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.”
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.