The athletic brand's employee Trevor Fleming promoted the offensive shirts, designed by artist Jess Sluder, on his social media feed

By Claudia Harmata
April 22, 2020 06:17 PM
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Credit: Alex Tai/Getty Images

Lululemon has fired its art director after he promoted a racist T-shirt surrounding the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and its reported origins from Wuhan, China.

On Tuesday, the popular Canadian athletic brand announced they let go of Trevor Fleming after the employee shared a link to the offensive long-sleeve tee, designed by artist Jess Sluder, on his personal Instagram account.

At Lululemon, our culture and values are core to who we are, and we take matters like this extremely seriously,” a spokesperson for the brand tells PEOPLE. “The t-shirt design is not a Lululemon product. We apologize that an employee was affiliated with promoting an offensive t-shirt, and we take this very seriously. The image and the post were inappropriate and inexcusable and we do not tolerate this behavior. We acted immediately, and the person involved is no longer an employee of Lululemon.”

Over the weekend, Fleming promoted the shirt, which was titled “Bat Fried Rice” and featured images of chopsticks with bat wings, as well as winged Chinese take out boxes with the words “No Thank You” printed on the right sleeve and back of the take out box.

Both the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that evidence shows that the coronavirus may have originated in bats and that the virus may have been transferred from a bat to another animal in the wet market in Wuhan.

Fleming has appeared to have since deleted his account. However, Nextshark captured images of the link in Fleming’s bio prior to it being taken down.

Sluder also reportedly promoted the tee, which retailed at $60, on his own private Instagram account.

“Where did COVID-19 come from? Nothing is certain, but we know a bat was involved. Beginning today, my limited edition #quarantees are now available. Link in bio or DM for details… Thank you for your support and sense of humor! #humornothat #batfriedrice,” the artist captioned a post advertising the shirts, Nextshark reported.

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Both Fleming and Sluder were immediately slammed on social media, with several users criticizing the design for its xenophobic messaging.

“the fact that the person who made the ‘bat fried rice’ tshirt did it to be funny is so repulsive,” one shared on Twitter. “promoting racism isn’t funny.”

“Lululemon, usually I am one of your biggest customers,” another user commented on Lululemon’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.”

In a statement to NextShark on Monday, Sluder apologized for the apparel art, and also clarified that neither Fleming nor Lululemon “had anything to do with my artwork.”

“The intent and inspiration for this piece was to make a parody. I like to make people laugh and I was attempting to create light during these dark times. It was never my intention to have the art become negative or racist,” he told the outlet. “I took down the post within a few hours because people were offended. This was never my intention. I do not want to hurt people or cause any pain, especially during these uncertain times.

Sluder continued: “I feel terrible about those I’ve hurt. While my original intent was humor it was clearly insensitive. During this process, I’ve spoken with many people upset by this. They have shared their stories of abuse, strangers yelling at them on the streets, and stories about being afraid to leave their homes. The last thing I want to do is add to the hatred.

“I’d like to apologize to all those affected by the design. It was never my intention,” he concluded. “I’m not a person who seeks to offend or make others feel uncomfortable. I’m hoping people can give me the chance to grow and learn from this experience. I will make this right. Thank you for listening.”

Fleming also issued his own statement to NBC, after reportedly apologizing on his Instagram account as well.

“It is something I deeply regret, and my eyes have been opened to the profound ripple effect that this mistake has had,” Fleming told the outlet. “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.”

Lululemon confirmed to NBC that the T-shirt was not one of its products and had not been offered on their website. It was only listed for sale on Sluder’s personal website.

The racist behavior comes as cities across the nation continue to report an uptick in hate crimes against Asian American communities.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.