March 5, 2015 / 8:24 PM / in 3 years

Kit and Ace steps up international growth with Lululemon founder backing

A sign hangs outside the Kit and Ace flagship store in Vancouver, British Columbia in this file photo taken on October 17, 2014. REUTERS/Ben Nelms

TORONTO (Reuters) - Kit and Ace, a Canadian apparel start-up backed by the billionaire founder of Lululemon, will open stores in London, Australia and Japan this year, ahead of schedule, prompted partly by choice real estate, one of its senior executives said.

The ramp-up in Kit and Ace’s growth plans comes as Lululemon Athletica Inc (LULU.O) founder Chip Wilson, who announced last month he was quitting the yogawear retailer’s board, shifts his attention to the casual wear company started by his wife and son.

“The biggest asset we can use from him is his knowledge of global real estate,” J.J. Wilson told Reuters, adding his father is not involved in daily operations but is a major advisor for the brand.

Kit and Ace’s core product is a proprietary cashmere blend fabric that was originally offered to Lululemon and turned down several times. The fabric, developed by the Lululemon founder’s spouse, Shannon Wilson, is designed to be durable and washable.

Despite similarities to Lululemon, J.J. Wilson said the family has “zero interest” in competing, noting the very different core products.

Kit and Ace originally planned for a global presence by spring 2016, entering new markets through test sites before committing to permanent locations. But ready offers for prime real estate and international product requests have “definitely added to our growth momentum,” he added.

Sources familiar with the situation say the Wilson family is expected to invest as much as $300 million to fund the expansion and rollout of Kit & Ace stores across the globe in the next few years.

“(Chip) has a wealth of experience of building a brand globally,” said retail specialist Alex Arifuzzaman, a partner at InterStratics Consultants Inc. “Now that he’s already done that, it’s easier to do it again.”

Kit and Ace, which has grown from four employees to about 240 in under a year, has seven North American beta stores open and aims to launch 30 to 50 more this year and 100 by 2019.

London, Sydney and Melbourne test shops will open within six months, said J.J. Wilson, and the company hopes to have 10 UK and Australia stores by 2019.

Lululemon, founded in 1998 and now worth more than $9 billion, has about 290 stores, but only opened in London last year.

Kit and Ace’s growth plan is overly aggressive and could prove challenging, said Vicky Applebaum of Retail Category Consultants.

Additional reporting by Euan Rocha; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Nick Zieminski

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