TORONTO — After only 10 months in business, Canadian retail start-up Kit and Ace is taking its “technical luxury” clothing brand — and the soft, laundry-friendly cashmere it was built on — on a global expansion.
This story first appeared in the April 14, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The Vancouver-based apparel company cofounded by Shannon and JJ Wilson, the wife and son of Lululemon Athletica founder Chip Wilson, has confirmed that it will open 30 to 50 stores worldwide by the end of 2015, including locations in London, Sydney, Melbourne and Japan.
The robust expansion originally intended for 2016 will also involve eight openings in the U.S., including June launches in Cincinnati, Columbus, Denver, Minneapolis, San Francisco and St. Louis, followed by store unveilings in San Jose in August and Washington, D.C., in October. The stores will range in size from a 760-square-foot T-shirt shop in Detroit to a studio in St. Louis at 960 square feet and larger locations in San Jose, at 3,825 square feet, and San Francisco, 2,500 square feet.
“Every location will look different,” said creative director Shannon Wilson. “Some will be T-shirt shops or studios. Others will carry a fuller range of merchandise, like our Vancouver flagship which opens in August. But each store will reflect its local culture and Kit and Ace’s philosophy, which is to design high-performance luxury wear that elevates busy peoples’ lives.”
It’s an ambitious plan for a company that currently operates seven stores: five in Canada and two in the U.S., in New York and San Francisco. Yet offers for prime real estate, coupled with worldwide requests for Kit and Ace’s washable T-shirts and tops made with the cashmere-blend fabric Qemir, have bolstered the brand’s momentum.
“This isn’t how I expected things to go 10 months ago,” said 26-year-old brand director, JJ Wilson.
“Fortunately our brand isn’t fighting for real estate,” said Wilson, whose company is projected to become a $1 billion retailer by 2019.
“Landlords sought us out early with great offers, so we are growing faster than expected. The demand was there,” Wilson said. “That’s made me feel confident about undertaking such a massive expansion at this time.”
Retail analysts speculated that the accelerated ramp-up was linked to Chip Wilson’s recent departure from Lululemon’s board of directors. Lululemon’s billionaire founder exited the yoga wear company in February, leaving Kit and Ace’s “mentor,” as his wife and son call him, more time to develop the business.
“If Chip Wilson is involved here in any way you cannot count this company out,” said Maureen Atkinson, a senior partner at J.C. Williams Group in Toronto. “We all want exciting new retail spaces to come into the market. But no start-up gets real estate without a pedigree. Wilson has that, plus the money to attract investors to Kit and Ace and the experience this brand needs as it goes global,” she said.
Reportedly, the Wilson family is expected to invest $300 million to fund the rollout built on a fabric that was first offered to Lululemon and turned down. “Kit and Ace began with the idea of creating a fabric that could push the limits of traditional cashmere,” said Shannon Wilson, who joined Lululemon in 2000 as its lead designer and went on to create some of the company’s most successful products, including its logo hoodies and groove pants.
She created Qemir (pronounced ka-meer) in 2012 while living in Australia with her husband. This “technical cashmere,” as she describes it, blends fibers sourced from goats in Mongolia and China with viscose, cotton, elastane and nylon. The resulting fabric is stretchy, soft and resists shrinkage when laundered in a washer or dryer.
“This fabric does feel great, much like a fine, buttery cotton,” said retail analyst Atkinson, who stumbled upon the fledgling company and its wares during a visit to New York.
Yet Qemir’s potential is far-reaching.
“Our fabric can be used to create shirts, bottoms and other items for men and women. But we focused on T-shirts first to polish our concept of designing clothes for a full-contact lifestyle,” said Shannon Wilson.
That strategy allowed the Wilsons to tweak different sizes, fits, silhouettes and weights of cashmere preferred by customers in varying regions across North America.
Today, Kit and Ace offers crop tops, sweaters and bottoms, and plans to introduce outerwear in its fall lineup.
The brand is also developing a secret product for release in the next two years. “I don’t want to say too much about it until I’m certain we can deliver on it,” said Shannon Wilson.
Still, this aggressive expansion will bring challenges, according to Atkinson.
“It’s unclear how the average person living in today’s tough, hyper-competitive U.S. market will respond to Kit and Ace’s product and prices,” Atkinson said.
The aspirational brand targets younger consumers who will spend $78 and beyond for a T-shirt. But as Atkinson cautioned, “Gucci, Versace and other heavyweight designers could charge $700 for a T-shirt and people would pay it. That’s because they have huge brand value. Kit and Ace doesn’t have that yet.”
Atkinson believes the start-up’s biggest challenge may lie in “making a single fabric sing as a store concept.”
“So far Kit and Ace’s offerings have been slim. Hopefully, it will fill in the blanks as the brand grows,” said Atkinson, cautioning that the development of product and fabric at the same time may make an accelerated expansion “more onerous.”
“Ultimately, a big global brand has to connect with consumers,” she said. “We’ll just have to wait and see how Kit and Ace handles things as it moves forward.”