Dressed in long shorts, sneakers and an achingly chic RVCA trucker's hat, J.J. Wilson lopes into view at the Vancouver HQ of Kit and Ace.
"Is the ballroom free?" he asks the receptionists on duty. "Or shall we go to the billiards or trophy room?"
If it sounds like we've strayed onto the set of Downton Abbey, that's because 26-year-old Wilson turned to Clue, the murder-in-a-country-estate board game, to help name each room of his retail company's 4,500-square-foot office and design studio. And if his name sounds familiar, that's because Wilson is the son of Lululemon Athletica founder Chip.
He guides me past a phalanx of sewing machines that stitch together prototypes of Kit and Ace's T-shirts, shorts, pants and dresses, to the billiards room (in truth, a boxy space barely a cue's-length wide). There, we're joined by Shannon Wilson, J.J.'s stepmom and co-founder of the "technical cashmere" company they launched a year ago with a shop in Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood.
It's rare to find J.J. (Chip's eldest son from his first marriage) and Shannon, the 42-year-old former lead designer at Lululemon (and Chip's second wife) in the same room. Instagram has revealed them to be human pinballs pinging around the globe. For J.J., it's Palm Springs and New York, where he interned at the Clinton Foundation and helped establish the Vancouver-based menswear firm Wings + Horns at Bloomingdale's. For Shannon—today sporting a pink biker jacket and cerulean nail polish—it's Beirut, Cairo, Ethiopia (1) and hiking in Morocco to celebrate Chip's 60th birthday, along with J.J. and his three little half-brothers, Duke, Tag and Tor.
Chip and Shannon met, of course, at Lululemon, where she masterminded its popular Luon fabric. The textiles doyenne had always been a fan of cashmere, but hated the way it pills. She proposed developing a cashmere blend, but Lululemon turned it down—three times, in fact. "It was not the right fit for them at the time," Shannon says now.
So she and J.J. decided to strike out on their own, with advice from Chip and backed by "Wilson family" money, to create a line of machine-washable luxury street clothes. She and her new Kit and Ace team searched for "happy" cashmere goats (Mongolia), mills (Italy) and manufacturers (from China to Southeast Asia to Italy) to create a two-years-in-the-making proprietary mix of cashmere, viscose and elastane. Though the fabric—Qemir, pronounced "come here"—has the stretchy comfort of workout gear, Kit and Ace's clothes are definitely not made for sweating.
Since opening its first store in July, 2014, Kit and Ace has rolled out six more shops—including Toronto, New York, Calgary and Saskatoon. This fall, it will open an additional 30 outlets across North America, the U.K. and Australia. The aim is to build "a global brand in less than five years," according to J.J. "It's just better to have two feet in."
The retailer isn't hindered by the typical cash-flow straitjacket others may endure—both founders were shareholders in Lululemon, and Chip is reportedly worth $2.2 billion. And having Chip's input on supply chains, recruitment (2), real estate and overall strategy has undoubtedly helped (he stays out of day-to-day operations). J.J. is quick to add that growing up in a family of "fabric nerds" didn't hurt, either. He learned the business by osmosis, listening to Chip and Shannon talk shop around the kitchen table. "Our discussions now are similar to how they would talk at home," says J.J., a graduate of Ryerson's business-and-retail-management program. "We've had a lot of time to listen to each other and to learn."
"As a family, we love retail," adds Shannon. "It's our constant and consistent conversation at home: why brands are working or why they aren't. Our life is filtered through colour, cut, fit and fabric."
That doesn't mean the relationship always runs smoothly. They strive to keep family and business separate, avers Shannon, "but sometimes it gets messed up and we have to clean it up. Knowing that we have to show up professionally keeps communication going."
Communication is a big theme for the Kit and Acers. The shops even host supper clubs where "locals" (a.k.a. customers) are invited to answer "deep" life questions as part of a game the Wilsons created called Real Talk (3). "It's about the luxury of really connecting," J.J. explains. When he addresses a question from the deck, however, there's a temporary blip in communication. "What's one thing you've done that you've never told your parents?" the card asks. "I can't possibly release that information publicly," J.J. quips, before he and his stepmom burst out laughing.
1 The Wilson family's charity, imagine1day, is based in Ethiopia. Its goal: to bring quality education to all Ethiopians, free of foreign aid, by 2030.
2 They've gone from four employees to 420 in a year, and installed former Lululemon exec Darrell Kopke as CEO.
3 You can buy the card game for $35. Its slogan: "Let's get real—small talk sucks."