Early this month, controversial Lululemon founder Chip Wilson announced his decision to leave the athletic wear company's board of directors to focus on other projects including Kit and Ace, a clothing company founded in 2014 by his wife Shannon (formerly head of design at Lululemon) and son JJ. Intrigued, I headed to the Vancouver-based brand's Nolita outpost, which opened late last year, to drink some sparkling water on-tap, check out the athleisure and groundbreaking technical cashmere Kit and Ace is banking on and get familiar with the term "full-contact lifestyle," which is what the Kit and Ace customer is apparently living.
The brand's New York director Tara Caroll explained that the clothes are "not athletic, but streetwear available for people who live a full-contact lifestyle." Basically, the clothes are meant to be comfortable and functional enough to do just about anything in, but elevated so that customers can wear them to a party or out to dinner. The prices are reasonable: $68 for a tank to $178 for a sweatshirt. In theory, it's the perfect example of using high tech fabrics to make fashionable clothes feel and work better. Though, so far, the fashionable aspect may leave something to be desired for some.
The store was very pleasant -- it's filled with natural light and feels open, airy and comfortable. The design, meanwhile, is pretty minimalist. There are intriguing light fixtures, works of photography on the walls and a large wooden table towards the front, all of which were created by local artists. While it reminded me somewhat of a Lululemon store, it felt much less activewear-oriented. For instance, instead of yoga classes, the store holds monthly "supper clubs" for local members of the "creative class."
As for the clothes, they feel amazing. Shannon Wilson spent two years developing the technical cashmere, which blends cashmere with fibers that allow it to maintain its shape, never pill and be washed in a machine. A turtleneck in the fabric, which I took home, is definitely the softest thing I own, and very warm. As for the aesthetic, it's pretty basic: short and long-sleeve T-shirts, turtlenecks, raglan tees and a henley are key items for women. Fashion seems to have taken a backseat to function for now, but as Shannon and JJ explained over the phone, what we're seeing is really just a test run.
Read on for our interview with the founders about how this brand came about, Chip Wilson's involvement, what a full-contact lifestyle means, and their ambitious plans for global growth.
So how did Kit and Ace come about?
Shannon: I really started looking at your typical luxury brands and realized that they didn’t have any of the more technical aspects that I’ve gotten used to with my athletic clothing. There was no stretch, there wasn’t even ventilation. It really just wasn’t built for movement. They looked beautiful but they weren’t functional for wearing. I also had at the same time the idea of, what is typically a difficult fiber like cashmere and what would happen if I applied more of the technical properties to it. So if I added stretch and made it so that it could go into the washer and dryer. And so I searched for more functional luxury clothing and ended up creating what we call technical cashmere that really would be the idea and inspiration behind Kit and Ace.
Do you have a background in developing fabrics? How long did that take?
JJ: I think Shannon spent almost two years developing the cashmere and testing it and making it to where it is today. And I think having a technical background in design, you sort of organically develop a technical understanding for how fabrics work.
Could you both tell me a little bit about your backgrounds and what you were doing pre-Kit and Ace?
JJ: I grew up in the family retail business. My real experience started in the family just in our conversations about the business of fashion and the business of retail. That led into me going into business school at Ryerson University in Toronto, which has a strong retail merchandising and fashion program. Then I moved to Boston where I worked for a private equity firm on a retail and consumer team so I spent a lot of time looking at high value emerging brands with lots of growth capacity and from there, I worked for two Canadian menswear brands based out of Vancouver called Wings and Horns and Reigning Champ. So I launched their e-commerce platform and brought them to major department stores. Then I went back to Lululemon for a little bit and spent some time developing the men's line. And then Shannon and I decided to start Kit & Ace.
Shannon: I have a fine arts degree and a fashion arts degree. And I started two businesses. I started a gallery and closed that down. And then I started my own clothing design company, making athletic clothing. And based on that work was hired into Lululemon. And then I was the lead designer for Lululemon for years. And while I was at Lululemon, I also designed outerwear for other brands.
