Can Chip Wilson’s Family Create Another Retail Phenomenon?

When Chip Wilson, the billionaire founder of Lululemon left the company, there was much speculation about what he would do. The answer to that appears to be – get back into retail. The retailer in question – Kit and Ace. While Chip Wilson’s name is nowhere to be found on the Kit and Ace website, his family, namely his wife and son, liberally use their Lululemon connection to give the company credibility.

Since it was announced that the Wilsons were opening a retail chain last year, we have been curious to see what that business would look like.  Knowing how difficult it is to find a truly unique and compelling retail strategy, our question was – could this be the next big thing? Having recently shopped at their Toronto store and spent time on their website, our answer is – not yet.

This is a new fabric in search of a store concept. The heart of the business is based on a new fabric designed by Shannon Wilson, who was a fabric designer for lululemon. The fabric is called “Technical Cashmere” — a blend of cashmere, viscose and elastane for stretch. The website makes much of the fabric and the quality of the clothing construction. The problem here is that it is very difficult to create an interesting store concept with a single fabric.

The store and website pitch the idea that everyone loves the comfort of athletic clothing and often use it for street wear. This is true. Lululemon product appears as often on the street as it does at yoga class. The challenge with technical cashmere is that it does not look unique. It has the look of high quality cotton. Therefore, the store comes across as a t-shirt store in a very muted colour palette.

Another big question is the price.  Will the average 20–30 something customer pay $75 for a t-shirt? While Lululemon proved that you can sell a yoga pant at a price that was not considered achievable, this was a product that really enhanced the wearer. The Kit and Ace product does not seem to have that same enhancing quality.

The store experience itself is also not very compelling.  It is simple, clean and bright but it really does not convey the technical cashmere story. The other big miss is the community connection. Lululemon made it a hallmark of its business to engage with its local communities. Kit and Ace talk about this on its website as the Wall, where local community artisans sell their hand made product. However, this translates in the Toronto store as a framed photograph that is for sale and a lighting fixture that was made by a local artisan.

So the opening question was – is Kit and Ace the next big thing in retail? As of right now the answer is no. However, having seen Lululemon transform from a very idealistic fringe business to a real selling machine, I do not want to give up on Kit and Ace. With pedigree of the founders and their financial resources, I am hoping that they will keep the technical cashmere but work on being compelling.

Written by: Maureen Atkinson, Senior Partner at J.C. Williams Group


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