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The Luxe Life

On their golden anniversary, the Mitchells prove that becoming a legendary retailer starts with a few timeless staples: family, philanthropy and style

Andrew Mitchell is keyed up. For six months, the grandson of the late retailing giant Ed Mitchell has been traveling abroad and pulling together vintage pieces for the upcoming fashion retrospective to celebrate the past five decades of style at Mitchells, the flagship specialty store opened by his grandparents in 1958. Andrew recently scored a classic Pucci minidress. “Doesn’t this just scream for a pair of white Nancy Sinatra boots?” quips the VP of marketing, who handles the company’s advertising, marketing and visual store displays. “It’s fun to look back and see how Mitchells has had a finger on the pulse of fashion through every era.” If you live in Fairfield County, there’s a good chance you’ve bumped into Andrew or another member of the multigenerational Mitchell family — and not just on the selling floor of Mitchells of Westport or Richards in Greenwich — but also on the golf course at the Patterson Club in Fairfield (Bill), on the lacrosse field in Weston (Bob), at a hot new restaurant in downtown Greenwich (Scott), at a hospital fundraiser in Greenwich (Jack), at his kids’ dance recitals in Wilton (Todd) or on the soccer field in Fairfield (Russ). Seemingly everywhere, the Mitchell clan all live in different local towns, providing a retail Rorschach test for what people are wearing and how they are living from one end of the Gold Coast to the other.

In Westport, the Mitchells are as close to being a local dynasty as you can find. This year, the family’s multimillion, third-generation business (now run by CEO Jack Mitchell, Bill Mitchell and their seven sons and nephews) is toasting a major milestone: a golden anniversary.

Smile Everyone
This anniversary toasts the success of one of the Mitchells’ guiding principles, explored in Jack Mitchell’s books Hug Your Customer and Hug Your Employee. “Hug” is Jack’s metaphor for going the extra mile to make a customer happy. He explains, “We get to know each and every one of our customers individually. We know their birthdays, their anniversaries, the names of their pets (Ned Snorklefish is the name of Paula Zahn’s kids’ goldfish), and whether they are fans of the Yankees or Red Sox, and we let them know every chance we can how much we appreciate them.”

CBS sportscaster and Westport resident Jim Nantz recalls his first encounter with the Mitchells, now his dearest friends. “When I got hired by CBS in the ’80s, I received the famed blue blazer with the CBS eyeball on the front, and I noticed sewn inside it was ‘Ed Mitchell of Westport.’ So when we came into town to look at homes, I had to check out the store. I wasn’t in the door sixty seconds when Bill and Jack walked up to me like the official Welcome Wagon, offering help with anything and everything. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they offered me a place to stay until we had found a suitable home. It was early in my career, and I was just some guy off the street, but this is how they are to everyone.”

People remember these little gestures — like stocking the store with complimentary M&Ms, making fresh cappuccinos or sending handwritten thank-you notes and anniversary cards. Consider this anonymous posting on a local website made upon Ed Mitchell’s death in 2004: “More than twenty years ago, I worked summers and school breaks at Ed Mitchells in the onsite tailor shop. One of my tasks was to carefully open stitched-shut seams in men’s suit jacket pockets. At first, I wondered why Ed Mitchell paid me to do this, when customers could do it for themselves. But I quickly learned: I was carrying on the proud Mitchell family tradition of giving customers more than they expect, when they least expect it. In this case, my job was to assure that customers avoided frustration the first time they pocketed items in their new suit jackets. Little thing? Maybe. But Ed Mitchell built a thriving business by understanding that it’s the little things that count.”

If the small deeds create a good impression, the big gestures — helping a customer avert a crisis by bringing a blazer to the gate at JFK or repairing a torn evening gown minutes before a major society event — create devotees. At Mitchells, employees (referred to as “associates” or “family”) are empowered to go out on a limb for the store’s 115,000 customers, who include a reported 500 chief executives and corporate presidents.

What does this mean? One day, an associate might dispatch a tailor to a loyal customer’s Wall Street office; the next day keep the store open past hours to assist with an emergency purchase; the following day, deliver a tie three towns over — all at no extra charge.

“When a customer calls and says she’s coming in to the store,” says Phyllis Bertram, a million-dollar sales associate with the company for eighteen years, “I outfit a dressing room with underpinnings to accessories. I want to make things very easy and fun for her. When you work with someone for years, you know what she likes and you remember things she already owns. We feel like our customers are friends, and I think they feel the same way about us.”

Even the tailors are magicians. During a recent interview, Domenic Condeleo, at Mitchells for forty-nine years, and now head tailor, was handed a sportscoat that required “urgent” alterations and lightning-fast turnaround. “This happens all the time,” he says, shrugging. “What makes us different is that we have the staff to take care of requests like this at the drop of a hat.” Condeleo oversees what he calls “The United Nations,” twenty-three tailors from Portugal to Poland, who work their magic on some 200 suits and other garments per week. Even popular “curmudgeons” get such service. Radio personality Don Imus once lamented that he couldn’t get a blazer for his son’s private school because it was a holiday weekend. He dialed the Mitchells after-hours line, which put him through to Bill Mitchell’s home phone. “Imus couldn’t believe it when I answered,” recalls Bill. “He thought the whole thing about after-hours calls going to one of our homes was a put-on.”

Mitchell personally opened the store on Labor Day and brought in designer Joseph Abboud to outfit the shock jock’s son — a deed that not only earned Mitchells invaluable plugs on national radio but also the enduring friendship and patronage of the Imus family.

