The Son Also Rises: JJ Wilson Is Here to Prove the Critics Wrong
Photos by Thompson Chan
Growing an empire can take decades to accomplish, but at the age of 27, Vancouver’s JJ Wilson has already laid down a foundation to possibly become one of Canada’s next entrepreneurial visionaries. It’s only been a few short years since Wilson started his luxury brand, Kit and Ace. Since then, the technical cashmere company has grown into a global brand, becoming one of Canada’s most visible fashion exports in the retail market. But the growth hasn’t come without its critics; much of its success being attributed to nepotism, lack of experience and overzealous ambitions. Taking on a new role at Kit and Ace, Wilson is taking a step back in order to move the company forward. He’s set his sights on building up his next big project: Ride Cycle Club. He’s at a tipping point, surely one of many he will come across throughout his career. Does he have what it takes to build another big brand?
A CHIP OFF THE BLOCK
In many instances, critical skills to entrepreneurship are nurtured and cultivated from a young age. How did your environment growing up help you prepare to be the entrepreneur you are today?
One of the things that I always give Chip [Wilson, father] credit for is really being a trainer and teacher. He was always clearly and consciously a coach in terms of what he was doing and why he was doing it. That translated into the family. We would sit down for dinner and talk about how many people came into the store that day, what products were sold, how the retail and fashion industry were changing and more. From when I was eight to when I left for college, I spent every weekend working at lululemon and watched it grow from one store here in Vancouver to going public and become a global brand. I watched the business change and go through its successes and struggles, and then successes. I had a lot of great opportunity and knowledge going into [my business degree] with a real understanding of what I wanted to do with my life.
What would you say is the most valuable lesson that you learned from your father?
I think the critical skills that I got from watching lululemon grow were, one, how important people are. When I started to build Kit [and Ace] and Ride [Cycle Club], my understanding of who I wanted to work with and the development of people was very important to us. It was important to create a platform for people where they were growing, learning for themselves and goal setting. I think also, really being clear on what your one best product is, is important. If you looked at lululemon for example, they were really good at black stretchy pants. That’s what they really dominated in.
Were there any other mentors aside from those in your family that largely influenced and inspired you?
I think I’ve always had a real true love for fashion. I define fashion as separate from retail, as living in a certain world. When I graduated from Ryerson [University] I worked under Barbara Atkins at the Holt Renfrew fashion office for almost two years. She defined me as a trend forecaster but really my job was to go through a show each season and pull out my favourite looks. I was to identify the trends that I was seeing in menswear and put together a book for the buying team. That was my first real job in fashion and working under Barb was incredible. I always looked to her where if there were ever a dream job to have, it would be that. I think Barbara’s position was always something that I aspired to, to be a part of that fashion world and at that level.
Similarly, understanding the value of mentorship, do you take on that role for others who are seeking guidance?
I constantly have to remind myself that I’m 27, so I often have this internal struggle of whether I’m experienced and credible enough to be that resource. I think that’s an internal battle that I fight with myself. Have I done enough to tell people where they should focus their time and lead their life? Am I enough of a resource to be that? I think it depends. I look at what we’ve built with Kit and Ace and my contribution. To a certain extent, a lot of it was learning and I would hope that I was that for people. I don’t think I intentionally set out to be a mentor; I always wanted to be someone that my team knew was going to be there for them.
CASHMERE, CYCLING AND CAFFEINE
In a short span of time, you’ve played a large role in building three brands: Kit and Ace, Sorry Coffee and Ride Cycle Club. Can you describe some of the growing pains that you faced from building a company from scratch?
Ride Cycle grew with a much, much smaller team. I have one partner named Ashley Anders. I couldn’t do it without Ashley, and I don’t think Ashley could have done it without me. We both bring two very different skill sets to the table. Ashley and I met in New York City at a spin studio, and then again in Vancouver at another spin studio. It was then that we thought we should just start our own business, so that’s really how that happened. Ride Cycle has grown more organically. We haven’t asked for any outside investments besides what we put in. The difference between that business and Kit and Ace is that Ashley and I are one hundred percent hands-on with all the people, lease negotiations, HR — everything. What I’ve really learned the most from building Ride Cycle Club has been about the small little intricacies and what it means to set up a small business and scale it.
What are the qualities that you look for in a potential business partner?
Definitely skin in the game. I wouldn’t ever recommend anybody sign on with a partner that isn’t willing to put money into it themselves. The reason why I say that Ashley and I worked out, and some advice that I pass on to people, is that you have to look at what you don’t have. I had a brand and knowledge on how to operate a business on my side, and Ashley had the skill, the training and people. She’s really everything I’m not in that part of the business. I would look for where my skill sets aren’t necessarily where they need to be, and skin in the game.
There was some criticism when your brands launched with many people citing your father and upbringing as a scapegoat for your success. What have you learned about perseverance, stamina and criticism that have helped you become a better businessperson?
Over the last three years, with starting Kit and Ace, Ride, and Sorry, never in my life have I worked so hard. But also, never in my life has it been so rewarding. I don’t think I fully understood the rewards of really working hard. I’m not talking monetary but personal investment in things that bring joy; I don’t think I understood what it meant up until then to really love your work and work for a living. With what was accomplished in the last three years, there was no way we could have done that without working our asses off. And with any new business, there are hard times and good times. What I’ve learned is that if it’s a bad time, it’s going to pass. If it’s a good time, it’s going to pass. And I think that’s what it means to own a business. I don’t think that you could ever start a business without passion and 100% commitment to giving it all of your love and time. It’s the closest I think I’ve gotten to understanding what it’s like to have a child.
