From the Same Cloth

The house that built Lululemon reinvents casual luxury with a new family venture.

kit and ace

Shannon and JJ Wilson, founders of Kit and Ace / Photograph courtesy of Kit and Ace

Perhaps you’ve seen their minimalist, black-and-white ads in Vogue and GQ: a waifish blonde in boy shorts stretching out in a perfectly cut tee or a well-groomed young man posing casually in a tailored long-sleeve. This is Kit and Ace, a high-end athleisure clothing line crafted from a proprietary (and blessedly machine-washable) cashmere-blend fabric. The Vancouver company’s founders, stepmother-and-stepson duo Shannon and JJ Wilson, are by no means new to the retail scene: Family patriarch Chip Wilson is best known for creating the popular athletic-wear brand Lululemon. This fall, the Wilsons opened their Boston flagship on Newbury Street, in a bright, modern space that showcases the work of local designers. That translates to benches and a table by Structure Design and Build’s Peter Jackson Hussey, chairs by Infusion Furniture’s Quentin Kelley, lighting fixtures by Alex Jaynes, and artwork by Andrew Kubica and Clint Baclawski. Just before Kit and Ace’s big debut this past fall, we sat down with its founders to learn more about the innovative brand and the design of their Boston shop.

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 streetwear. And it especially doesn’t exist if you’re working with luxury fabrics like silk or cashmere.

JJ: We saw a 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 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, full on. They’re finding time to fit in workouts, they’re finding time for office meetings, they’re finding time for family and friends. So everything we make really considers movement. It’s also designed around time—we want to make sure that our customers’ time is appreciated and valued. We say that our line is for a full-contact life.

Shannon: For example, I love cashmere, but it’s a little temperamental. So I wanted to come up with a recipe that I could put in the washer and dryer. We’ve taken the best of cashmere—it’s soft and has great drape—and added stretch. We’ve also made it so it can be washed and dried and will still keep its shape. Once I developed the “technical cashmere,” I sewed up samples and shared them with friends to have them do wash-and-wear testing.

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 the new suiting fabric that we just introduced: a cashmere-wool stretch fabric.

Tell me about your fictional muses, Kit and Ace.

JJ: We see them as living on the West Coast. They’re young, maybe between the ages of 25 and 35—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 about who they are and how they’re going to live their lives. They’re active, they’re family-oriented, they’re social, they’re entrepreneurs, and they’re creative and find time for their creative pursuits. They’re movers and shakers.

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 of the Newbury Street store is local.

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 Chip’s 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 one another. It’s a way to bring in people from different industries to connect and engage. 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!

Do you have in-shop designers?

Shannon: We do! We have a technical atelier here, and in-shop designers who are usually young and fresh out of school or new to the industry. They work directly from customer feedback in the shop. They’ll sew up samples, or they’ll take a bit of direction from designers at the head office. 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 them to shops.

And we do have an embroidery machine here as well. We actually just started getting those into shops.

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 the South End 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: One hundred percent. 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: We take West Coast relaxed-fit T-shirts and combine them with Italian tailoring, 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 brought those two things together…and this is the shape the darts made.

How involved is Chip? 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 the board, he’s been able to get a little more involved. But he’s more of an adviser and mentor.