How much is Chip involved now that he's left the board of Lululemon?
Shannon: Kit & Ace belongs to J.J. and I. During the time of the launch, Chip really was a board member of Lululemon, really until last week, and that needed to be his primary focus. We’re really lucky that we’ve got him to ask questions and give advice, but that’s really the extent of it. And he just gave up his seat on the board last week. So as far as the future, we’re unsure what his commitment will be.
JJ: He’s a man of many projects so I’m sure he’ll find something.
How did you come up with the name Kit & Ace?
JJ: Shannon and I actually didn’t have a name for what we were creating. And we hired about 20 people and this is just nine months ago. People started asking her where they were working so that they could start telling their parents. But during that two month period, Shannon and I had written out who our muses would be. And looking at how people were living their full-contact lifestyle and wanting function and beautiful and luxurious apparel. We had spent the time writing out who these muses were and we started with a girl named “Kit.” And she really embraces the brand for what the female side of the brand would be like. And then we did the same for her male counterpart and we named him “Ace.” Those were sort of our guiding lights, our check-ins for what we were doing across the brand and across the design. When we decided to come up with a name, we decided we would name it for who we were making it for, so we decided to call it Kit and Ace.
What's the strategy behind the stores? How did you want them to feel for the customer?
JJ: We only really started nine months ago and in the last five months, we opened up seven stores across Canada, United States, New York and San Francisco. [In each city] we work with the local creative class to help build our stores. So we took five key anchors of our store -- one being that really big supper club table you saw in the middle of the Nolita store, the amazingly beautiful light fixtures in the shop, the cash wrap. We work with the local iconic photographer to create a black and white mural. And then obviously the wall, which is something in each store that we turn over a new piece of art every three months. So all those five anchors are actually created by a local carpenter, a local designer, a local artist, a local lighting fixture designer.
We really want to make sure that what [the artists are] creating for our space is unique to their own design and their own aesthetic but also compliments how we want our stores to look and feel. So it’s really a collaboration. So far, the relationships have been amazing and it’s actually been one of the more exciting parts of building the brand and building our stores. Also, we’re from the west coast and I think mine and Shannon’s aesthetic collectively comes together. It's hat comfortable West coast type feeling. It’s definitely something that we wanted to make sure lived in all our stores because that’s who we are and that’s who we’re making Kit and Ace for.
I was also intrigued by the tailoring workshop area where there was a seamstress to alter things right on the sales floor. I’m curious why you decided to do that and where you see that aspect of the business going.
Shannon: We call that our tailor shop and it’s a space for our locals to get their pants hemmed or alterations that they need so that it’s a perfect fit for them. We also have in-shop designers and so they’re typically recent grads from design schools and they’re getting direct feedback from customers about what they would like or what new or different styles they’d like. They actually get some of our locals to try on the samples and get their feedback on possible new design.
I know it’s still pretty early but can you say what new products you plan to incorporate in the upcoming seasons?
Shannon: Going into fall '15, we’ll have a larger selection of pants. We’re going into second layers so you’ll see more mid-weight tops, both for men and women. And then even starting this summer, we’re going into more color.
Do you see Kit and Ace products being at all driven by fashion trends or are you focusing on function and fabric over fashion?
Shannon: We focus more on the fabric, so the science of the fabric, and really go from there, so making sure that we’re building stretch and wash and wearability into incredible luxury-feeling fabrics and once that’s achieved, then we figure out what we can make out of it. If we come more from a trend focus, I find it becomes a commodity product.
JJ: We really looked at these last seven months going into the summer as our test and we really see fall as being our full-launch in terms of more product, bigger stores, international shop openings.
Where is everything produced and manufactured?
Shannon: Our head office is in Vancouver so the design and production and everything is done in Vancouver. But we say we source and manufacture globally.
