Chapter 10

The Genesis of lululemon

Group 2Back to the Beginning

The Poster on the Pole

Following the end of my time at Westbeach, I returned to Vancouver. It was 1998. I was enjoying more time with my sons, JJ and Brett, reconnecting with friends, and living by the beach in the most beautiful city in the world.

I’d sacrificed a lot of time for my business at the expense of time with my children. When we sold Westbeach to Morrow, my position within the company was relocated to Salem, Oregon. This put a six- hour drive between my sons and I, which I did most weekends. “Our dad wasn’t around very much, but he knows that,” my son JJ recalls. “He tried to tell us, ‘I’m doing this for the family. I’m not here today, but I will be tomorrow,’ and just try to make something work for us. When you’re five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, you don’t understand what that means.”

As a lifelong entrepreneur, I knew that finding a mid to high-level position in another company would be tricky, if not impossible. In my mind, an entrepreneur is too incompetent to work for anybody else. At 42, the money I’d made from the sale of Westbeach was too little to retire on, but it gave me some time to think about my next move.

I decided to take the Landmark Advanced course (a follow-up to the Landmark Forum I’d taken several years earlier) so I could review my life from an outside perspective. During the three-day course, I came to understand what I considered success in my life. The theme for any future venture would be “giving without the expectation of return.” If I were ever to build a new company, my priority would be developing people to be great.

I knew the only big job I wanted was to be the CEO of Nike. I was perfect for that role. No one under- stood athletics, shoes, sports psychology, sponsorship, and technical apparel like I did. Although at that point, the big future I saw for global athletics was mostly an unwritten script in my mind.

With the money I’d made on the sale, I bought a reliable car and a house in Vancouver’s beach neighbourhood of Kitsilano. I also made sure my sons were in the schools that would best suit their learning preferences.

Meanwhile, with an unknown future ahead of me, I had my physical health to think about. From competitive swimming to football, from wrestling to triathlons, and from skateboarding and snowboarding to squash, I’d beat myself up. My back was a constant source of intense discomfort.

I was looking for a panacea for my pain when I saw a poster on a telephone pole, advertising a form of exercise called yoga. A short time later, I found myself in Fiona Stang’s yoga class, feeling an undeniable creative impulse once again.

The Yoga Class

Besides the instructor and me, there were five other people in the class – all females between the ages of 18 and 28. I was 42 and trying yoga for the first time. The class was taking place not in a dedicated studio, but at one end of a chilly, air-conditioned gym. Fitness machines were whirring just a few feet away as we rolled out our mats.

This was Kitsilano in 1998. “Kits” was Canada’s version of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury during the ’70s – it was a mecca for the post-university, not-yet-married, athletic crowd. There were expansive views of the snowcapped North Shore mountains, multiple yacht clubs, long beaches, and hundreds of offshore islands. It had more athletic supply stores than any other place in the world. It was the origin of Greenpeace, organic foods, and an athletic lifestyle that was second to none.

At that time, yoga was a hippie concept in the same vein as meditation and the wellness communes that sprinkled the greater Vancouver area.

I was fortunate that the instructor, Fiona Stang, was very good. Fiona was poised, confident, smart, and approachable. She told me that she’d just moved to Vancouver from New York City, where she had been working in convertible bonds on Wall Street.

“I wanted the ocean and the mountains,” Fiona told me. “My husband and I chose Vancouver, and here I am in this beautiful city teaching yoga. It’s perfect.”

I quickly learned that yoga required applying a level of concentration and awareness that left me with the same endorphin rush as the athletics of my past. It didn’t come naturally to me; I’m a big guy and not blessed with an innate sense of balance, but I like to push myself in areas I haven’t explored before.

I loved yoga from the first time I tried it.

New Creative Impulses

As I watched the class grow from 6 to 30 students in one month, I anticipated that yoga would be as strong a social-athletic movement as the surf-skate-snowboard business before it. I understood technical apparel, and I knew there was a much better solution than the sweaty, baggy, binding cotton the other students were wearing. In 1998, gym fashion was simply your worst throwaway clothes.

