Family Behind Lululemon Branches Out Into T-shirts, Streetwear

By Kavita Kumar
Star Tribune (Minneapolis).


The family that persuaded women to dole out $100 for yoga pants is now hoping to do the same with T-shirts.

The son and wife of the founder of Lululemon are in the midst of an aggressive rollout of a new concept called Kit and Ace.

It’s predicated on a new cashmere blend material that is both soft and machine washable and is aimed at well-heeled young adults.

The shirts, priced at $68 to $138, are for people who have a “full-contact life” and want clothes that will hold up, said JJ Wilson, one of the brand’s co-founders and a self-professed T-shirt junkie.

Since launching last year, Wilson, and his stepmother, Shannon Wilson, have opened seven Kit and Ace stores. The Twin Cities is one of the first metro areas in the U.S. outside of New York and San Francisco to get one. One opened recently and will be followed by a second location at the Mall of America in the fall.

The duo are moving fast with plans to open at least another 15 other stores this summer in the U.S. and with hopes to get to 50 stores by the middle of next year, including outposts in Australia and Japan.

“We have money,” JJ Wilson said in an interview when asked how the company is able to grow so fast. “We are 100 percent self-financed. But I don’t think we would go into such an aggressive expansion if we didn’t see such excitement in the first few months.”

The Wilson family has invested about $7 million in Kit and Ace thus far.

JJ Wilson doesn’t shy away from the fact that Kit and Ace has borrowed a bit from the Lululemon playbook, noting that there was a lot to learn from the $1.8 billion sportswear company that now has more than 300 stores.

In addition to sharing a founding family, both Lululemon and Kit and Ace are based in Vancouver. They both focus on technical fabrics with similar, relatively high, prices.

And they both invite customers into their stores to do more than shop. While Lululemon hosts yoga classes, Kit and Ace hosts monthly supper clubs where local chefs provide the fare.

“I say this to everyone, including my friends: I love Lululemon,” Wilson said. “Our intention has never been to compete with Lululemon. We see it as a complement. We see it as the same guy and girl who wears Kit and Ace during the day and then sweats in Lululemon.”

The Wilsons say they originally presented the technical cashmere fabric called “Qemir” to Lululemon, but the company apparently wasn’t interested. So they decided to launch it on their own as a separate company.

Shannon Wilson was one of Lululemon’s original and lead designers. JJ Wilson, 26, worked at Lululemon for a couple of years and notes that the company was like a “third parent” for him growing up. His family still owns about 15 percent of Lululemon’s stock.

Lululemon declined to comment.

JJ Wilson’s father, Chip, is the founder of Lululemon whose comments about its see-through pants controversy in 2013 was followed soon after by his resignation as the company’s chairman. He serves as an adviser to Kit and Ace, but is not involved in its day-to-day operations.

“We ask him a lot of questions,” said JJ Wilson. “The man is so brilliant we would be foolish not to.”

When asked if Kit and Ace could one day be as big as Lululemon, Wilson shrugged.

Bruce Winder, a senior adviser for retail consulting firm J.C. Williams Group, said he doubts that it could grow that large, noting that the newer venture has a more niche market. But he gives Kit and Ace high marks for a sound concept with good-looking clothes that is branching off from athletic clothes.

“It’s smart,” he said. “The folks at Kit and Ace are going the other way. They are saying that is a crowded space, so we’re going into the streetwear market with a differentiated material. It’s going against the grain.”

And, Winder added, Kit and Ace stores have a much different feel.

“If you go to Lululemon, it’s all about color and flash, all of the colors of the rainbow,” he said. “At Kit and Ace, most of the products are white, gray and black. It has a street and urban feel.”

As it expands, Kit and Ace is mostly opening pop-up studios. But the newest 2,900-square-foot store could last a couple of years and even become a permanent spot, Wilson said.

“The intention behind the studio is that we can get in, test the market, see how people react to the brand,” he said. “We go in a bit light.”

While the stores currently have mostly T-shirts, he said the assortment will be expanded this summer to include bottoms, outerwear and other tops.

Each store has some local flavor in the form of artwork and fixtures by local designers, including the square tables in the middle of the stores that will be the center of the monthly supper clubs. At those events, there will be no hard sell on Kit and Ace clothes, Wilson said. Rather, those events are centered around the idea that just as washable cashmere is a luxury, so too are “real conversations” these days.

“When you go to dinner, everyone is on their iPhone,” he said.

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