What is the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur?
It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. But for me personally, it’s being in the shadow of such a successful guy. It’s about establishing myself and getting out there with what I want to do and how I want to do it. It’s easy to loop us together, Shannon [Wilson, co-founder of Kit and Ace], Chip and I. We’re ok with that. We’re a united family and front, and we love what we do. I want to be a part of all of Chip’s businesses and he wants to be a part of mine, and Shannon as well. I never look at it as a bad thing, I look at it as something that I’m lucky to have. But I would definitely say, to a certain extent, it’s a long shadow.
Do you think you have identified purpose and a sense of self-fulfillment within yourself?
Yes. I think looking for your purpose is a good thing, and I don’t think everybody gets it right away. Sometimes purpose comes to people at different stages in life. You look at so-and-so who started a business at 45 or 55 and it becomes unbelievably successful; and they establish purpose at that time. I don’t think people have to stress about it necessarily. Our problem is that social media makes us feel like we’re behind everybody else. It’s like FOMO [Fear of Missing Out], or maybe FONAP—Fear of Not Achieving Purpose.
THE BRAND BUILDER
What do you think makes a great brand?
A great brand is absolutely nothing without an incredible product. With something like Ride Cycle Club, it would be nothing without that product of the ride. We have such high standards of what that service looks like. We really make sure that that is set up for people. I would say product, product, product. You can’t have a great brand without it.
We also talk a lot about community. For me, Ride has established a new community for people in Vancouver and has become a connection point for those that want to come and have a great sweat. The people who work for Ride Cycle Club are absolutely incredible and they on their own also form a community. If I look at retail right now and I think about this word “community,” the future of retail is shifting in that every brick-and-mortar brand has to offer something. Ride serves as a community because that product is what brings people together. And when I look at Kit and Ace, I call the stores community stores because their job beyond selling the product is to host events and bring people together. I didn’t want Kit and Ace to be just about Kit and Ace. I wanted it to be about bringing local things together and, at the same time, be global. So with Kit and Ace, I wanted to build a brick and mortar platform that really drove localization but also allowed people to access the brand globally and get anything they wanted, how they wanted it and when they wanted it. I’m looking for ways to go beyond the showroom and community, and find ways on how to recreate that experience. I don’t know what it is yet, but I’m working on it.
There is also something to be said about subcultures and branding in today’s world. Because the digital world has allowed anyone access to millions of different subcultures, new brands have to have a clear point of view, a point of differentiation, and be able to generate a new following or merge subcultures together. You have to change; consumers are bored.
Do you think the marketplace is becoming oversaturated in brand transparency and the way that people are connecting?
I think transparency is fun. But what’s going to happen in the next few years with retail is brands are going to have to shift from having 250 stores in the world to 20 to 50 really experiential stores. They’ll treat them like Disneyland and really drive e-commerce. Each one of those stores is going to have to have product that doesn’t exist in other stores, otherwise there’s no reason for people to go in. So I’m less worried about transparency and more so about exclusivity, localization and being cautious about how the brick-and-mortar world is being affected by e-commerce.
What have your experiences taught you about companies and what they expect of themselves and each other?
The issue is that not every company can be everything to everybody. It’s really important that businesses have a certain point of view. It might alienate people, but that’s OK. Companies and brands that try to be everything for everybody, it doesn’t work. For example, Everlane’s point of view was clearly about radical transparency. But a lot of people around the world unfortunately don’t care about that. The most important thing is having a point of view and not being concerned with everyone having to like it.
THE ROAD AHEAD
What are your plans for Ride Cycle Club?
We’re opening up in Toronto in January, which we’re really excited about. We have a few other locations in negotiations and looking at growing in Vancouver and Toronto, and then we’re going to move our way in. One of the things I learned about Kit and Ace is that I think certain parts of the world demand more brand equity. So I wanted to start in Toronto and Vancouver and anchor the brand in those two cities before moving into Ottawa, Edmonton or Calgary. For Ride, in general, it’s to own indoor cycling in Canada.
Your role at Kit and Ace has recently changed. What are some of the lessons from your experience with the company that you have learned?
I would say that there is extreme value in timing around how quickly you grow. I think we did a good job of Kit and Ace. There were a lot of different drivers to why we grew so fast, one being that we had the ability to, quite frankly. We knew as a business we had to get to economies of scale and production because that would ultimately help us become profitable, faster. We also knew that we needed to be fast to market, because we were looking at fast fashion like H&M and Zara, and how quickly they were adapting to new and interesting brands and product. It was important to us that we made a name for ourselves quickly. There is a fine balance. In some ways it really worked for us, but in other ways it put a lot of pressure on the business. We had to hire a lot of people, get a lot of systems in place and be ready, and we did it in a very short time period. So I learned a lot around that for sure. How fast do we really need to go? The answer is fast, but maybe not as fast as we went. And I only say that because I can compare it to Ride. No matter what, if you’re delivering a killer product, it doesn’t matter. That’s just the bottom line.