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Lululemon's Founder Is Causing Problems for Lululemon's CEO

Chip Wilson, who founded the yoga wear company Lululemon (LULU), seems to be doing his darnedest to complicate things for the new chief executive, Laurent Potdevin. As if Potdevin doesn’t have enough to deal with already: The company hasn’t really recovered from its transparent pants fiasco last year and recently called its assortment in stores “suboptimal.” Sales this year won’t be as good as it had hoped. Competitors are taking advantage of its troubles.

Enter Wilson. He is apparently looking for ways to regain the influence he once had at the company, maybe even take control again. Hey, Steve Jobs did it. So did Howard Schultz. Dov Charney wants to as well.

Earlier this month, Wilson, who says he owns 27 percent of Lululemon shares, voted against the reelection of two board members, including the chairman who recently replaced him. Wilson complained that the board “is heavily weighted towards short-term results at the expense of product, culture and brand and longer-term corporate goals.” The two directors were reelected anyway.

Now, according to the Wall Street Journal, Wilson is working with Goldman Sachs bankers to possibly start a proxy fight or buy out the company with the backing of a private equity firm. That might not be as easy as Wilson thinks, given his sometimes controversial statements. It’s also possible that he could just sell his stake.

Wilson’s public defense of Lululemon hasn’t always gone as planned. He appeared on Bloomberg TV in November to try to reassure customers, I think. In response to a question about the quality of fabric used for some yoga pants and the pilling women were complaining about, Wilson said: “They don’t work for some women’s bodies. … It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there over a period of time, how much they use it.”

Then he issued a strange apology video: “I’m sad. I’m really sad,” Wilson said. “I’m sad for the repercussions of my actions, I’m sad for the people of Lululemon who I care so much about that have really had to face the brunt of my actions. I take responsibility for all that has occurred, and the impact it has had on you.” He agreed to step down as chairman soon after. Foot in mouth. Downward dog.

Lululemon, meanwhile, is “focused on further strengthening the company’s product engine and relentlessly innovating to drive global expansion and create value for Lululemon shareholders,” a company spokesman said in a statement yesterday.

Berfield is a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York. Follow her on Twitter @susanberfield.

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