It’s been a tough year for Lululemon.
In June, CEO Christine Day stepped down after a five-and-a-half year stint at the Vancouver-based company. The shift came only three months after the brand was forced to recall about 17 percent of its leggings on account of sheerness—which resulted in a major PR disaster that was both embarrassing for the brand and would result in an estimated $67 million dollar loss in sales. While Lululemon may be rapidly expanding its empire (the company's store count increased from 138 in 2011 to today's 218) its seemingly steady same-store sales growth of 20 percent dropped to a mere 7 percent in the most recent quarter. Has Lululemon hit a road block?
Now, the company is being accused of discriminating against plus-size women because it doesn't make clothing over size 12.
Sparked by a Huffington Post article written on July 31st entitled “Shunning Plus-Size Shoppers Is Key To Lululemon's Strategy, Insiders Say,” author Kim Bhasin spoke to two former Lululemon employees—Elizabeth Licorish, and one anonymous source—who claimed that the brand did not focus attention on larger sizes. The article highlighted Lululemon’s “biggest competitor,” Athleta, a more plus-size friendly brand that offers sizes beyond size 12.
Athleta has been seen as Lululemon’s greatest competitor due to its high quality at a lower price point, as well as its greater breadth of sizes. However, through further investigation of the two company’s size charts, clothing meant to fit the criteria of Athleta’s size 16 (for women who are considered plus-size), actually has the same measurements as Lululemon’s defined size 12—those being: 40 bust, 32.5 waist, 43 hips. Despite misconceptions that women over a generalized size 12 cannot shop at Lululemon, Athleta’s size 16 is actually equivalent to Lululemon’s size 12.
The news of Lululemon’s supposed plus-size discrimination led one dissatisfied customer to post Yahoo’s story on the brand’s Facebook page, with the caption: “Really? No comment? C'mon! Love your gear, but not impressed with the contradictions.”
The company responded sincerely and appropriately: “Our product and design strategy is built around creating products for our target guest in our size range of 2-12,” a brand representative responded. “While we know that doesn't work for everyone and recognize fitness and health come in all shapes and sizes, we've built our business, brand and relationship with our guests on this formula. So it’s important for us to maintain our focus as we innovate our products and expand our business internationally in the years ahead.”
A former store supervisor told The Huffington Post that larger sizes tended not to sell. "’We didn't want it to look sparse,’ she said, adding that the size 12s tend to gather dust. ‘They just sit in the store and you sell them like once every six months.”
Meanwhile, customers on both sides of the spectrum voiced their opinions on Lululemon’s Facebook page following the company’s reaction: One customer wrote: “I am so embarrassed that I actually purchased a $90 pair of your yoga pants only to find out that you are discriminating against the average size women in America,” while another said: “I am a 12 or 14 depending on where I shop....and no I do not shop Lululemon because of prices...that's my bigger concern… How can every store be expected to carry every size? How many thousands of other stores don't carry plus sizes?”
As if her comments in The Huffington Post piece didn’t create enough of a stir, the Facebook reply initiated Elizabeth Licorish—the former Lululemon Philadelphia branch employee—to publish a strongly-worded article about being a Lululemon employee. Licorish wrote, “With the Lululemon creed and catechism comes a collective mentality that thrives on scapegoats and leaves you feeling worthless if you subsist on anything but spring water and kale,” comparing the work culture to that of “Salem” cults and describing her colleagues as “sportier versions of seriously cutthroat sorority sisters.”
While the brand has said that it will not be creating products for those over a size 12 in the near future, is this really as large of a situation as critics are making it seem? Should all fashion brands be expected to create clothing for all sizes? A brand needs to expand based on its demographic—and if such an audience does not exist, it would make sense for Lululemon to not increase production or sizing. (In July, Lululemon took its first steps at broadening its demographic by announcing an expansion of its menswear division to standalone stores by 2016).
Though a Lululemon representative did not respond to The Daily Beast’s two e-mails and phone call for comment, it seems at this point there will be little resolution for increasing the brand’s sizing in the near future. [The Huffington Post]