it can get, and that means bringing out those size 10s and 12s to the front of the store and maybe even throwing some 14s and 16s into the mix.

And while I’m handing out advice, I’ll add that I have bought many a pair of Lululemon pants (though after Wilson’s comments I won’t any longer), and 98% of the time I’ve worn them to run errands or grab brunch with friends, not to do Pilates. As one woman tweeted, people buy Lululemon pants to make their butts look good, not to practice the lotus position. So maybe drop the now hypocritical namaste act and market to women just looking for a good pair of leggings.

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a designer. She is Donna Karan, not Karen.

 

30 comments
allpointspr100
allpointspr100

Well, he could learn to talk to his PR company before saying anything. Also, regardless of your target market, you don't publicly shame people. As a Chicago franchise PR company, when we heard about this, it made us cringe. He needed some serious media training. 

Redheadded
Redheadded

I have to say I agree with the philosophy at lululemon. there is something so shallow, but at the same time strangely uplifting that you can afford and fit into the clothes. I have been a regular shopper there and it is nice to feel that sense of exclusion. Thats why people shop there to begin with. Yes the clothes are nice and all, but at that price you are simply paying for the brand. Also if the pants are as see through as they are said to be (I have not had this problem with mine) there are some people I would prefer not to see them on....

soa
soa

I would like to note that although I'm a size 14-16, I comfortably fit into a Lululemon size 10. Their clothing is very stretchy and will look great on plus-size women. I was extremely reluctant to try on their clothes because of all the negative press that the brand has garnered, but my experience with Lululemon has been nothing but fantastic. I found the employees to be extremely welcoming and helpful and there was no lack of selection in sizes 10-12 in my urban area. As a matter of fact, Lululemon has given me some of the best customer service that I've ever had the pleasure of receiving. I just thought it to be of utmost importance that I express my feelings towards the brand, as a plus-size woman, in the midst of this.

naomifrances
naomifrances

get all my yoga wear at goodwill.  put all the money i save not buying stupidly overpriced "yoga" clothes into dividend paying/income producing items.  get more serenity having plenty of dough versus being the rag-princess of the sweat club. nama$te 

XiraArien1
XiraArien1

There's room for niche players in every market.

If you want to go after only the waifs, you can do that and make a nice profit. You will never be Wal-Mart, but you couldn't beat them at that game anyway, so why try?

MindyOrzel
MindyOrzel

There is a difference between being skinny, fit, curvy, thick, and obese/ sloppy. As women we have control over our bodies.Before my pregnancy I was 160 pounds. I had a flat stomach(no abs, no toning) However I had thick thighs, hips, and a booty. According to places like Hollister, Abercrombie, and LuLuLemon. I am too large for their store. There are no fashionable clothes in their plus size section. Their sizes are not normal. An extra large is like fitting into a medium. I have tried shopping but I end up going to forever 21, Debs, and Burlington. Which I am not ashamed of this because they are cheaper prices and they make shopping easy and comfortable for me. I am not bashing these companies but to blame their crappy quality clothing on plus size women. Get a grip. I have had a pair of leggings for my Zumba work outs and funny they have not ripped because my thighs touch and rub against each other. I also feel that skinny women are beautiful to. Good for youthose women that can remain skinny by having a high metabolism or because they make the choice not to eat carbs. I'm thick. However I still eat fries and ice cream but continue to work out. And yes chip there are some sloppy nasty people out there that don't and wouldn't look good in booty shorts but if they want to be that way and not change that life style, then that's their choice. But for us curvy, beautiful women we deserve the same look that you're models are wearing. You do owe the consumers an apology. And no offense coming from middle aged men that don't have a perfect body. I want to see your abs and muscles? Women need to love the body and skin they are in and do not let these companies tell you something your not. 

alyzu
alyzu

I used to be a Pilates teacher, and wore Lululemon because the pants stood up well to multiple classes taught per week and dozens of washings.  To me, that made them worth the price tag.  And I was a size 14.  I didn't experience any of the recent problems.  

I recently bought another pair.  I'm now a size 12, and the new pants are HORRIBLE.  The product is defective, not the consumers.  It seems to me that blaming the very people who made your company a success is bad business practice.  I will no longer buy Lululemon, even if the product improves.

K.BlakeCash
K.BlakeCash

I was thinking of joining the protest.

