On the job a little over a month, Wendy Bennison has acclimated to the fast-paced world of Kit and Ace, which makes luxury technical apparel.
Bennison was previously president of Roots Canada Ltd., where her primary focus was the expansion of the company’s category portfolio. Earlier, she was senior vice president at Mark’s Work Wearhouse, Canada’s largest specialty apparel and footwear store network with more than 400 locations and 8,500 employees. She spearheaded the company’s expansion into the women’s category.
As president of the Vancouver-based Kit and Ace, Bennison has hit the ground running.
“First of all, I’m excited to be a part of this brand. For me coming here, it’s a start-up company. It’s very much talked about in the industry right now as an up and comer. And the team here has been incredibly busy over the last couple of years getting 60 shops open already, and another 10 to open this year,” said Bennison.
Kit and Ace’s upcoming store openings are in Covent Garden in London (July); Westfield World Trade Center in New York (August), and Williamsburg, Brooklyn (August.) They also have a fast-growing e-commerce business, which recently expanded internationally.
Bennison said a tremendous amount of “fast-moving” work has been done in the past two years since the company was launched, under the leadership of J.J. Wilson and his step-mother, Shannon Wilson (who is married to Chip Wilson, founder and former ceo of Lululemon). “In two years they’ve accomplished a lot. The timing is great for me to be inserted in the process as president to really begin to properly roadmap the opportunities that have been identified in the first couple of years of the brand’s experience,” she said.
Her first priority was to put together a comprehensive omnichannel roadmap that helps them understand the potential of the business and how to roll it out most effectively. Benisson spent her entire career in the retail industry, with a strong focus on guest experiences. “Here at Kit, since we’re developing very unique and proprietary product to take to market, we want to focus on ensuring that we’re providing a really strong differentiated guest experience that goes along with that. That will be a strong focus for me,” she said.
She said she’s focusing her energy across the organization and getting to know the people and the team. The goal is for e-commerce to be 30 percent of the business in two to five years’ time, said Bennison. Currently, 70 percent is women’s apparel and 30 percent is men’s wear. The brand does not wholesale its product.
While she has a strong passion for product, Bennison grew up on the operating side of the business.” Her previous job at Roots Ltd. was also with a family-owned business. “One of the things that drew me here was that this was family-led,” she said.
The company envisions a strong expansion throughout North America, Europe and Asia. “It could end up being several hundred locations over the next few years,” she said.
According to JJ Wilson, the customer they’re going after is an “undercover athlete” who’s living a full contact life on the go. He said when he and Shannon Wilson were developing the concept, they were modeling it after themselves and people like themselves who are on the go from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. with work, travel and spending time with family. “We really identified that who we were speaking to wasn’t a market that was defined,” he said. He said it was a blend of bringing technical apparel into clothing for your real life.
While the company began with T-shirts in technical cashmere, developed by Shannon Wilson, over the past two years they have diversified the product line and have seen success in such areas as bottoms. They’ve also added outerwear and accessories to the offering. The collection retails from $28 for foundations pieces (underwear) to $438 for a 100 percent cashmere sweater.
JJ Wilson said they experiment with pop-up stores to figure out successful neighborhoods. “We test the market from six months to a year, and in some cases, two years.” The result of that are the long-term committed locations that are opening up now and in the second half of 2016. “We’re feeling comfortable going further into the market with longer-term leases and really committing to full stores,” he said.
In addition, Kit and Ace has also done hotel pop-ups to explore a different avenue. “We were getting a lot of great feedback around our product around travel,” he said. Every market had a different hotel, such as in New York, they partnered with the Refinery Hotel and in London, the Mondrian. These are little weeklong, weekend pop ups, he said.
JJ Wilson said their customers range from 16 years old to 65 years ago. Since it’s a technical product, it’s often priced higher than regular sportswear. “We’re still exploring what prices work for the product. It’s a technical product and a technical fabric, and a lot of time those functional and technical qualities are quite expensive,” he said. “We spend a lot of time crafting it. We look at seams that are flat, removable hang tags, added ventilation and things of that nature. A large part of our product and price point associated with it is due to the fact that there’s such technical specifications related towards it,” he said.
He noted that customers are looking for ease of care, luxury, technical apparel and apparel that keeps up. It’s not designed to sweat in, but that’s up to the user. She might wear it to yoga class, but she wouldn’t wear it to actually work out. “We’re looking at things that value time and how they move throughout the day,” said JJ Wilson.
JJ Wilson said the company pursues a variety of initiatives at their bricks-and-mortar showrooms. “We looked at a blend of how we built out Lululemon and having no traditional marketing, and having our showrooms function as community hubs. When we developed Kit and Ace as a model, we thought of our showrooms as building communities around them. We actually start with some traditional marketing and a comprehensive social media strategy.”
He considers the bricks-and-mortar stores as venues, and each store is responsible for building their own communities, hosting events, built out with supper clubs within. Asked why they call them showrooms, he said because people are going into stores and trying things on and purchasing them when they get home. “It’s a technical product that requires the customers to touch and feel the product.”
They call their sales associates “educators.”
Right now they’re manufacturing globally, in around 40 different countries. While they don’t make anything in Canada, they design and do sample-making in Vancouver. The company has an entire building dedicated to product and is building a new headquarters in Vancouver in the next two years.