In a retail landscape where many brands have taken to launching online before easing their way into brick-and-mortar, Kit and Ace is something of an anomaly. As of New York Fashion Week — during which the Vancouver-based team was in town to cosponsor the Harper's Bazaar Icons party at the Plaza Hotel — it had opened 26 stores globally and was on track to hit its goal of 30 by the end of 2015.
Of course, Kit and Ace isn't like most fledgling clothing brands: It's the brainchild of Shannon Wilson, the former lead designer of Lululemon, and her stepson, J.J., whose father (and Mrs. Wilson's husband) is Lululemon founder and ex-CEO Chip Wilson. When the label launched with the intention of creating streetwear in technical fabrics like machine-washable cashmere, people paid attention.
"We've got the financial support to be able to open up stores, and we also felt because we had success in the past, that people might be looking at us a little closer. So we thought, well, in order to really own the market, let's move really quickly and get out ahead of the competition, because it comes right behind you," Shannon Wilson says.
Kit and Ace opened its first eight stores as something of a test, and after seeing a positive response from consumers, the team decided to accelerate that rollout. The Canadian brand operates shops everywhere from Cincinnati to Honolulu, and recently opened four locations in Australia and one in London. Kit and Ace aims to have one store in Japan by the end of 2015, with a second to come early next year.
It's not just about sprawl, though. The label has been working to create a diversity of retail experiences. Its new Shoreditch store also houses a coffee shop — called the "Sorry Coffee Co." in a play on Canadians' tendency to over-apologize — and other locations host tailoring spaces for alterations. This summer, Kit and Ace took a copper Airstream trailer on the road as a traveling showroom.
But while Kit and Ace's relatively secure sources of funding enable it to open tens of stores right out of the gate, the pace of its product launches is restricted somewhat by the development pipeline for boundary-pushing fabrics. According to Wilson, a new fabric takes roughly two years to create, a process that includes finding an appropriate mill and going through rounds of extensive testing. Kit and Ace has an eight-person raw materials team — six of whom live in Vancouver and two of whom are based in Hong Kong — which travels to trade shows and meets with mills globally.
Next up is a technical silk, slated to come out this spring. It has a cool, buttery hand, Wilson says, with similar properties to Kit and Ace's cashmere products: you can wash it in the machine, and it doesn't wrinkle.
While few clothing brands are working on technical materials in the same way that Kit and Ace is, the biggest challenge Wilson sees in the fabrics space is the same one a lot of companies outside the fashion world are trying to figure out, too.
"The biggest buzzword right now is 'wearables,' and I think everyone is trying to figure out how to put technology into their clothing. I always find wearables a little gadgety and gimmicky, so I would say for us that's the biggest challenge," Wilson says. "What will add value to a person if we do apply technology to a garment?"
A long-term goal, sure. For now, we'll wait for that washable silk.