After Lululemon trouble, billionaire Wilson tries again

Mr Chip Wilson scouts for new store locations in New York for Kit and Ace, the company he started after leaving Lululemon.
Mr Chip Wilson scouts for new store locations in New York for Kit and Ace, the company he started after leaving Lululemon.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • Mr Chip Wilson, the billionaire from Vancouver, British Columbia, who famously fell out with Lululemon Athletica, the company he founded, was in New York last month to look for a SoHo retail location for his family's new high-end street-wear company, Kit and Ace, and to meet a literary lawyer about a possible memoir.

At a breakfast meeting, the 60- year-old is friendly and open, without the usual filter relied upon by many in the public sphere, especially those who have been put through the wringer, as he was in 2013 after he told a reporter that Lululemon's expensive yoga pants were transparent at least in part because the size of some of the female bodies being stuffed into them was too large.

The reporter was 15 minutes late. Mr Wilson, seated with eight young women, asked his guests, all employed by Kit and Ace, what would happen if he were to arrive, say, 15 minutes late to a design meeting?

If he were to arrive late, he said, the designers might think it is acceptable to deliver to the production department past deadline. Then? The product would arrive late at the stores and items could end up on the clearance rack.

"If we're selling at a discount, there is less money to market the product... a different type of cus- tomer than the one we're seeking will come to the store. There will be less money to put into quality and less profit. The whole system falls apart. It's fascinating," he said.

Punctuality is Mr Wilson's central focus. The purpose of this breakfast was to discuss goals and leadership with people who understand customers best: the retail staff. What should the Kit and Ace brick-and- mortar strategy be? Is the team integrating goal-setting and meditation into company culture?

Kit and Ace started in 2014 and has about 60 stores in the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia. It specialises in clothes made from a machine-washable technical cashmere.

The line, for men and women, is designed for all-day movement, not for a workout.

As you go from running errands to attending an evening event, you waste no time changing outfits.

After breakfast, Mr Wilson walked towards Wooster Street, where he and his real estate guy did a tour of possible new retail locations.

He then went to the Kit and Ace store in Nolita, where the words "Time is Precious" appear in white neon above the checkout counter. He was greeted by his wife of 14 years, Shannon, 42, and J.J., 27, his oldest son from his first marriage. They are the creative forces behind the company.

On Kit and Ace, Mr Wilson said: "A new business is like a baby. It cries, it's puking, it's 24 hours a day and sometimes you don't know why you did it. But you give it a bath and put some powder on it and you can't believe how beautiful it is."

His mobile phone alarm sounded. Three-minute warning. Time to walk to lunch.

On the sidewalk, he broached again the subject of time. "I was a competitive swimmer from the ages of eight to 25," he said. "You have to be right on time. You are so scheduled." When he stopped swimming, he let go of the schedule.

"Then I showed up nowhere on time," he said. "And I realised I had no friends left because no one could rely on me. Then I went to Landmark. It took me three years to bring my integrity back into play."

And what of his integrity in connection with Lululemon, the company in which he still has a large ownership stake (about 14 per cent), but no executive role? Is he saddened by the estrangement?

"Lululemon became a teenager who wanted its own way of doing things," he said. "It turns into a little bit of a pain in the butt, but you love it still. Now it's at university. It wants me to support it, but it doesn't want to acknowledge I'm supporting it."

This arrangement is temporary, he believes. "It will get through university and the child will return to the father."

He continued on the topic of his wayward child, Lululemon, and added: "It has turned from being a woman's company to being a man's company. It didn't follow through on building a pipeline of women. We got a lot of women who were older and they didn't develop women under them. I think they were trying to protect their jobs."

A spokesman for Lululemon declined to comment.

What about the negative reaction to the comments he made about women's bodies and the transparency of the yoga pants?

He said: "I became a scapegoat for a lot of people not doing what they were supposed to do. It was Machiavellian rules, but I didn't know I was playing a game."

And then, finally, "I've been coached not to say the things that I'm saying."

After lunch, J.J. booked an Uber ride. Once inside the car, Mr Wilson checked his mobile phone. "The market is so volatile," he said.

"Any stars?" his wife asked.

"Lululemon, actually," he replied.

"That is really great," she said. "It's very important to us. We follow it. It was where we fell in love."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2016, with the headline 'After Lululemon trouble, billionaire Wilson tries again'. Print Edition | Subscribe