Business

Kit and Ace pivots (oddly) from activewear to ‘mindfulness’. Chip Wilson is written all over this.

VANCOUVER — When Chip Wilson, the boisterous founder of Lululemon, swooped down to take charge of the new family business, (a flailing) Kit and Ace, last September, you got the sense that he’d had quite enough.

To recap:

  • The Wilsons got (a little too) cocky. The Vancouver-based activewear upstart, started in 2014 by son JJ Wilson and step-mom Shannon, began life with grand plans, perpetuated by Chip himself. From our coverage back in September:

 “At the start of 2015, Chip, in taking on a new role as advisor for the new family business, invested a relatively modest $7 million into the company, and spoke of his intention to take out an (absurd) $300 million in debt over the next few years to fund global expansion. The hope was to reach 95 stores by 2019 — and in the words of then-CEO, Darrell Kopke, to make Kit and Ace a billion dollar brand.”

  • Then came the inevitable layoffs. Almost as quickly as the Wilsons made those goals public, they had to make an embarrassing retreat: closing stores (or letting leases run out), and worst of all, laying off 280 employees (20% of its staff).
  • Chip also snatched control from JJ. The restructuring was capped by Chip taking over as CEO for JJ, who lost executive duties but stayed on the board (allowing dad to make good on the millions of his own cash invested up to that point).

Now consider this:

Just five months later, we’re now seeing the results of that change in leadership since Chip took the wheel, and suffice it to say, the new Kit and Ace has scaled back its ‘technical cashmere’ message — it’s calling card, remember — and is instead going all in on something decidedly less sexy: meditation.

The facts, according to the LA Times:

  • The new mindfulness angle. “As brands court yoga instructors and runners to evangelize, Kit and Ace is after the next wave: meditators.”
  • They’re rolling this out across the US after test runs in California showrooms. Each showroom “is partnering with mindfulness coaches to run meditation sessions.”
  • The big bet here: “That those in-store meditators turn into regular meditators, creating a positive link between the art of mindfulness and Kit and Ace clothes.”

The connection between fitness (physical) and meditation (the mind) is natural. But there’s no fitness angle in meditation as there is in, say, yoga or spinning classes. And because it requires, literally, a lack of movement, meditation also resonates more with older groups than it does younger ones.

So the big question here is this: Does Kit and Ace’s new meditation angle now reposition it towards an older crowd? Is it looking to court the thoughtful 35-and-up shopper, and step away from the activewear-driven twenty-something shopper? It’s certainly a possibility.

  • What’s the upside here? The Wilsons are clever enough to know that the market they decided to enter in 2014 was (and still) remains incredibly saturated. At this point, everyone and their mother wants to be an activewear brand, or have an activewear offshoot of their business. Frankly — and especially on the women’s side, which is where Kit and Ace is supported the most — it’s seriously difficult to differentiate. After all, if you’ve seen one pair of yoga pants, or active t-shirt, you’ve seen them all. That the Wilsons have repositioned their priorities towards capturing a somewhat untapped market, is sensible given the conditions.
  • What about the downside? Still, there’s certainly the risk that the mindfulness and meditation trend doesn’t catch on as strongly across the US as fitness has. Meditation classes may work well in California, but what about other Kit and Ace showrooms in markets like in Detroit, Saint Louis, Atlanta, or Chicago, that traditionally are a little less amenable to these sorts of activities? There’s the possibility that this new tack could even turn off some current customers who, frankly, might find it a little too intimate, weird, or simply uninspired compared to the energetic activewear message.
  • The part that will have you rolling your eyes? JJ Wilson claiming this move isn’t motivated by business or revenues: “[I]t’s not something we introduced to generate sales. It’s more about doing something that’s bigger than ourselves.”

The final word: Anyone who thinks this shift in strategy is just out of the goodness of the Wilsons’ hearts, would be well served to rethink that idea. They’re aiming to corner the meditation market because activewear is simply far too competitive right now. Their global retail goals were too lofty for a brand just jumping into a highly competitive marketplace. In mindfulness, however, there’s an opportunity. Still, it’s something of an odd pivot, and has the potential to be rather dull. But we wouldn’t be surprised if this new shift is a direct result of Chip coming on board full time in September.

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  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    I am embarrassed to be from Vancouver.