Kit & Ace was founded in 2014 by Shannon Wilson, formerly lead designer at lululemon, and her stepson, JJ Wilson. As a streetwear label that reaches toward the luxury market with its trademark Technical Cashmere, Kit & Ace have opened to fandom in Australia—now one of its biggest international markets. Co-founder JJ Wilson recently spoke to Manuscript about the ethos and the evolution of the company as it makes rapid ascent.
Can you tell us about some of the innovations you’ve made in your fabrications with the ‘Cashmere for the Summer’ collection?
Cashmere is a temperamental fibre, delicate by nature because it pills, bags out, and requires special care. The intent is to stabilize cashmere content within a proprietary fabric formula, while maintaining its soft hand feel. With Technical Cashmere™, we’ve taken everything we love about cashmere and added technical attributes – like stretch and the ability to machine wash – to create a functional, luxury fabric for everyday wear in the summer.
How has Kit & Ace ensured the sustainable and ethical farming of goats for its cashmere?
Sustainable sourcing is an important way in which we can contribute in making a positive impact globally. We have an internal code of ethics, as well as a set of requirements and standards that our global partners are expected to uphold during production. Our cashmere travels from Mongolia to your closet. To collect cashmere, the goats are combed once a year in April when they are losing their winter hair. Their hair falls out easily in the spring and a wide-tooth wired comb is used to ensure only the cashmere hair is removed, not their regular hair.
Kit & Ace has been compared to Lululemon since its inception, for obvious reasons, but in just over a year you’ve managed to cultivate an entirely new brand with its own ethos and identity. What have been some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome in getting people to take you seriously beyond the Lululemon monolith?
Kit and Ace is a very different venture than lululemon, but because of this natural connection, it’s important to us to explain what makes us different. Kit and Ace and lululemon both create technical apparel, but occupy entirely different consumer and lifestyle areas. lululemon is an athletic wear company, whereas Kit and Ace is streetwear trending to technical – our clothes are made for movement, but not for sweating.
Kit & Ace has envisioned a network of up to 15 stores in Australia by the end of 2016, which is extremely fast growth for a new brand. What do you think has made the company so successful in this particular market?
We have big plans for next year and an impressive growth trajectory. Our growth is aggressive because there is a clear market demand for the product we’re bringing to the market and our effortless, West Coast style really resonates here. We’ve had such an overwhelmingly positive reaction to what we’re producing so there is no reason to slow down.
Cashmere has traditional snob appeal, but you’ve managed to build a brand that is accessible, responds to practical needs, commits itself to humanitarian causes, and eschews advertising gimmicks. It’s no wonder Kit & Ace has been described as a “contemporary luxury brand.” What are some exciting developments you’ve got planned for 2016?
We take pride in our ability to innovate, anticipate trends and craft high-quality products for our customers. We’re most excited about expanding Qemir™ – our proprietary family of fabrics – and growing our product offering, creating new, technical fabrics that elevate luxury fibres, such as silk.
Which pieces sold best when the company was first launched in 2014? How have your customers’ tastes evolved over the past year?
Our core styles have always been the most popular – staple pieces that layer effortlessly and are found in our shops season after season. For women, these pieces include the Brighton Tee and Court Tee, whereas the Mayne Tee and V Tee are favourites among men. As our line expands, so do our customers’ tastes. They are definitely looking at their wardrobe choices as an investment, purchasing quality products as the go-to centrepieces in their closets.
Can you talk us through some of the new styles we might see in Kit & Ace stores this year?
This year we’ll be introducing more pieces that unite classic tailoring with the functionality of athletic details, made to be worn on the move and complemented by luxurious layers of cashmere accessories and versatile outerwear.
Australian consumers generally have a disdain for inaccessible, unyielding luxury interiors, but your stores employ local design talent to give them timely zest. What’s typically on your mood board when you’re working on a new store?
We want to enter a market in a way that is authentic to that neighbourhood, so no mood board is the same. We look to create spaces that are clean and streamlined, inspired by the West Coast. We then collaborate with hyper-local partners to create pieces that integrate copper, white ash wood or grey details, and pops of iconic blue into the space. At least 30 per cent of our shop build–out is a collaborative process with local artisans and contractors.
Kit and Ace are the names of your fictitious muses—they might’ve gained more solid form since you invented them. How do you envision them growing as the company grows? (After all, success can get to some people’s heads.)
They’ll continue to be active, family-oriented, social, entrepreneurial and creative. As the company grows, the demands for a “full contact” life will grow – they will work to maintain balance, while still pursuing their passions.
What’s the last great risk you took with the company? What did you learn from it?
We recently opened our first shop in Tokyo. Taking Kit and Ace across the Pacific to Japan was a risk because we were entering a completely new market and starting conversations with a new set of customers. An integral part of our brand revolves around Supper Clubs where we invite a group of strangers to enjoy dinner and engage in real, inspiring conversations. We didn’t know how this would resonate with the Japanese culture, but the reactions have been positive. Consumers are connecting with the brand ethos and there is a demand to attend our Supper Clubs.