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Lululemon is facing a backlash in China after an employee shared an ‘insulting’ coronavirus-related design online. Photo: Getty Images

Lululemon distances itself from ‘Bat Fried Rice’ T-shirt after design stirs nationalist backlash in China

  • Canadian brand apologises after employee posts coronavirus-related T-shirt design to Instagram, causing outrage among Chinese internet users
  • Lululemon says the ‘Bat Fried Rice’ design was not created by the company and is ‘inappropriate and inexcusable’

Lululemon Athletica, a Canadian apparel brand known for its expensive yoga wear, apologised on Tuesday after an employee posted a coronavirus-related T-shirt design online that sparked a backlash on Chinese social media for “insulting” the country.

The company, which is quickly gaining popularity in the Chinese market, issued an apology and statement distancing itself from the design after images began circulating of a long sleeve T-shirt named “Bat Fried Rice”.

Pictures posted to China’s Twitter-like social media platform Weibo showed a design featuring a small image of chopsticks with bat wings in red on the front and a winged Chinese takeaway box with the words “No Thank You” on the back. There was no mention of China or the coronavirus pandemic on the T-shirt.

The social media storm appears to have erupted after a link to the design was shared on Instagram by Trevor Fleming, the art director at the company.

The T-shirt is not a Lululemon product. We apologise that an employee was affiliated with promoting an offensive T-shirt and we take this very seriously,

The T-shirt was originally listed for sale on the website of artist Jess Sluder, who has no connection with Lululemon, for US$60.

Some Weibo users called for a boycott of the brand, whose yoga pants sell for more than US$100, because it was “insulting China” with the design, despite the Canadian company having no official affiliation.

Lululemon issued an apology on Instagram to hose down complaints that it was fanning xenophobia.

“The T-shirt is not a Lululemon product. We apologise that an employee was affiliated with promoting an offensive T-shirt and we take this very seriously,” the company said.

“The image and the post were inappropriate and inexcusable. We acted immediately, and the person involved is no longer an employee of Lululemon.”

My eyes have been opened to the profound ripple effect that this mistake has had
Trevor Fleming

The company’s Shanghai office also issued a statement on popular messaging app WeChat in which it said the designer of “the discriminatory apparel” did not work for the company and it had no involvement in the garment’s production.

In an email response to the South China Morning Post, Fleming also apologised, saying: “I sincerely apologise for the events that have transpired this week. Although I was in no way involved in the design of the T-shirt, I did make the decision to share a link to it, and I want to acknowledge that this was wrong.

“It is something I deeply regret, and my eyes have been opened to the profound ripple effect that this mistake has had. I apologise to those that have been hurt by this, as well as to my friends and colleagues at Lululemon who have been impacted by this situation.

“I commit to standing up against racist or discriminatory behaviour and will work hard to ensure that my personal and professional contributions in the future are kind, inclusive and supportive.”

Sluder, the artist, said he was sorry for being insensitive and explained the design was intended “to create light during these dark times”.

He added that the design had nothing to do with Fleming or Lululemon, according to NextShark, a website covering Asian-American News.

The controversy over the T-shirt highlights the risks facing global brands in China, where there is a long and growing list of sensitive topics, ranging from Taiwan to the Hong Kong protests.

Narratives about the origin of coronavirus are especially charged at the moment, with China and the United States trading barbs over which country was responsible for the outbreak.
Lululemon is not the first international brand to run afoul of Chinese netizens for disrespecting the country. Last year French luxury brand Christian Dior apologised after a company presentation to university students excluded Taiwan from Chinese territory.

The Vancouver-headquartered company has been expanding rapidly in the world’s second largest economy in recent years, riding a wave of growing demand for fitness products among the country’s wealthy middle class.

An editorial decision was taken not to display the image mentioned in this story due to the sensitivity of the topic