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Report On Business Chairman Chip Wilson to leave as Lululemon names new CEO

A woman carries a shopping bag with the Lululemon Athletica Inc. logo outside one of the company's stores in New York.

LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

Chip Wilson is stepping down as chairman of Lululemon Athletica Inc., a decision made about a month after he touched off a controversy by suggesting that women's body shapes were to blame for the chain's problems with its black pants.

At the same time, the Vancouver-based yoga wear retailer is naming Laurent Potdevin, a veteran executive of the global fashion and snowboarding world, as chief executive officer. He will replace Christine Day, who unexpectedly announced in June that she would leave when a replacement was found. At the time, Lululemon was rushing to fix issues with its black pants, which were seen as too sheer. The company pulled product from the market and took a $17.5-million (U.S.) writedown.

In making the changes, Lululemon is seeking to distance itself from Mr. Wilson's comments. Mr. Potdevin, 46, said in an interview that he doesn't personally agree with Mr. Wilson's comments, which led to criticism about him for encouraging a culture of skinny women for Lululemon's premium athletic wear. A 1,200-signature online petition called on Mr. Wilson to apologize for the "offensive remarks" and expand the chain's range of sizes.

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The company's shares were up 2.9 per cent in premarket trading on Tuesday.

Board member Michael Casey, named to take over as Lululemon's chairman some time in the next six months, said Mr. Wilson wasn't speaking for the company.

"I don't think the company would have made the same statements that Chip did, but Chip was speaking for himself," Mr. Casey said in an interview.

"What's important here is that we focus on the future and not the past."

The new chairman and CEO will face the challenge of polishing Lululemon's image after months of the company struggling to improve its production and distribution and ensure that its signature black yoga pants were restored to their regular quality.

As well, they need to convince disenchanted shoppers that Lululemon is an inclusive retailer with plans to grow quickly beyond its home base of Canada – in the U.S., Europe and Asia – and still maintain its quality while not losing its current loyal base of customers.

Mr. Wilson, who founded Lululemon in 1998 and opened its first store in Kitsilano, B.C., in 2000, made his comments during a television interview: "Quite frankly, some women's bodies just actually don't work for it," he said. "It's really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there."

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Last week, a Lululemon store in Bethesda, Md., played up Mr. Wilson's comments with a display in its windows and the message: "Love: cups of chai/apple pies/rubbing thighs?"

Lululemon followed up quickly with a Twitter note: "We're deeply sorry, the display is being taken down. We celebrate that thighs rub together – ours do too."

Mr. Wilson apologized as well to Lululemon's employees in a video.

Mr. Casey said the board of directors did not ask Mr. Wilson to leave, and his departure is not tied to the fallout from his comments. He said it was being planned before he made the comments.

"This transition should be very smooth and will work with the CEO transition," Mr. Casey said.

Mr. Potdevin, who most recently was president of Toms Shoes, said he will build on his background in expanding companies globally. He said he learned early on that product quality is of key importance, which is a focus he'll bring to Lululemon.

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He also has a background in athletic products, having held a number of positions at Burton Snowboards for more than 15 years, including president and CEO from 2005 to 2010. He began his career in 1991 at LVMH, a fashion powerhouse whose luxury brands include Louis Vuitton.

He said he has deep respect for the company that Mr. Wilson founded, and will build on the momentum of the fast-growing retailer. Mr. Potdevin is expected to begin as Lululemon CEO in January.

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