plus-sized people are "sensitive"
Chip Wilson has founded and grown two different clothing companies and now he's a billionaire. He is a strategic genius who pioneered Trump like media tactics, all while building a company that presents itself as a gateway to inner peace.
The clothing business is highly competitive. As a market it is packed with producers and the economic powers of supply-and-demand tend to drive prices into the ground.
Yet, Chip has somehow convinced people to seek out his clothing and to pay a premium for his products. You see, Chip doesn't really sell clothes at all, he sells this1:
It's so easy to get confused about this idea. He's not selling you the body shape, but it's hard not to think that that is what you are buying.
The self-image he's selling, is wrapped up in the practice of Yoga. Through yoga you gain self control, in fact that is what yoga means. Through yoga you gain flexibility and strength, and you practice it with other people who are serious about it too. The most important feature of this culture is consistency.
From his perspective you are engaged in a repeating ritual that effects you on a very deep emotional level. You will associate these, mostly positive emotions, toward the artifacts that you use during the ritual. These artifacts are his tangible products.
You can see that he wants positive emotions associated with his clothes by looking at the bags he puts them in:
In my opinion this bag looks mostly like a word cloud, full of subliminal messaging. It has a number of happy-feely words popping out from a number of nonsensical sentences. The materials in the bag look expensive, and it is designed to be reused. It's a luxury bag that yoga people will carry around, spreading positive emotions and linking those emotions back to the body type of the bag carriers and ultimately to the Lululemon brand.
Yoga is often practiced in a room with a group of people. New yogis will look around this room and see the people that they want to look like. They want to look like the yoga archetypes who can do the heroic yoga positions. These people are the manifestations of hard work and they tend to be at the front of a yoga class.
Chip wants the people at the front of the yoga class wearing his products. They are fit, they are beautiful and they are consistent. If you look carefully, you might find them here:
There aren't that many yoga archetypes and they aren't looking backwards in a yoga class. The bulk of the class is looking toward them, and the bulk of the class wants to be like them.
In a yoga class, there is no expectation that you have to talk to the other people there. You get to work on your own form, yet you get to be part of a group. If you are terrible at yoga, like I am you would start at the back of the room. That way nobody can see you. You might not invest in expensive gear and like me, you might even wear jeans and keep your socks on.
In this way, there is a gradient across the room. The people in the back are legion, we come for a while, we intermittently commit and then we leave. We are the mass that are buying Chip's products. The people at the front of the room are few, they are consistent and they won't buy that much product because there just isn't that many of them. They are quality, they are noticeable, they are memorable.
What he saw in the beginning of the yoga movement was a wonderful place to amplify scarcity power. He wanted to find that elusive product, where an increase in price drives an increase in sales. He needed to build 'luxury', and he needed people to want it.
There is a magical place in economic theory where the traditional forces of supply and demand break down. It is a place where the demand for your product actually increases as you raise your product's price. Your product has monopoly power in the consciousness of your customers, and when they think about it they associate your 'luxury' product with positive emotions and thoughts of quality. More importantly, when they think about owning your 'luxury' product, they imagine it as a kind of 'magical item' that will raise their social status relative to the other people in their group.
Chip anticipated the need of a luxury product in the western Yoga movement. When he started Lululemon, yoga was a relatively new cultural phenomenon in the West and it had a lot of room to grow. He fostered the yoga movement and he wrapped his product tightly around it. He did this by making high quality clothes, which people generally liked.2 Yoga built up Lululemon, and Lululemon built up western yoga.
To buy one of his products, you need to get it from one of his stores. When you walk into a Lululemon store, you are greeted by beautiful people, who are very positive. To make this happen Chip picked employees who practiced yoga, the people from the front of the room. This was a smart way to select for beautiful people while avoiding law suits. To address cultural and psychological issues Chip funded his employees to go through the Landmark training forum. When asked why, he said3:
It sets up a culture of no complaining and of being responsible for the job that you’re doing, for clear communication, and not bringing your own personal crap to work.
If we think about this for a second, Chip is asking his employees to do something that is very difficult for them. They have worked hard, they have raised their social rank within the yoga culture, and he is asking them to serve people like me, with low yoga social rank. He wants them to help me without projecting a snobby attitude -- "Their personal crap".
If you want to imagine what it might have been like to walk into a Lululemon store, just think about trying to get your bike fixed. I have walked into so many different Vancouver bike shops, where I am left feeling like I am not 'cool enough' to be served by their bike mechanic. The bike shop is full of tattooed bike people who are talking about bike stuff, and you have to push yourself through to the front of the room to get service. You can see this same effect any time you walk into a fitness warehouse (full of cross-fit groupies) where the staff ignores you for 5 minutes before they will even turn their eyes your way. The same effect can be seen in undisciplined athletic store serving a particular culture. Snobbery sells products, just not in the store itself.
The snobbery in yoga culture should occur in the change room, or in the starbucks. It could happen on the street, but there is a way out. You can gain the same social rank, if you pay the money, and buy the magical item. An item that says, yes, I'm in this with you. I am one of you and I'm committed. You just have to walk into one of Chip's stores, and the beautiful yoga heroes will welcome you with open arms.
The people in his stores look good, are helpful and are positive. They know a lot about the luxury products that they were selling. Yoga is a physical and mental practice but it is not a social practice. Landmark provided the kind of social boot camp to get his people presenting to others in the way he wanted them too. He wanted the people at the front of the yoga room, to turn around and help the people at the back of the yoga room without any sort of negative affect. 4
I don't know Chip personally, but I'm guessing that if I were to show him this he would not want it associated with any of his luxury brands.
