Lululemon Acts When the Founder Becomes a Liability

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- In retailing, image is everything.

Defining your image then protecting that image is job one for any retailing chief executive. When a CEO's image runs counter to the brand's message, it's time for a realignment.

The short version for what Lululemon Athletica (LULU) has said in hiring a new CEO and announcing founder Dennis "Chip" Wilson will be leaving the company next year, is: Don't ANF me, bro!

ANF, in this case, is Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF), which this week doubled down on CEO Mike Jeffries despite a series of gaffes seen as insulting to the store's less-hot customers.

Lululemon's image is not like that of Abercrombie & Fitch. If Abercrombie's image is of someone who is too cool for school, a young Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, then Lululemon is a serene, together grown-up, more like Diane Lane or even Helen Mirren.

Lululemon makes yoga wear. It rose to prominence as aging baby boomers started to find high-impact exercise too stressful for aging joints and decided a calmer, internally focused workout might be the thing to make our golden years more golden.

Wilson rode that zeitgeist with clothes that yoga followers, and those who wanted to be seen as yoga followers, liked. They hugged the body, they stretched, they were useful as well as comfortable and they could even be worn outside the gym or yoga studio.

Wilson extended the line, making Lululemon a "yoga-inspired athletic apparel company," moving into running gear, fashion and lifestyle products, sold through branded stores, from the company's base in Vancouver.

The trouble began with quality control problems, things like bleeding dyes, fabrics that were too bright and, finally, a recall of some yoga pants in March for being too sheer.

Lululemon had always kept its inventory as tight as its clothes, in order to sell them at full price. The quality control problems backed up into the stores, costing sales.

Shares that traded in the single digits during the first half of 2009, then rose, split in 2011 and rose again to the low-$80s, suddenly fell in June like a yogi on a slick mat, to the low $60s, after the company announced a disappointing quarter and added that CEO Christine Day would be leaving. 

What turned a problem into a life-or-death crisis came in November when Wilson blamed womens' bodies, specifically their thighs, for his product's problems. You might say he really harshed their mellow.

The man appointed to save this company from itself is Laurent Potdevin. Most profiles of him emphasize his work at LVMH, the European luxury goods conglomerate. But it's probably more important that he comes directly from Toms Shoes, a retailer with its own strangely messianic CEO, Blake Mycoskie. 

Mycoskie is less interested in retailing than he is in making a difference in the world. He calls Toms a global movement, giving away a pair of shoes for each pair sold, styling himself "chief shoe giver" rather than CEO and writing a book in 2011 called Start Something That Matters

Toms, in short, is not about the shoes. It's about the image, which is based on a mission. That's what people thought Lululemon was about -- the mission of a healthier life, an image of mind and body in harmony.

If Potdevin can put the company's image and reality back into sync, his company has a huge opportunity. Of all the big athletic companies, Lululemon is the only one that skews female.

Competitors like Under Armour  (UA) skew male. Early this year, these two companies were about the same size. Now, thanks in part to Lululemon's missteps, Under Armour's sales are more than twice those of Lululemon.

So the company has a lot of ground to make up, but if it can recover its image it has a chance to make up that ground. The company may still be overpriced, at about nine times its annual sales (against 4.5 for UnderArmour) but it can still be saved.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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