Style Q&A: Shannon and JJ Wilson of Kit and Ace

The founders of the athleisure brand opened their first US flagship on Newbury Street last week.

Shannon and JJ Wilson, founders of Kit and Ace / Photo via Kit and Ace

Shannon and JJ Wilson, founders of Kit and Ace / Photo via Kit and Ace

Perhaps you’ve seen their ads in Vogue and Marie Claire. Kit and Ace is breaking out on the fashion scene and we’re already obsessed with the soft, luxe materials, expert draping, and classic color palette. Last Friday, the two cofounders of the chic new brand made their debut here in Boston. Shannon Wilson and her stepson JJ, both of Lululemon family fame, opened their first US Kit and Ace flagship store at 208 Newbury St. The new athleisure line boasts a new kind of cashmere that doesn’t pill or shrink in the wash, and simple, flattering silhouettes for the young and active set.

The storefront opened with a stylish fete last week that showcased their most recent Fall collection and gave fashion-lovers a chance to check out their highly-localized interior design. With tables and benches by Peter Hussey at Structure Design and Build, chairs by Quentin Kelly from Infusion Furniture, lighting fixtures by Alex Jaynes, and artwork by Andrew Kubica and Clint Baclawski, the new shop has already nestled itself into the Boston community. Party-goers enjoyed raw bar delicacies like oysters and various types of tartare while sipping signature Kit and Ace cocktails and enjoying an electric performance by British synthpop outfit AlunaGeorge.

Before the big debut, we sat down with the innovative duo to learn more about Kit and Ace and their newest Boston outpost:

How did Kit and Ace begin?

Shannon: My background is in fabric development and also design – I was an original designer at Lululemon and did that for years so it was definitely my passion. I found that the same focus of attention on building technical, functional apparel doesn’t exist in street wear.  And it especially doesn’t exist if you’re working with luxury fabrics like silk or cashmere.

JJ: That was the big gap in the market. We looked at our own lives and we looked at how the world was evolving and how people were really going from 6am to 10pm every day, full- on. They’re finding time to fit in their workouts, they’re finding time for office meetings, they’re finding time for their family and friends… So everything we make really considers movement. It’s also designed around time, we want to make sure that people’s time is appreciated and valued so that’s where the machine washability and dryability comes in. We say that our line is for a full-contact life.

Shannon : For example, I love cashmere, I think it’s amazing, but it’s a little temperamental, and so I wanted to come up with a recipe that I could put in in the wash and dry it. We’ve taken the best of cashmere – its soft and it has great drape – and then we added stretch and made it so that it could be washed and dried and it still keeps its shape. Once I developed the technical cashmere, I sewed up some samples and shared them with friends to have them do wash-and-wear testing. And now we’re making everything here at Kit and Ace ideal for function and movement.

JJ: This is really an opportunity for us to evolve luxury natural fabric into a variety of additional fabrications—whether that’s technical silk in the future, or new suiting fabric that we just introduced: a cashmere-wool stretch fabric .

Tell me about your muses, Kit and Ace.

JJ: We designed this brand around two fictional muses. We see them as living on the West Coast – they live a full-contact West Coast lifestyle. They’re young, maybe between the ages of 25 and 35, they’re young professionals, maybe they’re just graduating from school, or maybe they’ve been out of school for five years. They’re on the verge of being clear on who they are and how they’re going to live their life. They’re active, so they’re sweating, they’re family oriented, they’re social, they’re entrepreneurs, and they’re creative and find time for their creative pursuit. They’re movers and shakers.

If I’m not mistaken, the idea of using a muse is pretty similar to what Chip did at Lululemon.

Shannon: I think anybody that really wants to nail down their product and be really clear with their business should have a muse. Even fashion houses in Paris have their muses. It allows the company to very clearly define who they’re building the product for. Of course, a wide range of people are going to come through our doors, which is what we want. But it allows for the company, everything we do from designing the product to our stores and the layout and the speed at which we want people to move through the space, is inspired by that persona.  It allows us know that all areas of business are going to line up.

What’s the strategy behind the design of the store?

JJ: When we started Kit and Ace, we had a small part-time office and part time-retail space in Vancouver. And we sort of just opened the doors and started to put out rolling racks. It felt very organic and very unprofessional (laughs). We just wanted to open the doors and get feedback. I also didn’t want all the shops to look the same. We looked very carefully at how we could use the existing space, if there’s a cool element –whether it’s the ceiling or the floor–that we can evolve and work with, we do that. Thirty-percent this shop is local. Furniture design, art on the wall…

Shannon: The lighting fixtures…

Can you talk about the Supper Club series?

Shannon: The Supper Club idea came from our dinners at home. We have a giant square table at home, like the one here in the shop. We used to write down questions put them in a bowl and then pass them around. Between Chip and me, there are five boys – JJ and Brett are the two older sons from a previous marriage and then we have three little ones. And we were trying to come up with questions that would get everybody engaged and talking. We had so much fun that we started doing it at dinner parties and then we brought it into the shops. We bring in people from the community who maybe don’t know each other. It’s a way to introduce people from different industries to connect and engage. We host it in our shop and we use a local caterer. What we do is we have these “Real Talk” cards. Each person gets a question and you go around the table and share your stories.

And how does one get invited to one of these?

JJ: You have to make friends with the shop director!

I heard that you have in-shop designers.

Shannon: We do! We have a technical atelier here for young people who are fresh out of school or new to the industry. They work directly from feedback from customers in the shop. They’ll sew up samples, they’ll take a bit of direction from designers at head office, maybe some things we want to solve for.  But they’re given full rein to be creative. Once every quarter those designs go up to the head office and then we work the best of them into our regular line and deliver to shops.

And we do have an embroidery machine here as well so – we actually just started getting these into shops, I saw the first one in Toronto this week and it’s really cool. Actually I was kicking myself that I didn’t get something embroidered while we were there.

So why Boston?

JJ: A bunch of different reasons. I used to live here. I worked in private equity and lived in the Back Bay. I love Boston. Have you been to Buttery? They have amazing cookies.

Real estate is such an important piece of our business. The right real estate, on the right street, in the right city, in the right building. For whatever reason, the stars on Newbury aligned for us.

Do Boston shoppers fit that profile? The full-contact lifestyle?

JJ: 100%. We wouldn’t have picked this city if we didn’t think it was the right fit. We’re very meticulous and calculated in where we want to show up.

What is the idea behind the Kit and Ace logo?

JJ: I can’t believe we forgot this.  What we do is we take West Coast relaxed-fit T-shirts and combine them with Italian tailoring, and so we started darting the back of all of our t-shirts in the same way that you would see a traditional Italian dress shirt darted. So we sort of brought those two things together…and this is the shape the darts made.

How involved is Chip? I know when you first started he was still on the board of directors at Lululemon.

Shannon: He definitely gives us advice. I feel so lucky that we got him. I think he’s a retail genius and a lot of people would want to have Chip’s phone number and email to ask him questions.

JJ: And if you don’t have a question, he probably has an opinion anyway!

Shannon: (Laughs) So whether we want it or not, we get an opinion! Since he stepped off of the board, he’s been able to get a little more involved. But he’s more of an adviser and mentor.