The world’s most unlikely billionaire returns to form

Long before Lululemon, I spent hundreds of hours in an airless basement room with Chip Wilson.

As you probably know, Dennis “Chip” Wilson is taking a little, ah, savasana as the non-executive Chairman of Lululemon, the upscale yoga chain he founded.

Presumably, Wilson (and the rest of the Board) felt this move was necessary if the company was to move beyond the blogstorm he triggered, when he told Bloomberg TV that some women had bodies that were simply unsuited to Lululemon trousers; their thighs pressed together with too much pressure, causing the fabric to pill and wear. That was the last straw for women above about size 6, who already felt that they were being discriminated against by the svelte yoginis hired to work in Lululemon stores.

That implicitly misogynist comment, along with other implicitly racist ones—for example, he once said he chose the company name because he wanted a word that orientals wouldn’t be able to pronounce—probably seemed off-brand to most observers, but in some ways, they were reassuring to me. I always had trouble reconciling the billionaire yogi with the Chip Wilson I knew.

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I spent hundreds of hours cooped up in a small, basement room with Chip Wilson.

Back then, I spent a couple of hours a day working out in the weight room at the University of Calgary. For two or three of those years, I worked out in close proximity to Chip. This was before Arnold Schwarzenegger made pumping iron a thing; weight training was a subculture. The gym was small enough that every regular knew every other regular.

Understatement: That was also long before he found his way onto the Forbes ‘billionaire’ list.

Chip hung out in the U of C gym because he was a football player—he played for the Dinosaurs, our college team and (if I recall correctly) entertained the fantasy of trying out for the Calgary Stampeders as a walk-on. He was brash and—even then—a larger than life character albeit one straight out of central casting: a self-styled Big Man On Campus. I once overheard him describing what he liked about playing football as, “I like to hit.”

He wasn’t Canadian Football League material; I’m pretty sure that he never did walk on at the Stampeders camp. Instead, he got a job as a ‘land man’ in the oil business. That was what you did after wasting four years at university. In the hierarchy of the oil patch, there are geologists who actually find oil at the top, there are engineers who figure out how to extract and refine it, and there are land men who arm-wrestle farmers into locating a drill rig on their land. The essential skillset of a good land man in that time and place consisted of a firm handshake and the ability to consume large quantities of alcohol at lunch, while still creating a simulacrum of work later in the afternoon.

I want to take you back to Calgary in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, before the 1988 Olympic Winter Games transformed it into a modern, cosmopolitan city. It had already sprouted a first crop of glass skyscrapers downtown, but the vibe was still roughneck/cowboy. There was, like, one place to buy an espresso.

A few blocks of Eighth Avenue, downtown, got turned into a pedestrian mall called ‘The Mall’. On warm summer days, the buildings disgorged office workers at lunchtime, and The Mall was crowded. For a while, it developed into a funky outdoor street market. People set up tables and sold all manner of shit; candles, cheap leather sandals, you name it. By 1:30 in the afternoon, the office drones had gone back upstairs, and the mall was left to a few scruffy hustlers and panhandlers who’d hitchhiked in off the reserve.

One summer day, I was shouldering my way through the lunch crowd and came across Chip Wilson, who was wearing suit pants and black leather shoes, but had stripped from the waist up. That was the kind of thing he’d do; get out of the office wearing a suit that didn’t suit him, and, feeling the warm sun, decide to cop a tan. What surprised me was, he actually had a little market stall, from which he sold garish, baggy shorts.

“Where are you getting this stuff?” I asked him.

“I make them,” he replied

At the time, I worked for a big Canadian retail chain, and we made a lot of our own stuff, mostly in the far east.

“Yeah you’re getting them made,” I asked again, “But where?”

That’s when he explained that he actually sewed them himself.

Chip was not exactly a surfer; we were a thousand miles from the nearest surf break. But the Canadian prairie was, paradoxically, a good place for windsurfing. And as the story goes, one day he was looking for some board shorts and couldn’t find any in his (large) size, so he borrowed a sewing machine from his mom and, after getting rudimentary instruction in its use, made his own shorts.

This was already enough to make me raise my eyebrows. If I had to pick the last person in Calgary who’d take up sewing as a hobby, I would have picked Chip Wilson. That said, he was making board shorts. It was a sort of vicarious way to be Californian, in a let’s-go-surfing-then-drink-beer-around-the-bonfire way. This was not some new-age guy getting in touch with his feminine side. If I’d suggested that, next, he’d take up yoga, he would have punched me in the face.

Anyway, in pretty short order he quit his day job, and formed a business called West Beach, which catered to the windsurfing/skateboarding scene in the summer, and sold snowboard clothes in the winter. It made sense for that business to move to the west coast, and after Chip Wilson decamped for Vancouver, he pretty much fell off my radar.

Years later, I saw my first Lululemon store, in Santa Monica. By then, I was living in North County San Diego where there were more yoga studios than gas stations. And while lots of yoga studios had a little rack of clothing for sale, I realized right away that Lululemon had tapped into a large and growing market.

By then, yoga had largely been decoupled from its ascetic roots, so while I recognized the irony of high-end, expensive yoga clothes, I knew that irony would be lost on Lululemon’s Lexus-driving, lotus-eating customer base. The whole thing was fascinating to me, and I asked the clerk about the store. I just about crapped when she told me the name of the founder: Chip Wilson.

Talk about cognitive dissonance. On the one hand I thought, Chip Wilson, clothing, retail; it had to be the same guy. On the other hand, if you could travel back in time to 1980, and search the entire planet to find the person least likely to start a hip women’s clothing company, with a yoga theme and shopping bags printed with new age sayings…

Honestly, you could search the whole planet and you might very well say, I’ve found him, I’ve found the least likely guy on earth, to do that: Chip Wilson.

Thanks to Lululemon, Chip’s now a billionaire. He looks almost exactly the same as he did in 1980, except older. Of course, once I realized that he was behind Lululemon, every time saw one of those shopping bags, I pondered the extreme unlikeliness of Chip Wilson. How the hell did he, of all people, end up being him?

There’s a great scene in the Coen brothers’ film Burn After Reading, in which the actor J.K. Simmons plays a CIA bigwig (named ‘J.K. Simmons’). The film has a hilariously convoluted plot, at the end of which Simmons is given almost the final word. “I guess all we can do is learn from it,” Simmons sighs, “But I sure wish I knew what we were supposed to learn.”

I imagine that’s about how Chip feels about his misadventures in public relations. I however find the latest tempest in the chai pot reassuring; that’s the Chip I knew, alright.

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