Chip Wilson’s dad, an athletics instructor, was coaching his son during a swim meet, with the advice: “Why don’t you just go full out from the start, instead of saving it up and looking good at the finish.” Wilson won the race, and the advice would guide his future entrepreneurial exploits, which he recounts in his recently published memoir Little Black Stretchy Pants -- pointedly subtitled The Unauthorized Story of Lululemon, the game-changing athletic wear company he started. The company changed the way people dress, not just for sports, but for life, with functional yet stylish clothes that could be worn outside the gym or yoga studio, launching a sartorial revolution that would later be known as athleisure (a term he dislikes, but acknowledges). The reasons for the unauthorized subtitle reveal themselves in this account of corporate intrigue that later led to Wilson’s departure from the iconic company he started.
But Wilson’s innate entrepreneurial drive and creativity manifested themselves long before Lululemon. Even as a teen swimmer, he sensed an unarticulated demand for more diverse swimsuit options among his peers, and with the help of his mom (from whom he learned the craft of sewing and pattern design) imported colorful Speedos into Canada, and re-sold them for a tidy profit.
Wilson worked a variety of odd jobs after school, including time spent on the Alaskan pipeline, where he remembers how union rules hampered productivity, by limiting which workers could do what. Wilson took advantage of the downtime by reading scores of great books, including those of Ayn Rand, whose emphasis on individualism, integrity, and achievement would set the foundation for how the young man approached business and life.
One of Wilson’s early business successes was running Westbeach, which manufactured and sold clothes to surfers, skateboarders, and snowboarders. An athlete himself, he drew on knowledge gained from years of competitive swimming, wrestling, football, surfing, snowboarding, and biking to pioneer innovations in design and fabrics --- while also creating a culture around the brand that resonated with the consumer base they served.
Operating on the principle of, “If you have to say it, you ain’t it,” Wilson created a product line that authentically reflected his customers’ athleticism, individualism, and healthy lifestyles. He also began developing his signature, unorthodox method of branding. In the early 1980s he voluntarily banned smoking from his stores based on his independent conviction that smokers would damage the Westbeach brand, and he didn’t want them to wear his clothes. The brand loyalty of his customers grew as a result: “I could tell that by making enemies of the people I didn’t want to wear my product, that it created a stronger group of loyalists who wanted to back a brand that stood for their health and a better future.”
Westbeach is also where Wilson realized his vision of vertical retailing, a business model that allowed him to design and produce the merchandise he sold -- eliminating middlemen and wholesalers, so that it could respond to customer needs and market changes with greater agility and efficiency. With Westbeach, Wilson anticipated trends including snowboarding and skateboarding -- and successfully designed clothes where form met function, and substance met style.
He felt that a similar trend was about to take off with yoga, which when he founded Lululemon in the late nineties, was still taught in church basements and community centers, or, as in his own first yoga class, the corner of a gym. It was a hippie holdover with little merchandising appeal. But Wilson immediately realized that yoga had huge potential.
From the start, the Wilsons designed for an exclusive clientele: Super Girls.
Wilson started Lululemon in 1998 in a walkup retail space in Kitsilano, a beach neighborhood in Vancouver, Canada, after selling his stake in Westbeach. He incorporated the vertical retailing he had developed at Westbeach. Wilson and designer Shannon Gray, (the two would later marry) oversaw every detail of the design and production -- from the fabric to the cut to the seams -- of the now iconic Lululemon yoga clothing line.
From the start, the Wilsons designed for an exclusive clientele: Super Girls. These target customers were thirty-something, independent professional women who valued health, nutrition, and fitness. These women-on-the-go had a need for garments that easily transitioned from yoga class to the street, and they could afford to pay the extra cost for durability and superior design. This was authentic and brilliant branding.
At Lululemon Wilson also became known for his fearless, innovative marketing. To promote the opening of his first Lululemon store, for example, Wilson advertised that he would give a free outfit to any shopper who showed up naked on opening day. The response was overwhelming.
For Chip Wilson, Dagny Taggart, was the original Super Girl.
Like Westbeach, Lululemon was more than a clothing line. It was a culture with a philosophy based in individualism and authenticity. It’s vision, “elevating the world from mediocrity to greatness” by way of “providing components for people to live a longer, healthier, and more fun life,” was influenced by the ideas of Ayn Rand. Wilson recalls, “Atlas Shrugged was my first major introduction to the idea of elevating the world from mediocrity to greatness through individual creativity, dedication, and vision.”
For Chip Wilson, Dagny Taggart, was the original Super Girl. The fictional creation of Ayn Rand, Dagny Taggart is the female protagonist of Atlas Shrugged, the Vice President in charge of Operations at Taggart Transcontinental who ran the railroad even though her brother held the title of President. “Atlas Shrugged,” Wilson wrote, “had been an important book for me in laying the foundations of Lululemon’s culture. I thought this book represented the perfect Super Girl philosophy.”
At one point, Wilson printed “Who is John Galt?” on Lululemon tote bags, reflecting:
Many of us choose mediocrity without even realizing it. Why do we do this? Because our society encourages mediocrity. It is easier to be mediocre than to 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.
Wilson writes in an informal, unpretentious manner, a style that suits the story of Lululemon, which has all the elements of an Ayn Rand novel. Like Rand’s heroes, the Wilsons had to contend with the Ellsworth Tooheys and the James Taggarts of the world. Ellsworth Toohey is the fictional journalist that Rand created in The Fountainhead. What we would call an influencer today, Toohey’s column at the tabloid The Banner appealed to the envious who longed to see excellence fail and mediocrity succeed. The fictional James Taggart, Dagny’s brother in Atlas Shrugged, was a crony capitalist, a stuffed-shirt mediocrity who envied Dagny’s integrity and sold out the family business for political gain.
Minor quality control issues -- a bit of pilling on the fabric and the notorious “transparency problem” associated with the iconic yoga pants -- were leveraged by the press and on social media at Wilson’s expense. Wilson’s version of the events that led to his ouster as CEO of the company he founded, and then to his stepping down from the board, will touch a nerve with Objectivists -- as will the fact that the Wilsons emerged from the power struggle unscathed. They are currently partners in Hold It All and The Wilson Five Foundation.
In terms of business books, Little Black Stretchy Pants is far from run-of-the-mill. The cover photo is vintage Chip Wilson -- an homage to the Super Girl, a continuation of the fearless marketing that Wilson used to take Westbeach and Lululemon to the top, and, perhaps, a cheeky reference to the transparency problem. In an era when people are bending over backwards to appear humbly chastened, it is refreshing to read that Chip Wilson is among those who stand for excellence.