Lululemon founder’s son, JJ Wilson, sews up retail plan

Kit and Ace aims to open at least 30 new stores in North America this year

JJ Wilson oversees the Kit and Ace brand as well as its e-commerce operations | Chung Chow

Casually dressed, Kit and Ace principal JJ Wilson sits in a chair at his Gastown store with one leg draped over its arm. Fit, tall and 26 years old, he looks more like a university jock than a principal at one of the world’s most ambitious clothing retail chains.

Just back from scouting potential store locations in Tokyo and London, Wilson is enjoying a warm Vancouver winter day and squeezing in an interview between other appointments.

“We’re going to do 50 stores in North America in 2015,” he told Business in Vancouver. “There will also be stores in Tokyo, London, Sydney and Melbourne.”

He later scales back the projection to 30 new stores in 2015, but there’s no doubt that Wilson’s retail chain, which sells what he calls “contemporary luxury streetwear,” is a force to be reckoned with.

“I’m nervous for them,” retail analyst and DIG360 Consulting Ltd. owner David Gray told BIV. “I wouldn’t count them out, but I don’t think they’ve got their business model down yet.

“They should get a good sense of what they are before rapidly expanding.”

Funded by Wilson’s billionaire father, Lululemon Athletica Inc. founder Chip Wilson, Kit and Ace has none of the financial struggles that stymie the ambitions of other big-thinking small-business owners.

JJ Wilson co-founded and runs Kit and Ace with stepmother Shannon Wilson, although the two have hired former Lululemon Asia Pacific managing director Darrell Kopke to be the company’s CEO.

Wilson refers to his venture as a “family legacy company” because it’s also steered by his father, who quit Lululemon’s board earlier this year in part to focus on Kit and Ace.

The first store to launch was the Gastown location in July. Within a few months, they had determined how their stores would look, Wilson said.

Distinctive elements in Kit and Ace’s stores include a 2.4-metre square table and a wall featuring art by a local artist. Interiors are airy and walls tend to be white.

Expansion has already occurred at warp speed with stores in Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon and Toronto opening simultaneously in early November. Another opened later that month in New York; a San Francisco Kit and Ace opened in time for the Christmas shopping season.

“The world is moving insanely fast, and I think that in order for us to become a retail force in the global market, we know we need to move quickly,” Wilson said.

He and his brother, Brett, are from their father’s first marriage, which dissolved when Wilson was two years old. He and Brett then shuttled between parents, and they’re still both on good terms with their mother.

Chip and Shannon Wilson later had sons Duke, Tag and Tor.

After graduating from Magee secondary school, Wilson studied business at the University of Calgary, but he soon realized that he was not enjoying what he was learning.

He wanted to study fashion, so he transferred to Ryerson University’s school of fashion before shifting to study business, eventually graduating with a bachelor of commerce degree in entrepreneurship with a minor in retail management.

More valuable business knowledge, however, was gleaned while growing up.

“Every dinner conversation was about Lululemon – its growth, who we’ve hired, what the fashion market was doing and what new fabrics there are,” he said.

“I look at my university undergraduate degree and say it was great, but where I really got my education value was listening and watching.”

Wilson worked at Lululemon as a teenager and went to New York with his dad in July 2007 to watch the company go public. He has also visited Lululemon factories in places as far flung as China, Sri Lanka and Israel.

“Sometimes we just go to factories to see what they are doing that is new,” he said. “The best factories in the world are the ones that are being innovative on their own. It’s their job to innovate.”

Wilson’s pre-Kit and Ace fashion experience also includes a stint at Holt Renfrew, where his job was to determine fashion trends and relay those thoughts to the company’s buying team.

“JJ is one of the most intuitive, thoughtful and intelligent interns that I’ve ever had,” Holt Renfrew’s vice-president of fashion direction, Barbara Atkin, told BIV.

“As much as he used to say that I was his mentor, he didn’t realize how much he was mentoring me so I could see life in a new way through his eyes.”

She is so impressed with Kit and Ace’s clothing that she wants to stock some at Holt Renfrew, although no agreement on that has yet been reached.

Wilson’s other internships include stints at the Clinton Foundation in New York and at Boston’s Advent International, which is the private equity firm that bought a stake in Lululemon in 2005 and helped steer the retailer to its IPO.

“Advent had me look at cool, trending, potentially high-growth businesses all over the world and report back to say what they are doing, how it is innovative and whether I think it is something they should look at for an acquisition.”

Wilson believes the big trend sweeping the world is convenience through smart technology – a phenomenon that’s evident in smart watches and Google’s push to develop self-driving cars. He puts Kit and Ace’s clothing in that category of innovation because its proprietary fabric, Qemir, includes cashmere yet can be washed in a machine instead of having to be dry cleaned.

His stepmother developed the fabric, which interlaces viscose, cashmere and elastine for women and cotton, elastine and cashmere for men.

She first offered it to Lululemon, but the company’s executives were not interested.

Wilson’s focus at Kit and Ace is to manage its brand and e-commerce operations. Shannon Wilson, meanwhile, manages all elements related to production and design.

E-commerce sales have soared thanks to media coverage and because the company is currently in only seven cities.

“The cool thing about e-commerce is that it gives us an idea of where to open up stores next because we can gauge where sales are coming from,” he said.

The little time he has outside of work is spent either with his girlfriend or at the Ride Cycle Club Yaletown fitness centre, which he co-founded with his stepmother Shannon and Ashley Ander.

“I’m a little bit of a fabric nerd, so, if I have time, I like to go to the trade shows with the design team,” he said. “I love those.”•