When I look at that guy in the picture, I think, I don't want to look like that guy. His doesn't strike me as a quality brand at all. Furthermore, he is obviously not serious about yoga. Is that an iron maiden toque? This is a guy who would be next to me at the back of the class, me in jeans and smelly socks and him in whatever that is. Nobody would be looking at us.
For chip to charge high prices, he needed to confuse people into thinking that the price is an exact reflection of the quality of his products. They aren't linked like this, you can put a high price on a low cost product.
In this way his products become like art. Nobody buys a cheap painting -- since art itself has no intrinsic value, it doesn't make sense like that. The higher the price, the more people want the painting. If they buy this 'magical item' they can raise their social status because they have shown they can afford the painting and they had the 'taste' to buy it in the first place. These are the things one has to understand to become a billionaire.
So, how does one confuse their customers into thinking that a high product price means that it is a high quality product?
In some night clubs, bouncers are told not to let ugly people into the club. If you are deemed to be ugly, and you really want into the club, you can still get through its doors by bribing the bouncers. You just pay more than everyone else. If you are beautiful, you are helping the club create the image they are looking for. They want you there so they pay you a bit for it, they let you in and you get to avoid a discretionary charge (bribe). This whole phenomenon is enough to turn a lot a people away from this scene, but the 'scene' remains all the same.
Suppose I were Chip, and I could hire bouncers. To protect my luxury brand, I would ask my bouncers not to let fat people into the stores. I would then have them find fat people and politely suggest5 that they give back their products. The Lululemon night club is distributed across the whole of society, with several hot spots along beaches and in yoga studios. My thugs might actually harm the positive emotions associated with my branding (while busting in on yoga classes). It would be hard to hire enough of them to do the required work in the first place. Why not do something "Chip-smart" instead; don't make clothes for fat people at all.
Chip wants more of this:
None of this:
Lululemon does not sell plus sized versions of their products to women.7 In 2005 he said that this is because it would take 30 percent more fabric to create bigger clothes. For this increase in the fabric size he would want to charge more, but this would probably backfire in the market because plus-sized people are "sensitive".4
So what is going on here? He got rid of his need for yoga bouncers by not selling to fat people, but why antagonize the media?
Where else in the industry are pants more expensive because they are larger? Lululemon is a premium product, and the bags themselves, which they give away, are obviously quite expensive to make. He doesn't care about the 30 percent increase in the material. He doesn't care about saying some ingenuine thing to the media, like, "oh yeah, sorry about that". He's a billionaire, he's not going to let any good controversy go to waste.
Chip was using a Trump-like play to get free advertising. Say something controversial, then let the media jump all over you (for free) so that you can send your secret message out to the people you really want to reach. Here she is:
Let me summarize: She doesn't have a problem [because she is not fat], but she feels bad for the fat people who do have problems.
When protecting a premium clothing brand, you want your brand associated with beautiful people, purchased by legion, and not worn by people who are memorable because they are really ugly or fat. These people who are remembered by the group because the group generally doesn't want to be like them are your anti-brands.
Your anti-brands are dangerous. Your anti-brands can be very useful. There are lots of them and you can ask them to kick the media hornets nest for you, to generate free fake-controversy; real societal attention: Free marketing.
It's easy to use anti-brands in a society where identity politics has so much say over what can be said, and what can not be said. The higher positions in media organizations go to people coming out of the university system, and there is no other place where identity politics has such a strong foot hold in the western world. Chip knows how to deal with any Ellsworth Toohey like media character who is evaluating him in the public light. Send messages through them to your real audience, use their media scrutiny as free advertising.
As the last American election demonstrated, western media has no immunity to this kind of play. Donald Trump would say insane things and the media would report on it at no cost to Trump. They amplified Trumps ability to transmit his secret messages through to his real audience, let's call this 'trumpeting'.
Media people who operate within the rules of identity politics do not understand their own media. They work within a small subset of the total society-belief-space, and believe that the rest of the world believes what they believe. Savvy players like Trump and Chip can take advantage of this position, and make tremendous strategic plays against them.
Since the last American election Chip might have to be a bit stronger in his language to 'trumpet' the media. Remember, he did it before Trump did. It was Trump that took a play from Chip Wilson's play book.
Let's go back in time. When he was challenged by Bloomberg media about quality issues he said this:
“Some women’s bodies just don’t actually work for it. It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there. I mean over a period of time, and how much they use it,”
If you watch the whole video you will see the above quote was pretty innocuous. Had I casually been watching TV while it came on I might have slept through it.
Once again, as a kind of sideways marketing technique I think it really worked for Lululemon.
Friends of mine who are serious about yoga told me that their new yoga pants were actually see thru at the time. Chip might have really harmed his brand by not paying attention to his supply chain, or by not staying on top of the actual quality of the materials selected in the design process. Or maybe they just wanted the pants to be see thru, but the market wasn't ready yet.
Ultimately, it was the beginning of the end for Chip with Lululemon. He left the board then eventually left the company. Lululemon is much worse off without him.
He and his wife are starting another clothing company, while Lululemon will continue on as they are.
From a google search of "yoga woman infected with Toxoplasma Ghondii" ↩
I have several pair of running pants and a couple of his shirts. They were expensive, but they have served me well. ↩
Lululemon bouncer dealing with an antibrand: ↩