I knew a lot about sweating. For most of my life, I had three workouts a day and my body was so conditioned to keep my temperature in check it would start sweating 15 minutes prior to a run and 60 minutes after. I have always believed deodorant to be one of the most toxic causes of cancer so I took a lot of showers but was naturally sweaty most of the time. What I wore had to handle that. I wondered, “why shouldn’t my clothing be unrestrictive and luxurious and save me time with cleaning and caring?” I knew that if I had to think about my clothing while I was competing, then the clothing was wrong. I was always considering the solve for terrible athletic apparel. I wanted clothing that allowed my mind to ease gracefully into the moment.

After my exposure to yoga, there was a brief period where I tried to ignore my creative impulses. I tried to ignore the urge to take a chance. If I stuck with the idea of being a barista, I could avoid years of uncertainty, stress, hard work, mounting responsibilities, and fiscal pressure. I could run from the way of life I’d been so glad to leave behind when we sold Westbeach.

No matter what I told myself, my creative urges intensified. I knew that I could spot athletic trends five to seven years before they emerged, and I knew that this was what was occurring for me now. I was also 42 and mindful of the fact that my goal had been to retire at 40. I let my mind wander, and, rather than coming up with reasons not to start another business, I simply chose that if I started a new venture, I would approach it differently.

I’d started Westbeach with little capital and little experience. Now that I had a good amount of both, I could begin with a blank slate and create something in-line with my beliefs. Many of these beliefs were formed by the many audiobooks I’d listened to on the six-hour return car rides from Vancouver to the Morrow offices in Salem. I’d listened to just about every audiobook I could find on business success, self-development, and the realization of human potential.

At my next yoga class, I talked to Fiona – my only expert on the subject at the time – about the clothing she and other yoga instructors and practitioners wore. Fiona told me instructors mostly wore the brand, Danskin. This line, however, only worked on the very fittest of bodies, as the fabric was thin and pattern pieces were cut skinny to save money. When someone wearing the dancewear line bent over, the Lycra would stretch too far and become shiny – almost like a lightbulb. The thinness of the fabric resulted in transparency.

Transparency was the first issue that I wanted to solve. I believed that if I could solve the transparency problem, address camel-toe, and thicken the fabric to mask any imperfections, I could create a perfect athletic garment for women. If I could get a technical fabric that felt like cotton instead of plastic, then add properties to make it moisture-wicking and anti-stink, I could create the perfect pant. Nothing like this existed in the world.

With Westbeach, I had worked for two decades with teenage boys as a customer base. I would need a woman’s input to develop properly the apparel I had in mind. I asked Fiona if she would be interested in a superior product at triple the price of the line she’d been wearing. She said yes. I explained to her that I was thinking about starting a yoga apparel brand and that I wanted her to share her thoughts and feedback with me. She said yes again, and I took a big step toward putting my plans into action.

“Chip wanted to climb into my brain,” says Fiona. “He wanted to know everything I could tell him about yoga. When he started talking about this company he was going to start, you should have seen the excitement in his face. That’s how I feel about yoga.”

Fiona’s interest was inspiring, but there were still two other reasons to think carefully about embarking on another business venture – my sons JJ and Brett. I wanted to inspire my boys to find their own passions someday – what they could be the best in the world at – and to figure out how they could earn a good living while doing something they loved. I knew that retiring at 42 and just sitting on an ever-diminishing pile of cash wouldn’t convey these possibilities to my boys, especially as they approached adolescence.

I wondered if it would be possible to balance being a great dad while also devoting my time and energy to getting a business off the ground. The answer, I realized, was that it was up to me. I made a choice to be engaged on both fronts, fatherhood and business. I felt it was imperative for JJ and Brett to be integrated into my new venture. After all the travelling I’d done with Westbeach, I was determined to never get on a plane again without having my family with me.

In JJ’s words: “My memories of dad’s new venture started with Brett and me being brought into it. We were on a plane flying from Vancouver to San Diego to visit our grandma. Dad would always sit in the middle, sort of against his will because he was so big. Brett and I were little kids, but we were both drawing logos for lululemon. I’m not sure if any of those got adopted, but I think if you went through dad’s book of creativity you would see these squiggly lines, coming together to make a lululemon logo in some way. I think he’s always tried to get us involved. His way of being a dad was to always educate us in what he was doing and how he was doing it.”

The pieces were in place. All I needed now was to determine what my new venture would look like day to day.