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Lululemon apologizes after employee posted 'bat fried rice' T-shirt design on his Instagram

Commenters online decried the shirt as racist, especially as reports of targeted attacks against Asian Americans have grown with the coronavirus pandemic.
Image: Lululemon Athletica
A Lululemon Athletica store in Atlanta.John Greim / LightRocket via Getty Images file

Lululemon has issued an apology after getting criticized for a "bat fried rice" T-shirt design advertised by one of its then-employees on his Instagram page.

“At Lululemon, our culture and values are core to who we are, and we take matters like this extremely seriously,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “The image and the post were inappropriate and inexcusable and we do not tolerate this behaviour.”

The Canadian athlesiure brand became the target of backlash on Sunday after then-employee Trevor Fleming posted a link to his Instagram bio promoting a T-shirt with an image of a bat in a Chinese takeout container alongside the phrase “no thanks.” The shirt was designed by California artist Jess Sluder.

“Where did COVID-19 come from? Nothing is certain, but we know a bat was involved,” Sluder, who is not an employee of Lululemon, wrote in a now-deleted Instagram post, along with #batfriedrice and #humornothate. “Beginning today, my limited edition #quarantees are now available.”

Commenters online immediately decried the shirt as racist, especially as reports of targeted attacks against Asian Americans have grown with the coronavirus pandemic, and have called for consumers to boycott the brand.

“Lululemon, usually I am one of your biggest customers,” wrote one commenter on the brand’s Instagram page. “Today, however, I am disappointed by your lack of transparency. Not only did your employee blatantly display xenophobia and racism, but he also exploited COVID19 just to make a few bucks.”

Fleming — who had worked at Lululemon as art director of its global brand since 2017, according to his LinkedIn — apologized for advertising the shirt and wrote on Instagram that he did "not participate in any part of its creation."

Fleming reiterated this message in an email, stating that while he did not design the shirt, he acknowledges that sharing a link to it "was wrong."

"It is something I deeply regret, and my eyes have been opened to the profound ripple effect that this mistake has had," Fleming wrote. "I apologize to those that have been hurt by this ... 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 did not respond to NBC News' request for further comment.

Lululemon confirmed that the T-shirt was not one of its products and that Fleming is "no longer an employee" at the company. The company has not yet acknowledged the cause of Fleming's departure and was not immediately available for further comment.

Yet commenters say that Fleming’s termination is not enough and are urging Lululemon to issue a public apology versus simply responding to individual comments on social media.

This is not the first time the brand has been accused of racism. Many noted in their criticism that its founder, Chip Wilson, named the brand because he believed that by including an “L,” Japanese consumers would think of the brand as “innately North American and authentic” as there is no “L” sound in Japanese phonetics.

“It’s funny to watch them try and say it,” Wilson, who stepped down from the company’s board of directors in 2015, told Canada’s National Post Business Magazine, in reference to Japanese consumers’ pronunciation of the brand.

Wilson, who never publicly addressed the criticism regarding his comment about Japanese customers, came under fire again in 2013 for a remark about about how some women’s bodies aren’t the right size for the company’s yoga pants. The New York Times reported that he was told by company executives to refrain from further public comments after the incident after Wilson issued an apology for the comment.