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Move over, yoga pants. How Kit and Ace created clothes for work — and meditation

In the time-honored tradition of waxing nostalgic over old photos, it’s safe to say that future generations might look back at pictures from the mid-2010s and ask, “So, were you always on your way to the gym?”

Such is the legacy of athleisure pieces, the just-won’t-quit trend that’s swept the country, particularly casual, athletic Los Angeles, birthplace of the Juicy sweatsuit (which is also in the midst of a comeback of sorts).

But Kit and Ace, the Vancouver-based brand with a few shops in Southern California, is not competing in the race to be the next haute brand you sweat in. So as brands court yoga instructors and runners to evangelize, Kit and Ace is after the next wave: meditators.

What started as a California exclusive — meditation sessions in their airy, light-filled stores, where free sparkling water and friendly salespeople abound — has turned into a nationwide program. Each shop is partnering with mindfulness coaches to run meditation sessions.

“If athleisure is athletic apparel trying to go street, then we’re going for streetwear that performs the exact same way as our activewear,” said JJ Wilson, who co-founded Kit and Ace in 2014 with Shannon Wilson, his stepmother. (JJ Wilson’s father, Chip, founded Lululemon Athletica in 1998.) And to be clear, his definition of street means day and evening looks that appear more like the wearer is on their way to a boutique hotel bar rather than, well, barre class.

“When Lululemon started, there were a few yoga studios on the coasts,” said Wilson. “Now, we’re seeing the seeds of that with meditation, with places like Unplug Studio in Los Angeles and MNDFL Meditation in New York.”

So why not turn stores into grassroots meditation studios?

“Creating an experience in an in-store environment helps in several ways,” said Shelley E. Kohan, vice president of retail consulting at San Jose-based RetailNext, which specializes in in-store analytics. “It creates a highly engaged employee, creates an ecosystem that encourages the consumer’s engagement and makes for better brand loyalty.”

And best case scenario? That those in-store meditators turn into regular meditators, creating a positive link between the art of mindfulness and Kit and Ace clothes.

As for those clothes, Kit and Ace is known for its “technical fabrics,” which may sound gimmicky but in truth make for professional-looking garments that move, breathe and act like activewear. They are tailored and elegant but have a slightly subversive feel.

All “first layers” (tees, pants, dresses, even some jackets, all ranging from $98 to $428) are machine-washable, a nod to the “full-contact life,” as Wilson called it, of the brand’s demographics.

There also are hidden phone pockets in the sleekest of pants — the better to stash your cell and sneak in some app-guided meditation on your lunch break.

Or consider dashing to your nearest Kit and Ace showroom for the in-person experience. “I’m not going to lie. Sometimes it’s a little bit awkward to sit in a room with 20 strangers and all close your eyes,” said Wilson. “But I think people walk out feeling enlightened and inquisitive.”

And ready to shop? “It’s too early to tell, though it’s not something we introduced to generate sales,” he said. “It’s more about doing something that’s bigger than ourselves.”

Or as RetailNext’s Kohan put it: “Even if an event itself is not ‘profitable’ for a retailer, it does make for more profit in the long run when you look at the lifetime customer value that’s far more important over time.”

At a Mindfulness Morning in the El Segundo showroom last fall, a crowd of about 20 people, mostly women, positioned themselves on gray pillows, eyes closed, as Jill Willard, a mindfulness expert endorsed by Gwyneth Paltrow and Google executives, took the group through a 15-minute guided meditation. (Because they are organized on a store level, details about the meditation sessions and other events can be found by contacting individual Kit and Ace showrooms.)

This particular session was followed by Pilates with Hermosa Beach instructor Leila Cunningham, and attendees dressed in more traditional exercise clothes rather than Kit and Ace’s streamlined pieces. But even those leggings-clad women appeared to catch the shopping bug during class.

“After the meditation, Leila brought us through a great Pilates sequence, and I found myself looking backwards and thinking, ‘Oh, I love that dress!’” said Willard.  “And usually I’m very centered, so it had to be a really cute dress.”

Post-event, attendees browsed, chatted and sipped green juice and cucumber water. One woman approached the register with the same mauve Kit and Ace top that Willard wore to the event. Perhaps proof that for some, the promise of mindfulness is as attractive as the promise of fitness.

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