How Kit and Ace Uses Local Designers to Make Its Stores Into Destination Spaces

Hyper-local is a popular idea in business these days and takes the form of everything from marketing (reaching shoppers through GPS) to media (news from down the street) to cuisine (food grown at nearby farms). But the fledging retail chain Kit and Ace has its own spin on the idea: hyper-local décor.

That means the store's lighting, furniture and artwork comes from local artists, starving or otherwise.

Founded in 2014 by Shannon and JJ Wilson—the wife and son, respectively, of Lululemon founder Chip Wilson—Kit and Ace is a year into an aggressive building campaign. It’s opened 60 locations globally and plans to roll out more in the next two years. Appearance-wise, the store interiors are what you’d expect from a brand that sells $348 turtlenecks—clean, bright and minimal, with a smattering of eccentric touches. What distinguishes its locations, however, is that Kit and Ace commissions at least 30 percent of the interior finishing from local artists such as photographers, furniture craftsmen and lighting designers.

That effort, which is neither quick nor inexpensive, is central to the business plan. “We want every store to have elements unique to that market, and to avoid having every shop look the same,” JJ Wilson told Adweek. “The best way to do that is to partner with local creative people.”

The company believes hiring local artists sends the message to shoppers that the company hasn’t just rented a space, but supports the community. To help underscore that message, it identifies creators with plaques on the wall. And all stores feature a large "supper club" table that serves as a merchandise display by day and a dining table for special events by night.

“Having a space where people can come and interact is really important,” Shannon Wilson says. “They get a sense of who we are, and we can connect with the community.”

At a time when retail analysts are lukewarm about brick and mortar’s future, and with foot traffic on Black Friday down (again), the upscale clothing brand is bucking a trend by investing heavily in choice downtown addresses. But the Wilsons are undeterred. “Even with the onset of e-commerce,” JJ says, “the social element of going shopping and having an interaction with the brand is such a critical thing.” And the support of local artists for the store’s décor is a key part of that interaction, he adds.

Below, a few snapshots of Kit and Ace’s newest stores and the design pieces made for them:

1

The Boston Store

"In all our shops, we have a big 8-by-8 table where we host supper clubs," Shannon Wilson says. "We invite people from the community who don't know each other, have them in for supper made by a local caterer, and everyone participates in a question game, so things go deeper than typical dinner chitchat." Guests at Boston's Newbury Street store dine at a table and benches by Structure Design and Build. Local craftsman Alex Jaynes created the overhead light from copper and steam-bent ash. Casting a blue glow from behind is "Death Valley," a 7x11-foot piece by artist Clint Baclawski, which consists of archival images on blue mirrored acrylic glass, lit by banks of LEDs. 

2

Boston photographer Andrew Kubica took this image of Boston's Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, which has particular significance for locals. The unusual, cable-stayed bridge was part of Boston's $24.3 billion Big Dig, the most expensive highway project in American history. Traffic lanes pass below the bridge's inverted "Y" piers. And for a time, it was also jokingly known as the Bill Buckner Bridge, a reference to the Red Sox first baseman who let a line drive roll between his legs during Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

3

The Minneapolis Store

It probably would have been cheaper for Kit and Ace to have contracted with one supplier to furnish all of its stores, but JJ Wilson says that partnering with local craftspeople lends each store a distinctive air, and lets shoppers know that the brand supports local artists. "It benefits us and them," he says.

Above, woodworker Noah Hall made the supper club table that occupies center stage of the Minneapolis store. Husband and wife team of Nate and Erin Moren, who run custom-furniture shop Tandem Made, created the matching chairs. The bench on the right side comes from an area shop called Prairie Woodworking, founded by artist and woodworker Timothy Granlund.

4

In 2011, craftsmen Joe Limpert and Jackson Schwartz founded Hennepin Made, a Minneapolis studio devoted to minimal but chic light fixtures. Initially, the pair improvised with used equipment from eBay. Today, they have five employees, and their handmade fixtures are carried by upmarket furniture retailer Room & Board. Kit and Ace commissioned the pair to design these hand-blown glass hanging lights for the Minneapolis store's supper table.

5

The Venice Store

The two oversize pieces of geometric art above are by Allison Kunath, an artist who lives and works in Venice, Calif., where this store is located. "Although I can draw other shapes, right now, triangles are my thing," Kunath says on her website. These works hang on "The Wall," a signature feature in every Kit and Ace store. "Every wall features a local artist and it turns over every quarter," JJ Wilson says. "So the store gets a lift with that new piece of art, and it's a conversation piece that inspires a conversation about what else is local in the store."

6

Hand-crafted by Neptune Glassworks, this enormous light fixture in the Venice, Calif., store is titled "Quadrature Wave." It's made from 600 glass droplets, each of them individually hand-pulled in the molten state. Neptune founder Uri Davillier has also made similarly complex glass fixtures for the Otium Restaurant in Los Angeles and for the trendy South Congress Hotel in Austin, Texas.

7

The San Francisco Store

The black-and-white image behind the cash desk was taken by Denis Krylov, partner in the San Francisco creative studio of Transparent House. Krylov was born in Moscow, Russia, and has worked in everything from app development to international sales. That he's not famous in the world of photograhy—but still very talented in the medium—fits well with Kit and Ace's practice of selecting "emerging" artists "who might not have their name really out there" but still do work worthy of public recognition, JJ Wilson says.

8

The New York Store

The supper club table dominates the center of Kit and Ace's store in New York's neighborhood of Nolita (short for "North of Little Italy.") While the table's main function is to host store events, its use as a display area and its proximity to the racks also invite guests to peruse the merchandise; this is a store, after all. "We want to offer people a place to engage and be around other people in a community space," Shannon Wilson says, "and of course it's an opportunity to engage with the product. It makes them familiar with the brand."

9

Brooklyn-based custom furniture design company Uhuru, whose pieces are in the Brooklyn Museum and the Smithsonian, created the supper club table, benches and chairs for Kit and Ace's downtown New York store. The lighting overhead comes from Manhattan's Apparatus Studio, co-founded by interior designer Gabriel Hendifar and operations director Jeremy Anderson, who quit his job in PR to pursue a career in design.