Although I'm a fairly attractive man, I just don't think the Lululemon clothes flatter my body. This is clearly prejudicial against my body type (male). 



cocoabelle
cocoabelle

The more stories like this I see the more I see why no one in their right mind would manufacture for the American market...ESPECIALLY if is a product designed for a niche market. NO not everyone is built the same way. That's plain common sense! Certain brands produce clothes that don't cater to my build--I like their style, but I'm  not going to delusionally force myself into them despite them not meeting my needs! I'm tall and have hips and thighs; it's also common sense that thin clothing will wear if there is any rubbing going on. Is that the designer's fault? Should that manufacturer decide to start double reinforcing the material in places where stretching occurs (around the highly variable sized boobs, thighs, and derrieres) then there PROBABLY is going to be less function in sweat resistance/friendliness. Chip might need PR help, but the average person in this country needs critical thinking help. Find another brand. There is plenty of competition in that market. There's something to be said about mass hysteric consumerism that would rather break the business than seek a new product/option....

CandiceSinclair
CandiceSinclair

     You know what, I just have to say this, even if it makes some people angry... maybe the reason why he isn't apologizing to the customers is because he doesn't owe the customers an apology. So the man said that his pants "just aren't made for some women " and insinuates that women with thighs that are larger than what the pants are designed for will stretch the fabric... so what? He designs athletic apparel! If Chip wants to live in a world were all women are unrealistically a very skinny 00, then let him. It just means that he will have a very small consumer group. My point is this; he like to design clothing for women with very small frames... that is not mean, shaming, or criminal. There are plenty of clothing companies out there that cater only to plus size women... here's a scenario: a plus size clothing designer comes out with a gorgeous dress that every skinny woman on the planet wants but can't wear without serious tailoring... the tailoring is expensive and they contact the designer to see why he or she doesn't make this dress in their size. When the company is questioned about why their dress doesn't fit thin women and are told about how unfair it is that thin women have to pay to have the larger sizes tailored down, the designer replies and says "My dresses just aren't made for thin frames."   Why does no one else see how ridiculous this all sounds? For crying out loud, he isn't shaming fat women. He just stated an obvious fact: if you are above a certain size, you will not fit in these pants. That's it. There are so many brands out there that cater specifically to small women, or large women, or pregnant women, or children. Some designers just like to stick to what they know or what they prefer to work with. The man did not make some awful comment like "Well I just can't stand fat women and I'll never design clothing for them for that reason." He didn't say "If these fat-%sses thighs weren't so big maybe they would fit into clothing that my ideal woman would be able to wear." No, he did not say any of those horrible things, which would absolutely be out of line and "fat-shaming." He just stated a fact about his designs. He doesn't owe anyone an apology. He didn't make anyone the way that they are. If you want to fit into his clothes, then work your ass off and wear them. If all the working out in the world won't make you anorexic enough for them, then be happy with your probably perfect body and go somewhere more realistic. I'm skinny and I can't fit in half of this crap myself. You don't see me crying about it.

NykolMay
NykolMay

The clothes may not be made for larger sizes, but there are small-sized women who have bigger thighs.  Also, isn't the point of making workout gear so that it will cater to all body types, thus encouraging people to work out?  It's a shame that this MAN is an idiot and didn't have the insight or common sense that others do. 

jerseygirl932
jerseygirl932

I am a very skinny and petite woman and lately I've noticed that even I can not fit into Luu's clothes!  When I first started wearing their clothing I was completed addicted, and I was a size 6/8 in their tops and leggings.  I'm now a size 2/4 (which in the real world is a 0/2 but whatever...)  There are SO many things wrong with their sizing.  First. I need to get EVERYTHING tailored. EVERYTHING.  While I'm somewhat used to that, can a short girl get a break?  Just ONCE I wish that draw string was actually USEFUL and ya know... SHRUNK THE SIZE so I wouldn't have to get my clothes tailored every time I buy it.  Sometimes, I need something right away (like the time it was cold out and needed new sweatpants right away).  And yet, nope, I don't fit... even though I'm supposedly the target market for Lululemon. 

Second, I'm 5'0"  and weight 108lbs.  But I have boobs.  Yup that's right.. can't help it.  No amount of working out is gonna change my genetic make up Lulu.  SORRY!  So you can continue to fat shame me, and try and make me feel like a porker because I need a bigger size on top because, yes I'm a LADY and I got 'em... cause my momma gave 'em to me. And I have no problem flaunting them.  Especially when I have a teeny tiny waste that I worked hard for and that makes my awesome boobs look even better!  So no Lulu, you will not make me feel like a fatty just because I was blessed with more than an A cup.  Your sizing is a hot mess.  Thankfully, my self-esteem isn't.  

After this debacle, I'm done defending this company. I won't be back, ever again.  Especially in NYC, there are a slew of other choices, especially local vendors who are tying to do right by women everywhere. I'll be supporting them from now on.  

