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Vancouver, framed like a massive Edward Burtynsky print, is the fourth wall of Chip Wilson’s legendary Point Grey Road house. On a recent visit, through that expansive glass, I watch a paddleboarder inch by freighters hovering on a brilliant ocean.
This 80-minute interview is his first since Wilson — Vancouver’s most globally recognized billionaire, our Donald Trump of yoga pants — spoke in November with Bloomberg TV. That was the moment that ongoing problems with Lululemon’s products went viral, reduced to a crude meme: “Chip Wilson thinks fat chicks shouldn’t wear his clothes.” A month later, he announced his departure as chairman.
So today’s get-together is a little tense. Wilson, a PR consultant, and I sit in Wilson’s spectacular office space before that panorama of ocean, city, and mountains, after a winding trip from the locked gate, through sculpted garden, and across the small moat along the front of the building. This room is one space in a long railcar of a house that starts with an open kitchen of hyper-modern white counters and cabinets, flows into one jewel-toned living room with an iconic blue/violet Roche Bobois cushion couch, a second earth-toned living room with an identical couch in mushroom, Chip’s office, and then that of wife Shannon closing off the eastern end. The most noticeable art is the dozen or so Vanity Fair-style black-and-white photos of Chip, Shannon, and the kids, much softly glowing bare skin on view.
He betrays none of the fidgeting or restlessness that characterize so many alpha males in this town. He speaks reflectively, in a deep bass, sometimes tangling himself in slow-motion sentences. His plimsoll shoes and slim-fit red jeans are what the 20-somethings in my life would wear if they could afford haute-hipster.
Neighbours still grumble about the chaos he caused as construction on the $37-million Russell Hollingsworth design, spread across four lots on some of the city’s most expensive waterfront, ground on for five years. For possibly the first time, he is close to apologetic. “I rarely say this, but I could almost say I’m sorry. We were working 18 hours a day on Lululemon and let someone else take our wallet and time watch and run with it,” he says. “It probably got out of control.”
A lot of things need to be brought back under control. So for the next year, he’s simplifying a life that is by any measure full. On one wall, a dozen computer monitors post calendars of his meetings and track projects. As well as moving on from Lululemon, he and Shannon have started a charity — Imagine1day — to support education in Ethiopia, free of foreign aid, by 2030. Their new company, Whil, is aimed at bringing meditation to the masses. (Just managing all the money, even with advisers and consultants, is full-time employment.)
Plus, they have five boys — two from Wilson’s first marriage to Nancy (one, 25, is starting his own clothing business; the other, 24, studies commercial real estate) and their eight-year-old twins and 10-year-old, who like their father are involved in competitive swimming. Each, he says, is “a corporation of its own.”
All this simplifying is to prepare for the next productive phase — when, it appears, he is going to take a more visible hand in shaping the city. There have already been signs. In July 2012, he bought the bronze sculpture A-maze-ing Laughter for $1.5 million so it could remain in one of the city’s parks. In December that same year, he donated $8 million to Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s fashion department to fund the Chip and Shannon Wilson School of Technical Design; he has plans to help the south-of-Fraser school move itself downtown as part of an effort to turn the city into a global leader in clothing production.
And that’s only the beginning. Chip, with Shannon by his side for almost every venture, wants to do a lot more in and for the city. Buy more public art. Contribute to a competition-standard 50-metre pool that will be not just functional but beautiful. Restore heritage buildings in Gastown. And invest financially. He’s decided to put a quarter of his net worth (estimated by Forbes magazine at $2.3 billion) into Vancouver real estate.
No one could have predicted Chip Wilson would become Vancouver’s trademark businessman. His dad was a PE teacher; his mother, a home hobby sewer who filled the house with machines and patterns. He says he grew up in Calgary in poverty, which is perhaps how it looks now from Point Grey Road. Others might call it standard 1960s middle class, with a drop after his parents divorced when he was 12.
His dad remarried when he was 14. He had already been travelling some as a competitive swimmer, but an airline connection (his stepmother was a flight attendant) meant free trips all over the world. While completing high school and studying oil economics at the University of Calgary, he managed to visit Japan, Brazil, Europe… He started picking up on trends and made note of which cities had done a good job of enhancing their natural assets.
In the middle of his meandering university years and travelling, looking for clothes that would fit someone of his height and build, he started producing a line of baggy beach shorts like the ones he’d worn during trips to California, financing this with savings from a stint working in the oil patch. That was the beginning of Westbeach. In 1986, he ended up in Vancouver — specifically, lower West Fourth Avenue. It was the kind of street he had an intuition would work: close to young people like himself, providing the stuff they wanted to shop for. From the start, he wasn’t just a clothing manufacturer but a symbol of the lifestyle and sports his clothing evoked. He didn’t have money for marketing, so he made himself the spokesman for the emerging surfing and skating cultures. He started a snowboarding competition in Whistler and got himself quoted extensively.
In 1997, Wilson sold Westbeach for $15 million. Within a year, after taking yoga classes to develop flexibility, he latched on to the idea of making attractive clothing for women who did yoga — or who wanted to look as though they did. To put it modestly, the company took off. He sold 48 percent to investors in 2005 and took Lululemon public in 2007 in order to expand into the U.S. Five years later, he stepped down as chief innovation and branding officer but stayed on as a director and chairman of the board. Until now.