Anything more specific than that?
Shannon: Well, no because we get fabrics from Italy to Asia, to manufacturing in Southeast Asia and parts in Europe. So it really is globally.
And you planning to open more stores in the near future?
Shannon: We do. We’ve got 30 stores planned for 2015.
JJ: In North America. And then we’re opening up studios in London and Australia. Sydney.
What do you mean by studios?
JJ: Sort of pop-up type things. What we have right now, what we’ve opened up in the last five months have been temporary spaces. Just either sort of testing our fabric and testing our fit and testing our store and testing our fixtures and really just sort of just getting a feel for the market. The same goes for when we’re going into international markets. We’re going to open up studios for the first little bit and really just get a feel for how we want to open up stores, how we want to introduce the brand into the market, and it gives a little bit of time to make sure that when we do a full launch with a full shop that we do it really well and we do it in a way so that the market responds really well to it.
At the store, I was informed of the monthly supper clubs. What was the thinking behind those?
JJ: You know it’s funny. All of our stores have the 8 X 8 table that you saw in the Nolita space, with the exception of San Francisco because it’s a smaller store.
It came twofold. One, as a family we do it. So in our home in Vancouver we have a 12 X 12 table and we love getting the whole family together and sitting around the table. And that was another big thing that me and Shannon wanted to make sure we get in our store because it’s something that we love. And when we started working with the local creative class in the markets that we were going into, we were working with the lighting designer, and the table carpenter, the photographers and our first artists for the wall, we found that everyone was sitting around these tables and it was turning into a supper club. So each month, we find people doing cool things, influencers to come in and have dinner inside of our stores.
What do you hope to get out of those?
JJ: It’s really about building the market and being a place for connection, facilitating connection. Shannon and I are both passionate about the creative class and the art. So it’s something that we wanted to make sure was very much a part of our brand.
Shannon: And you know everything from our product to our stores to the online experience is about saving people time. And by saving time, we’re adding value to their life. So everything from the clothing, being able to put it in the washer and dryer, not having to add the added expense of dry cleaning or even the time that it takes to do it, to making sure that people’s experience in the store is seamless, as well as their online experience. The supper clubs are part of that too. If we create really genuine conversations between people that maybe didn’t know each other before, then we’re adding value.
Do you see these creative people and creative class as the Kit & Ace customer? Is that who you envision wearing your clothes?
JJ: Yes and no. What we’re hoping our customer is, is those people who are living full-contact lives and are really looking for luxury but also function. I think organically that it’s one and the same, and that typically the creative class is living the full-contact life. They’re going from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.; they’re waking up, they’re practicing their craft, they’re going for a working lunch, they’re going all day long through to dinner and then they have an event after dinner, they’re stopping by a bar to meet up with friends. We want to make sure that we’re providing products for the full scope of the lifestyle which is a lifestyle that me and Shannon live on our own. That's what Shannon deemed 'full-contact.' [Laughs]
Ah, so that's what full-contact means. What are your expansion plans? Where do you see Kit and Ace five years from now?
JJ: We’re committed to going international and building a global brand within five years. I think it’s hard for us to exactly say where we will go. We know that we want to build out North America and we know that we’re going to be in Japan, Australia and the UK. I could foresee us moving a little more into Europe within five years. So much of it is dependent on people and locations, but we’re committed to global.
Do you see Kit and Ace as a family company? What are the advantages and disadvantages to working with family?
Shannon: The advantages are, we know each other well enough that I think what brought us together is we have a shared aesthetic that we know we can trust each other with, and we can go into separate parts of the business knowing that there’s that common thread. Also we’re lucky in that we’re used to being in communication with each other, so we’ve got that basis.
JJ: Longterm, we’re building a family company.
Are there other family members involved?
JJ: There’s an uncle, a second removed, but direct immediate family members no, not at the moment.
Shannon: We’ll see what we can do.