Chip Wilson, the Vancouver billionaire who famously fell out with Lululemon Athletica, the company he founded, was in New York last month. He wanted to look for a SoHo retail location for his family's new high-end street-wear company, Kit and Ace, and to meet with a literary lawyer about a possible memoir.
He also made time to see a reporter, inviting me to tag along for the day, beginning with an 8am company breakfast. Wilson, 60, 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 Wilson 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.
I was 15 minutes late by the time I arrived, dishevelled and apologetic. Wilson was seated with eight young women at a square table set for 10. He is an imposing figure, 1.88 metres tall, with his head shaved bald and the scruff of a beard.
When he rejoined his guests, all employed by Kit and Ace, he asked a question: What would happen if he were to arrive, say, 15 minutes late to a design meeting?
If he were 15 minutes late to such a meeting, he went on to explain, the designers might get the idea that it's acceptable to deliver to the production department a bit past deadline. Then? The product would arrive late at the stores, which could lead to items ending up on the clearance rack.
The whole system falls apart
"If we're selling the product at a discount," he said, "there is less money to market the product. If there is less money to market the product, then a different type of customer than the one we're seeking will come into the store. There will be less money to put into the product's quality and, ultimately, less profit. The whole system falls apart. It's fascinating.
"Now we know," Wilson added, "that when we have breakfast with Katie, we don't really have to be there when we say we will be there."
Andrea Mestrovic, a Kit and Ace publicist who had travelled to New York with Wilson, tried to put an end to her boss's late-shaming, interjecting that while she is punctual for work events, she may arrive a few minutes late when joining friends for cocktails or meals. "Socially late," she called it.
"Jewish Standard Time," Wilson said in reply. "It's showing you didn't respect your friends' time."
Punctuality is a central focus of Wilson's. It is also a key principle espoused by the Landmark Forum, a leadership development program based on Werner Erhard's EST curriculum.
When Wilson was running Lululemon, the company paid for employees to attend Landmark seminars; Kit and Ace employees enjoy the same benefit. One of the main lessons of Landmark is that punctuality is a strong indicator of personal integrity.
The purpose of this breakfast was to discuss goals and leadership with the 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 now has about 60 stores in the United States, Canada, Australia and Britain. The company, run by Wilson's son from a first marriage, JJ Wilson, 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. Which is good because, well, time.
'Your name could be Refrigerator'
Wilson surveyed the women at the table. His left arm was extended and at rest along the top of the banquette, not quite touching the shoulders of a woman who works for the company in New York.
"It is a precious experience to have these breakfasts," Wilson said. "Look at the beautiful girl I get to sit beside!"
Everyone at the table tee-hee'd, awkwardly.
He turned to one of the women and asked, "If you woke up with amnesia and couldn't remember your name, what would you call yourself?"
"Stephanie," the woman answered, before mentioning that it was a name her parents had considered giving her.
Wilson rejected her response. If she had amnesia, he reasoned, she wouldn't know that she even had parents, much less that they had almost named her Stephanie. "With amnesia," he said, "you have no past. Your name could be Refrigerator. This is about ultimate possibility."
Once the plates were cleared, Wilson walked with purpose and vigour out of the restaurant and toward Wooster Street, where he and his real estate guy kicked off a tour of possible new retail locations.
He bobbed in and out of each space, firing off precise questions about dimensions and handicap accessibility. After, he powered down sidewalks 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 Wilson, 42, and JJ Wilson, 27, his oldest son from his first marriage. They founded Kit and Ace with Chip Wilson, and are the creative forces behind the company.
The month before, JJ mentioned, he had visited Kit and Ace stores in Miami. In that city, everything happens on "coconut time," he said. "At Kit and Ace, we are SO not late for anything. That's just not how we operate."
Scott Elliott entered the store. He is the chief executive of a charity founded by Chip and Shannon Wilson, Imagine1Day, which seeks to build and support schools in Ethiopia. The Wilsons pay 100 per cent of the operating and administrative costs, totalling about $US1.4 million ($2 million) a year, Elliott said.
I love trends
They sat down at a square table. Chip Wilson mentioned that he likes square tables. "I have been studying communication for a very long time," he said, by way of explanation.
The men discussed the charity and the need to train Ethiopian teachers in Landmark principles before the talk turned to Kit and Ace.
"A new business is like a baby," Chip Wilson said. "It cries, it's puking, it's 24 hours a day and sometimes you don't know why you did it. But then you give it a bath and put some powder on it and you can't believe how beautiful it is."
His iPhone alarm sounded. Three-minute warning. Time to walk to lunch.
On the sidewalk, Chip Wilson broached again the subject of time. "I was a competitive swimmer from the ages of 8 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 then 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 wants 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 still wants me, but it doesn't want me. It wants me to support it, but it doesn't want to acknowledge I'm supporting it."
Heart still with Lululemon
This arrangement is temporary, he believes. "It will get through university, and the child will return to the father," Chip Wilson said.
We sat down in a dark nook of Mercer Kitchen. Chip Wilson ordered sparkling water. I ordered still water. "The trend is moving back to still, isn't it," he said. "I love trends."
As we waited for the arrival of JJ and Shannon Wilson, Chip Wilson returned to the topic of his wayward child, Lululemon. "It has turned from being a woman's company to being a man's company," he said. "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.)
I asked him what he thought about the negative reaction to the comments he made about women's bodies and the transparency of the yoga pants. "I became a scapegoat for a lot of people not doing what they were supposed to do," he said. "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 the lunch, JJ ordered an Uber. Once inside the SUV, Chip Wilson checked his phone. "The market is so volatile," he said.
"Any stars?" his wife asked.
"That is really great," she said. "It's very important to us. We follow it. It was where we fell in love."
Then, suddenly, the unthinkable: Chip Wilson realised he was running late.
It was already after 2pm He had arranged to visit the library collection at Material Connexion and then go to a literary lawyer's Midtown office at 2:15pm.
"How did the time get away from us?" he said. He was agitated, almost anguished. "I'm out of integrity with them," he said, referring to the people at the museum.
He called from his iPhone and apologised for missing the tour. His demeanour visibly shifted after the call.
Moments later, he strode into the office of Michael Rudell, an entertainment lawyer.
"I don't know what I don't know," Chip Wilson said to Rudell. "What 10 questions should I be asking prospective agents?"
Back on his game. Back on time.
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