Is Kit and Ace, Chip Wilson’s big new bet, really a tech startup?

JJ and Chip Wilson at Kit and Ace’s Kitsilano launch party

Backed by the bank of Chip Wilson, retailer Kit and Ace is scaling like a startup in the tech sector—and targeting that crowd too

Lululemon’s billionaire founder Chip Wilson is wearing flip-flops to the glamour-packed launch party of Kit and Ace’s new flagship clothing store in Kitsilano. His 26-year-old son, JJ, is there in a black tank top, while Shannon Wilson—Chip’s wife, JJ’s stepmom—is wearing a striped T-shirt. A dress-down affair? Perhaps. But at $118 for JJ’s “Drake Tank” (made with interlaced silk, wool and cashmere) and $78 for Shannon’s “Kaye Crew,” looking this effortlessly sharp doesn’t come cheap.

US$2.1 billion
19th-richest person in Canada
847th in the world
Source: Forbes‘s “The World’s Billionaires” (2015)

Kit and Ace (named after the company’s “ideal” customers) is a year old now and just exiting what JJ—the company’s chief brand officer (Shannon serves as creative director)—describes as the “beta” stage. The term is borrowed from Silicon Valley, whose culture Kit and Ace is channelling both in terms of target market and expansion strategy. Already, the company employs 600 people (mostly full-time at the Vancouver HQ) with plans to double its current North American presence to 50 stores by mid-2016—and turn a profit by 2018.

Normally, clothing retailers build brand recognition then scale accordingly—not the other way around. Analyst David Ian Gray of Vancouver-based DIG360 Consulting says he’s never seen anything like it. “I imagine there are a lot of consultants who may think this is crazy. We’re used to that kind of dialogue when we talk about technology. We don’t see this in retail.” Then again, most don’t have a billionaire backer with, as Gray puts it, an ego (“but that ego’s also a good thing”).

So, who’s buying? Bruce Philp, a Toronto-based brand consultant, says the new generation of wealth is not big on cars, fashion—anything that makes it look like you’re trying too hard. “When I was young, we got our guidance from rock stars,” says Philp. “Now we get it from Silicon Valley. Inconspicuous consumption.” The “technical” aspect of Kit and Ace—with cashmere-infused fabrics both comfortable and form-fitting—validates the high price point for the Silicon Valley crowd, adds Philp: “You don’t want to look as if you’re wasting money. But at the same time, humans can’t get along without statements.”

To make sure that statement is heard, Kit and Ace needs to befriend influencers and make sure the right people are wearing the clothes at, say, Austin’s trend-setting media festival, South by Southwest (they’ll be there, confirms JJ). The key, says Philp, is to “attach your brand to a lifestyle that’s aspirational that few people live but most people are aware of.”

As for these model citizens—Kit and her partner, Ace—JJ says he sees them living the sort of lives he and his stepmom do. “I describe that as 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., full-on, every day. We’re working out, we’re working, we’re running businesses, we’re growing teams, we’re building stores—just trying to fit everything in.”