JJ Wilson, 27, used to skateboard in the unfinished office upstairs from his father’s store.
It wasn’t a Lululemon Athletica shop. That would come later. Chip Wilson’s first retail venture was called Westbeach. It catered to the surf, skateboard and snowboard crowd in Vancouver.
The space above the store and the company warehouse were perfect for two boys — JJ and his younger brother, Brett — to skateboard in and build elaborate cardboard kingdoms from the boxes that were cast off as merchandise arrived.
“It would be Chip’s job to come and rip up the cardboard boxes and try and find us,” says JJ, co-founder of the upmarket fashion retailer Kit and Ace. “He would run from one end through the tunnels of cardboard that we had made to the other end.”
One night, they pitched a tent and slept in a store because valuable merchandise had been delivered and the place lacked an alarm system. They made popcorn. It was a blast.
“I have really great memories of growing up,” says JJ.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that he is now running his own stores, together with his stepmother, Shannon Wilson.
In less than two years the brand has built out quickly, with 61 locations worldwide, including 33 stores and five pop-ups in the U.S. and 10 stores and two pop-ups in Canada, including locations on Queen St. W. and Bloor St. W., and in Oakville. A store in Muskoka and one in north Toronto are planned for 2016.
With Kit and Ace, the duo is seeking to tap into an emerging market in much the same way that Chip Wilson did. Lululemon made athletic clothing comfortable and chic enough to double as flattering casualwear. Shannon and JJ are making casualwear chic enough for any context.
In October, they opened their biggest store in Toronto to date, the one on Bloor, with a striking copper door and a café that backs onto Yorkville. The interior is decorated with art sourced locally and racks of sleek, lightweight apparel. The trademark fabric is Technical Cashmere, a blend of about 10-per-cent cashmere with other fabrics including viscose and elastane.
JJ and Shannon joke that he helped bring her into the family. She was the lead designer at Lululemon when Chip Wilson, by then a divorced father of two, asked her out on a date.
He was planning to take Shannon on a hike up a nearby mountain. He was going to bring sandwiches.
“I really liked Shannon,” says JJ, who was 12 at the time. “I wanted to make sure that the date went absolutely perfectly.
“Chip’s a lovely, talented, amazing father. But I knew I was better off making the sandwiches for the date. There’s three or four things he’s amazing at cooking, but that’s it. Barbecue, anything breakfast, the guy kills at. When it comes down to anything outside of those circles … I made the sandwiches.”
JJ wrapped them carefully and then put them in Tupperware containers. At the summit, Shannon opened them and said to Chip: “There is no way you made these.”
As Shannon tells it, she and Chip decided to get married on that first date.
Now a mother of three and stepmother of two, she’s ready to apply her creative talents to a new enterprise, and she wants to do it with family, just as Lululemon was built with family, led by Chip.
His offhand comments have in the past stoked controversy. In December 2013, Chip announced he was stepping down as chairman of the Lululemon board of directors, after being criticized for saying Lululemon pants don’t work for all women.
JJ and Shannon say it was tough to see him reduced to a single comment when he’s done so much to draw people into the kind of active lifestyle he has always led.
“It’s not the truth of Chip — he’s a visionary, a leader and generous, and has never endeavoured to hurt people in any way,” Shannon says during an interview at the launch of the Bloor St. store.
“He’s pretty darn smart,” says JJ, adding that for him, getting into retail was a natural progression. For a time, JJ worked in the Vancouver Lululemon stores.
“I’m so fortunate that I get to have a retail visionary I can call,” he says of his dad. “I think a lot of people in business would like to have him on speed-dial.”
Lululemon is a business that helps people live longer, healthier, more fun lives, says JJ. He wants Kit and Ace to make it easier for people to get dressed and be comfortable and stylish, so that they are free to pursue the most important things in their lives.
“That I can get behind. That is fun.”
JJ Wilson’s vitals:
• Birthplace: Vancouver
• Age: 27
• Elementary school: private Vancouver College
• High school: public school Magee Secondary
• Post-secondary: Ryerson University (business management)
• Facebook status: in a relationship
• Business: Kit and Ace is a private business with 61 stores worldwide.
He flirted with law, returned to suits
“Basically, your average man hates shopping,” Larry Rosen says after discussing with interest the finer details of what he is wearing, including the pocket square and the surgeon’s cuffs on his suit.
Surgeon’s cuffs are one of those things that send a message to a small group of people — in this case, men who know something about fashion or men who are dressed by people who know something about fashion, perhaps by one of Rosen’s 700 employees at Harry Rosen stores across Canada.
Buttons on the cuffs of suit jackets today are typically non-functional. Buttons on surgeon’s cuffs can be done up and undone. The name derives from the fact that military surgeons used to wear them so they could easily roll up their sleeves if they were suddenly called upon to perform surgery in the field.
Not that anyone is expecting Rosen to burst into an operating room. He is in the business of clothing the average man as pleasantly as possible.
Rosen’s company has made a $100-million bet that it can do so better than Saks Fifth Avenue, which is set to open its first two stores in Canada in February, and better than Nordstrom, the Seattle department store chain that will open its first GTA stores this year.
That’s how much the privately held Harry Rosen, which has 16 stores in eight Canadian cities, has invested in expanding and renovating its chain.
“No disrespect to these organizations,” says Larry of the competition, “but menswear is usually 10 per cent of their business and the guy who’s buying suits for them was buying chocolates six months ago. Men and menswear is all we do.”
His father, Harry, launched his first made-to-measure store for men on Parliament St. in 1954. Harry worked long hours, but he didn’t bring his work home with him.
