Kit and Ace co-founder JJ Wilson spins out new business ventures

Lululemon founder’s son owns stakes in cycling business, PR firm; plans to add clothing line
Entrepreneur JJ Wilson, flanked by new instructor Reagan Place (left) and studio manager Marqelle Moeller, counts Ride Cycle Club as one of his ventures | Chung Chow

It’s a sunny, midsummer Wednesday afternoon and JJ Wilson is at his Ride Cycle Club for a photo shoot.

Sporting several days’ worth of stubble, he climbs on one of his club’s stationary bikes and poses with some of his employees before moving around the club for other shots.

He looks like a university athlete, but, despite being a mere 28 years old, Wilson has more entrepreneurial experience than many people much older.

Wilson is readying to launch his own fashion line this fall, while also spending time as a partner in the brand management and public relations company Very Polite Agency, as a partner in the spinning venture Ride Cycle Club and as a student in Harvard University’s owner/president management program.

To be sure, Wilson has had opportunities that most entrepreneurs can only dream of.

As the son of billionaire Lululemon Athletica Inc. (Nasdaq:LULU) founder Chip Wilson, he was part of the team that propelled the fashion chain Kit and Ace into being a global brand. The venture known for its “technical-cashmere” street clothing grew from one store in July 2014 to 700 employees and 61 stores around the world less than two years later. By the fall of 2016, however, Wilson was feeling a bit squeezed out.

“There were just too many big people in the business, and it was creating too much confusion,” he told Business in Vancouver.

“There wasn’t one strong voice or one strong opinion about how the company should be run.”

He decided to turn his attention to a project that he had been thinking of launching for years.

When Wilson lived in New York City in 2011 and 2012, part of that time working as an intern at the Clinton Foundation, he started exercising in the city’s trendy spinning clubs – gyms where participants rode stationary bikes in the dark, staying in sync with each other as club music played and lighting flickered.

“There was nothing that was delivering that for me in Vancouver,” he said.

He teamed up with business partner Ashley Ander, and the duo leased space on Hamilton Street, investing close to $100,000. They got Ride Cycle Club (RCC) up and running on what Wilson called a lean budget. Rivals sprouted fast, and RCC now competes for business against ventures such as Method, SoulCycle and Eastwood Cycle Sanctuary.

Wilson stressed that his share of the startup investment for RCC was his own money and, when asked if any intergenerational wealth transfer had yet started for the Wilson family, said, “We’re consistently working on how best to transition wealth as well as business management and acumen.”

(Image: JJ Wilson sits on a bench at his Ride Cycle Club | Chung Chow)

He suggested that the family has thought hard about sustaining wealth across many generations.

“We’re looking at what the next 100 years looks like,” he said.

“I’m currently considered G2 [second generation]; what does it look like for G6?”

Regardless of how the family’s capital is allocated, Wilson remains on the board of Kit and Ace, so he had a front-row seat to that company’s troubles.

The company announced April 26 that it was closing 32 international stores and retrenching to its nine Canadian locations and its e-commerce website. It was a cautionary lesson not to expand too fast.

“There are tons of things that I would have done differently,” Wilson said.

“We had a fear that, because of who we were as a family and what we had accomplished with Lululemon, that if we didn’t move quickly, and build a brand fast enough, people would copy us.”

He now believes that a strategy with fewer stores can be more productive than one with many stores and that exclusivity can be an asset because those who love the brand will seek it out.

“There’s a right kind of growth, and we didn’t do a good job at proving the concept [of Kit and Ace],” he said.

“Where we failed is that we didn’t allow the brand to build enough brand equity or a consumer profile.”

When Kit and Ace laid off hundreds of employees, Wilson held a meeting with a few members of Kit and Ace’s internal brand management, public relations and digital marketing team.

He told them that he believed they were doing their jobs as well as anyone in Vancouver and that it would be fun to keep the team together and take on new clients as an independent business.

This was the start of Wilson’s Very Polite Agency. Partners Andrea Mestrovic, Dylan Rekert and Alan Chan agreed to join him, and the foursome now have clients such as La Maison Valmont, Spence Diamonds, the denim brands Purple and Mavi as well as Kit and Ace.

Wilson’s future fashion brand will also use Very Polite Agency’s services. He has a working name for the brand but does not want to reveal it until he has trademarked it.

“JJ is really quite an amazing business executive, although he’d probably hate that word,” said Paul Wilson, who is unrelated to the Wilson family but was CEO of their Hold It All holding company between March 2015 and February 2017.

“He sees the future really, really well in terms of what’s possible and consumer trends. He has a way of understanding how to connect all of those things and to create and nurture a brand.”

For part of the time when Wilson was completing his bachelor of commerce degree at Ryerson University, he worked at Holt Renfrew as a trend forecaster – so predicting the future of fashion is not new for him.

The problem is that now, retail is changing at a much faster pace.

“I’m hesitant on bricks-and-mortar retail right now, and I say that because I don’t know what the future is,” Wilson said.

“You look at something like Amazon.com buying Whole Foods, and I’m going, like, is the future of grocery shopping going to be that you will order it all online? I don’t know.”

He then takes a stab at what he believes will be the future for retail: digital department stores.

“When I look at myself as a consumer, and I’m 28 years old, I’m looking at how I’m buying. I’m looking at where I’m discovering new brands and, for me, that’s all happening online.”

The digital department stores he has in mind are multi-brand, luxury retail sites such as farfetch.com, mrporter.com and net-a-porter.com.

One thing not yet occupying Wilson’s time is children.

He and girlfriend Margot Bragagnolo have been seeing each other for about three years but are not yet officially living together at Wilson’s house on Kits Point.

“I’m excited to have kids – I really am,” he said.

“In this era that we live in I have time and can plan it out the way I want to plan it out. I’ve got to get this entrepreneurial spirit out of my soul before that happens.” •

gkorstrom@biv.com 

@GlenKorstrom 

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