Rag Trade February 2, 2015 Issue
The Athleisure Class
By Lizzie Widdicombe
Seventeen years ago, in distant Canada, a sports-apparel seller named Chip Wilson had a vision. What if you made yoga clothes so stylish that you’d want to wear them all day? The result, Lululemon, ushered in a new era: the decline of jeans, the rise of spandex, and the practice—some might argue the scourge—of women going about their day dressed for an Ashtanga class. Wilson and his wife, Shannon, a designer he’d hired, became billionaires, though the past few years have presented setbacks. He resigned from Lululemon’s board last year, after a disastrous episode involving unintentionally see-through yoga pants. (Attempting to explain the glitch to a television reporter, he blamed a “rubbing through the thighs.”) But, in general, things are good. “It’s funny,” Shannon Wilson said the other day. “I walk down the street, and I see women in their tights and their running shoes and a jacket, and I think, We started that!”
The Wilsons were in town for a party to celebrate the New York launch of Shannon’s newest venture, Kit and Ace. Lululemon makes yoga clothes that can be worn on the street. Kit and Ace makes street clothes—cashmere sweaters, pants—with the comfy qualities of gym wear: washability, stretchiness, underarm vents. “What I think everybody’s looking for is the performance that you get in your athletic clothes,” Shannon said. She has blond hair and was dressed in one of her own white tops and narrow-cut dress pants. The new Kit and Ace store, which is in Nolita, had a Zen atmosphere: bleached-pine interiors, a d.j. playing house music. A sign said “#timeisprecious.”
Shannon and Chip, who has a thick neck and looks like a mountain man, were accompanied by a third Wilson: JJ, Chip’s son from a previous marriage, who is Shannon’s business partner. (Chip is an informal adviser.) JJ is twenty-six, but, he said, growing up in his parents’ stores, he has a lifetime of experience. Chip said, “I think we’re probably the family that knows more about technical retail apparel than any three people on the planet.”
As employees readied the store for the party, the Wilsons talked about their lives back in Vancouver. They have three other sons: Duke, who is eleven, and identical twins, who are nine. “Sports are a theme,” Shannon said. JJ teaches spin classes. Shannon is on a swim team. Chip climbs a nearby mountain trail, called Grouse Grind: “It’s nature’s StairMaster.”
After Lululemon’s success, Chip said, “Quite frankly, we came into some money, and we started buying luxury clothing.” Cashmere, he said, was “all I wanted to wear.” But it would pill and wear out. This produced the inspiration for a material that Shannon calls “qemir”—cashmere that can go in the washing machine, making it suitable for a “full-contact life style.”
JJ oversees branding for the Kit and Ace line. The name, he explained, refers to two imaginary “muses” that he and Shannon came up with. Kit is the name Shannon would have given a daughter (for Vancouver’s Kitsilano beach, “where all my dreams came true,” she said). “I think of Kit as Shannon in her heyday,” JJ said. “An artist at heart, a creator. A West Coast girl. An athlete.” Ace, her masculine counterpart, is “a West Coast guy. He likes things that are easy and carefree.” He filled out the picture: Ace surfs. “He’s graduated college. He’s thirty-two. He’s maybe dating The One.”
Could Ace be modelled on JJ? His parents teased. “He’s a bit of a pain in the ass!” Shannon said.
“A little pretentious,” Chip said, laughing.
The Kit and Ace stores vary by location, but each will have one personal touch: an eight-by-eight-foot table, which is the same size table that the Wilsons have in each of their four houses. Managers will be required to throw monthly dinner parties at the stores for the “creative community.” Chip pointed to a box of cards on a shelf. The cards are for a game called Real Talk, which the Wilsons invented to spur dinner conversation. For example, JJ said, “What’s one thing you’ve done that you’ve never told your parents?”
Chip: “What are the shoes that your man wears indicative of?”
“Do you believe in monogamy?” Shannon said. “Someone got that the other night. His wife was sitting right next to us.”
The guests were arriving—young retail people dressed in dark, casual clothing. The Wilsons looked on approvingly. Chip said,“Ten to fifteen years from now, it will be indistinguishable what is street wear and what is athletic wear.”
Is there any chance that the athletic look could end up being a fad?
Chip laughed. “Ha!” he said.
Shannon chimed in, “That’s what people said about Lululemon!” ♦