The Rosens wanted their children to find what they loved to do, not follow in anyone’s footsteps.
“My dad was really respectful of us,” says Larry, at 59 the eldest of four. “He just encouraged us to be ourselves.”
The Rosens insisted that all their children attend university. Larry earned a bachelor of arts from the University of Toronto and an MBA and law degree from the University of Western Ontario. He spent summers and holidays working on the sales floor.
“As a young kid, when your father is kind of famous, you aspire to do well by him,” says Larry. “So I kind of developed a lot of ambition in me.”
His brother is a surgeon in Calgary. His sister Andrea is a web designer. His sister Rachel is a professional photographer.
Larry Rosen practised corporate law for a year before approaching his father about joining the firm, during its period of national expansion in the 1980s.
“He made it clear to me that it wasn’t going to be a ‘gimme’ — I had to work to prove myself.”
He started as a buyer in 1986. He ran a group of stores, was vice-president of corporate affairs, ran the merchandise group and was appointed president and chief operating officer in 1997. In 2000, after Harry Rosen’s longtime business partner, Bob Humphrey, died of pancreatic cancer at 53, Larry took over as chief executive officer, a position he holds today.
He governs the company together with a professional management group drawn from among the ranks of the corporation and based on the vision of its founder.
Harry officially retired in 2005. Unofficially, he was dropping in to the stores weekly until about a year ago. Now he travels widely, offering advice as needed.
“I call him the Wayne Gretzky in my back pocket,” says Larry. “He’s a great student of retail and human nature.”
It was his father who told Larry to always wear a pocket square. The splash of colour in the outside breast pocket is another one of those things that signal an inside knowledge of fashion.
“To me, the glasses you choose, the watch you wear, the belts — all those things add so much dimension to the clothes you wear,” says Larry.
He now has three sons in their 20s who have shown an interest in eventually taking over the business.
“My hope is that I can do as good a job as my father in transitioning this to the next generation. There’s really something wonderful in being a long-tenured business that has a family connection.”
Larry Rosen’s vitals:
• Birthplace: Toronto
• Age: 59
• Elementary school: Wilmington Elementary
• High school: Oakwood Collegiate
• Post-secondary: University of Toronto, University of Western Ontario
• Facebook status: married, three grown children
• Business: Harry Rosen is a private business with 16 stores in eight Canadian cities.
A business that ‘gets in your bones’
Darren Mason learned to ride a bike at Hillcrest Mall in Richmond Hill. He learned to ice skate at Yorkville’s Hazelton Lanes.
His mom, Joyce, was the founder of the Village Shop, stores that focused on quality fashion for working women in the 1970s, many of them entering the workforce for the first time.
His father was a wholesaler and his two grandfathers were in retail management — one of them ran children’s wear for Holt Renfrew.
“Every dinner conversation, everything I can remember — it involved fashion and retail,” says Darren, 48, president of Andrews, a women’s luxury department store.
Becoming a retailer was a natural move for him. “Knowing the head start I had, it would have been foolish for me not to take advantage of it,” he says.
In October, Darren and his sister, Beverley Lerner, opened the third Andrews location in the GTA, at Sherway Gardens.
The second, at Bayview Village, has been expanded three times since it was founded in 1999.
His mother took over the first Andrews in Hazelton Lanes in 1991.
The store was available and the mall owners thought Joyce, who ran Village Shops in 12 locations, was a savvy retailer who could do something with it. Joyce closed her Village Shops as the leases expired so she could focus on her new luxury store.
She kept the name Andrews. It was simpler than changing it.
The new Andrews at Sherway Gardens features herringbone-pattern floors, Persian rugs and leather ottomans. Stylish movies like The Great Gatsby play on a big screen behind the counter, and the clothing racks are filled with high-end labels.
Darren still works on the sales floor at all the stores to stay connected to his clientele, Toronto women who want to look sharp for that meeting with the CEO or who need the right dress for that party.
Selling apparel means being familiar with fashion, business and the art of service. Mason loves all three.
His reserve doesn’t waver until he begins talking about the business of fashion. Halting sentences flow into paragraphs as he outlines the strengths of different labels and the importance of having a worldwide point of view combined with the ability to pare everything down to an intelligently curated selection.
He and his sisters accompanied their mother on buying trips to New York, London, Paris, Dusseldorf and Italian fashion capitals.
His sister Cheryl McEwen was also involved in the family business, but is now a philanthropist. She understood early the necessity of providing a high level of service for customers, says Darren.
“I was very fortunate that my three children all followed me into it,” says Joyce, retired for 22 years. “They certainly knew the hours involved — forget it, you can’t even track them.
“It gets in your bones. I’d put it that way. It was my life. Believe me, to be good in retail and have a good long run, it’s got to be your life.”
Darren dresses store mannequins with a discerning eye, layering smartly, using matching and contrasting colours and fabrics. It’s a maxim he applies to his own wardrobe. On the day of the interview, he wears Aquatalia, Prada, Rolex and a tie notable not because of its pedigree but because it was chosen for him by his daughter.
He is not afraid that Saks Fifth Avenue or Nordstrom, U.S. retailers opening GTA stores in 2016, are going to put Andrews out of business any time soon.
“We are unique,” he says, noting that, given his time in the shops, he has a feel for what women want. “We’re more nimble.”
Darren Mason’s vitals:
• Birthplace: Toronto
• Age: 48
• Grades 3-6: Upper Canada College
• Grades 7-13: St. Andrew’s College
• Post-secondary: Studied English at University of Western Ontario
• Facebook status: married, father of two
• Business: Andrews is a private business with three GTA stores.