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

It sounds like you have to slim down to wear these pants .

RenMak
RenMak

If the company want to target people, it is their choice but it's also their loss. As an aspiration brand, I would hope that they would try to encourage people to aspire to a certain kind of lifestyle. A person can be fat and be unhealthy just like a person can be skinny and unhealthy. Personally...I usually avoid Lululemon and I prefer Tonic because of the price and the quality. And guess what, I'm at the peak of my fitness level with a body comp of an athlete. And my Lulu pants still pill. Even my loose fitting, harem style pants from the Lululab pill everywhere, not just between the thighs. And, as a general rule of thumb...healthy adult women still don't have a gaping thigh gap which would "prevent" pilling and wearing through. 

Fat shaming sucks. It's not like fat people don't know they are fat. The sad part is that someone who is really skinny might be just as unhealthy as them, but they are less likely to be judged because of it.

tok7131
tok7131

Why is this wrong? Why doesn't a manufacturer have the right to design and produce a product he chooses? Someone will figure out a way to make money selling yoga pants to fat people and that will be that. Lululemon’s product may even suffer for it. But seriously, if you want to wear his pants, put down the donut, eat a salad and go to the gym. Otherwise stop with the faux "outrage" and wear the clothing that is tailored to a plus size lifestyle.

yellow2
yellow2

So? Let them sell clothes for skinny people. Don't we cater enough to people who are overweight?


I myself am 20lbs overweight but guess what…if my jeans don't fit…I don't complain. I just find another pair. 

SerhiyKareta
SerhiyKareta

Fat is fat. If they decide to target a fit population it's their choice and, frankly, I don't know why they have to apologize for that choice. Stay fit.

SunnyChoi
SunnyChoi

I honestly could care less. I will buy Lululemon pants because they fit great, and that is that. There is no need to get personal with this business. If you like their product, let it end there. If, however, what he is saying is a detriment to the product, then perhaps people should reconsider the purchases. 

I have one pair of leggings so far from a long time ago, and they are really nice. I've recently heard that they were becoming really thin, and THAT is why I decided not to purchase any more. Not because of this personal crap. People take things too personally, in my opinion. You shouldn't stop buying something because the owner said something offensive. You should stop buying something if the quality sucks or you don't like it. 

neeltaknewg
neeltaknewg

I know someone who is 280 pounds and wears the size 12 pant so I do not think he was bashing fat people. 

mlskanis2
mlskanis2

His business plan is one thing. I'm not out to criticize his business plan and who he targets. What makes me angry is the lack of authenticity in the apology. He said a lot of words "I take responsibility" but taking responsibility is an action, not a set of words. If a person is going to apologize they need to put their money where their mouth is, which gives the words real meaning.

ettag
ettag

Lululemon is an aspirational brand. I applaud their commit to fitness and their business decision to serve fit people. Once an obese woman works out enough she too will be able to fit into their brand. Keep in mind that by offering a certain level of exclusivity it will encourage the market that it serves to purchase more, which will make up for some potential loss that may be incurred by the population it doesn't serve. 

CaitlinPhillips
CaitlinPhillips

Someone needs to use spell check before clicking publish... "sandscrit"? "donna karen"? come on guys...

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

Call Wilson for what he is.  A jerk.  If I was a shareholder I'd be infuriated that he was happy to walk away from half of his market place (above 10).   

nickwjohnson7
nickwjohnson7

Nothing to be sorry about here other than the rising levels of obesity in America. If their company wants to target fit people then that is their choice.

alyzu
alyzu

@CandiceSinclair I would agree is this were the case.  But the pants are simply not as well made as they used to be.  They fall apart, which they never used to do.  This is a case of a poorly made product, and the CEO, instead of taking responsibility for that product, is placing the blame on once loyal customers.

Devigi
Devigi

@jerseygirl932 I am 5' 100 lbs but have boobs and extra baby belly that has not vanished after 16 years.  I started Devigi because I could not find fitness apparel that flattered my body -- check out www.Devigi.com

NykolMay
NykolMay

@yellow2  It's not just overweight people who are complaining.  It's pretty apparent that there are people who are average sized who are having problems with the material.  We're talking about different body types--not just sizes--IN addition to poor material.  At $98, I can buy 7 pairs of "yoga" pants at Target or Dunham's.

NykolMay
NykolMay

@SunnyChoi  That is the point--the material is the problem, but the owner made it into an issue about the size of the women.  Instead of owning up to the fact that he's degraded the quality of the pant, he deflected blame.