Controversial

The Mouths That Can Sink A Brand

You’d think there would be no question by this point that we are living in the information age, and that public figures – including heads of major retail brands – would keep that in mind before sharing thoughts that might, upon just the briefest of reflection, be less than public-friendly. Nonetheless, once-loyal consumers have to look for brands to prove themselves again and again, as high-level executives for those companies continue to lodge their foots firmly in their mouths.

The latest development in the ongoing saga between Lululemon Athletica and its founder, Dennis J. Wilson, may have evoked a sigh of relief from both the company’s board of directors and patrons of the yoga wear maker that drove the “athleisure” trend currently having its moment in consumer fashion.

Founded in 1998, Lululemon began as a clothing shop alongside a Vancouver yoga studio and grew rapidly to the very top of the athletic apparel market. With its $100 yoga pants – which use patented stretch fabric technology and offered shoppers entry into a club of women who had the means and time to make working out in style a priority – the company was able to introduce a new kind of athletic luxury to consumers.

And consumers were buying it. Lululemon yoga pants became a must-have item for a cross-section of the female population, from on-the-go moms to young, upwardly mobile urbanites to fashion-forward executives.

But the brand hit a snag in 2013, when a line of sheer pants was found to be just a little too see-through. When women started attempting to return the defective items to stores, they were met by less-than-accommodating sales staff, some of whom even reportedly asked customers to bend over to prove the pants’ transparency. The final straw in the PR debacle came when Wilson – at the time a board member – remarked publicly that perhaps the complaining consumers were just “too fat” to wear the pants.

On the record, he said that. Like…where people could find it.

Lululemon lost $67 million and a third of its market value as it struggled to recover from the debacle. Insiders have indicated that the damage was even worse than it immediately appeared, as this fixation on quality led them to miss emerging trends in bright colors and patterns in the athleisure market. By 2014, Wilson was forced to step down as chairman.

The relationship between Wilson and the board of directors has continued to be wrought with turmoil as the founder has made attempts to remove numerous board members and vie for more leverage through private equity firms. The ongoing turmoil culminated in an announcement earlier this week that Wilson might sell his remaining 14 percent stake in Lululemon (valued at $1.2 billion) and cut ties with the company once and for all.

While these boardroom power struggles have played out, Luluemon has been unsuccessful in regaining its footing with a consumer public no longer willing to let Lululemon yoga pants be the sole harbingers of their stylishly healthy lifestyles. New athleisure options were flooding the market and in our age of connected consumerism (and fickle brand loyalty), consumers could turn to their smartphones, now in the palm of 64 percent of U.S. shoppers, to find them fast.

Could Lululemon leadership’s distraction at a core moment in the evolution of the market be a blunder from which the company does not recover?

As it happens, this is not the first time that consumers have turned on a brand based on missteps by the leadership.

Leading a powerhouse fashion brand of the 1990s and early aughts, former Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Michael Jeffries was notorious for a rigid adherence to his own brand aesthetic and a less-than-inclusive attitude when it came to the company’s staffing policies, the sizes of clothing offered in their stores, and critics’ remarks about the brand’s exclusivity.

In 2002, when asked by an analyst if the chain’s clothing might be unnecessarily excluding some teens from shopping there, Jeffries replied: “Does it exclude people? Absolutely. We are the cool brand.” Comments like that and an interview with Salon conducted in 2006 – which resurfaced to find new life on the Internet in 2013 – have largely been interpreted as “fat-shaming.”

Over the years, Abercrombie & Fitch became embattled in lawsuits brought on by a number of different groups claiming disenfranchisement. After 11 straight quarters of sales decline, Jeffries resigned in December 2014, but not before he had managed to turn consumer sentiment against the brand. In a 2013 Piper Jaffray survey, teen girls were asked to name the brands they no longer wore; Abercrombie & Fitch and its sister brand Hollister were ranked second and third, respectively.

These stories share a common theme: brands that build themselves around the idea of exclusivity have a tough row to hoe with consumers who ultimately all want to belong. As fast-fashion names like H&M and Forever 21 have proven, consumers will forgo quality for the ability to participate in rapidly changing trends and change their outward identities with the current season. Nearly 52 “micro seasons” have replaced the traditional fashion spring/summer and fall/winter divides. This creates urgency and a need for consumers to shop more often, and with that comes the need for accessibility in pricing, styles and sizes that can accommodate a variety of body types.

This accessibility to fashion has caused the hyper-body-conscious brands to fall out of fashion rather rapidly. Consumers are using their buying power to send a message loud and clear to the powers that be: All consumers want the ability to equally participate in fashion, and retailers are no longer the gatekeepers of the consumer’s self-worth.

To put it another way, retailers might want to heed the timeless advice that their mothers probably gave them when they were young: If you don’t have anything nice to say, then just don’t say anything at all.

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