Mom-and-Pop — and More

Mitchells has come a long way since 1958, when Ed and Norma Mitchell opened a small men’s store in the corner of an 800-square-foot Westport plumbing-and- heating building with an inventory of three men’s suits and the family coffeepot. Who could have foreseen that the humble men’s clothing shop would grow into the country’s largest independent specialty store, 27,000 square feet filled with the finest men’s and women’s merchandise from the world’s leading European designers?

Bob Mitchell, copresident of Mitchells/Richards, attends the European fashion shows for Armani, Prada and Loro Piana and brings home a mix of edgy and sophisticated looks for his customers, who include Cathie Black, president of Hearst Magazines; Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of Pepsico; and Richard Fuld Jr., chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers. Amazingly, 85 percent of the company’s business hails from a seven-mile radius — a loyal, well-heeled clientele who enjoy shopping for cutting-edge clothing, designer jewelry and accessories without traveling into Manhattan.

What’s it like attending the shows? Bob says they provide theater, energy, inspiration, good networking and friendships. He says, “Over the years, as we’ve grown, we have been blessed to move up from the back rows to near the front or, occasionally, the front rows. I have to pinch myself sometimes that we have been this fortunate. We are lucky to sit with the executives of Neiman Marcus, Saks, Barneys, and so forth, which allows us to develop relationships with other prestigious retailers who we can learn from.”

But rubbing elbows with the glitterati isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Bob recounts a gaffe from early in his career, when he and his dad were invited to a private dinner in Ferragamo’s Palazzo. “The invitation requested ‘formal dress,’ which we assumed meant tuxedos. Well, in Europe, formal means dark suits. Dad and I were the only attendees in tuxedos at the party. To say the least, we were a bit uncomfortable. Mrs. Ferragamo, matriarch of the family, made us feel great by saying to all, ‘Look at how elegant they look! I should have made the dress code black tie.’ ”

The challenge facing the family now is how to balance its friendly, mom-and-pop image while courting a progressive, fashion-forward customer base. Despite Mitchells’ reputation as a men’s suit store, “Our women’s clothing sales are about to eclipse our men’s, and jewelry continues to be one of our fastest-growing categories,” notes Todd Mitchell, VP Sales at Mitchells and Jewelry. “Our expansion into these areas mirrors what’s happening in the community. We live here, we see what clothes people are wearing, and they tell us what they want.”

The store’s fashion mix has changed to reflect the fashion industry, as well as  the evolving tastes of its customer base, explains Linda Mitchell, Jack’s wife and Women’s Buyer. “We pride ourselves in staying in tune with our clients and searching the market to represent the current trends. Our customers want stylish items for their everyday lives; luxury casual is driving our business. Our professional clients want to look chic and feminine, often preferring to make a statement with their accessories. They mix price points and looks. They grab a slouchy handbag for the day or a great wrap for the evening. A great new red shoe or chic clutch finishes off any outfit.”

Community Involvement
When it comes to community service, the Mitchells walk the walk. “Westport  would not be the same town if the Mitchells were not here,” says Jim Nantz. “They have an openhearted affection for Westport and for the surrounding towns — it’s a community service chip that’s programmed into their DNA from patriarch Ed Mitchell down to the great-grandchildren. They have the genuine spirit of community and giving back that’s a model to me of how life should be lived.”

In this vein, they host charity car washes; donate blazers to high school singing troupes and football teams; and stage in-store cocktail fundraisers, book signings and major annual galas. They sit on the boards of hospitals, the Inner-City Foundation, the Jewish Home for the Elderly and the Breast Cancer Alliance.

Lisa Matthews, president of the Breast Cancer Alliance in Greenwich, says, “We approached Mitchells/Richards three years ago with the feeling that a local, family-owned store would be more interested in working with us than a major department store. The Mitchells embraced us from the very first phone call. This has been a true partnership. Not only do they work with us to put together incredible in-store fashion shows and events, Andrew sits on our board and Jack and Bill Mitchell have come with us on site visits to the people who receive our grants. The family’s enthusiasm is infectious.”

Patriarch Ed Mitchell, who was highly active in town affairs, once remarked, “There’s a tradition in Westport that you just don’t say ‘no’ when you’re asked to do something for the town.” Over the years, he served as a YMCA and mid-Fairfield County Youth Museum trustee, Little League official, Rotary Club president, church deacon and Staples Tuition Grant Committee member. During his nine-year term on the Board of Finance, he observed that Westport was deciding what kind of town it was going to be by appropriating the funds necessary to be unique. “Take Longshore Park. That was a great idea and the people went along with it. It’s given us some great recreational facilities,” he said in 1971. Indeed, who could picture Westport without it?

Ed Mitchell contributed to town causes up until he passed away in 2004, just shy of age ninety-nine. Former Westport First Selectwoman Diane Goss Farrell said all of Westport shared the loss, adding, “Ed was one of the most kindhearted, good-natured, successful entrepreneurs that I have ever known. He has left a legacy of success and community spirit through his children, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Grandson Bob recalls, “My grandfather said we’d live and die by the community, and he showed us by example the importance of giving back.”

Bill Mitchell, one of the first to join his father in the business, couldn’t agree more. He says, “Giving back to the community feels as right to us in 2008 as it did when we first started fifty years ago. It’s who we are and who we will always be.”

Being good guys not only feels good, it’s also smart business. Longtime customer Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric, put it aptly when he called Bill Mitchell “the best retailer I know and the best citizen in Fairfield County.”

At the end of the day, Mitchells is all about relationships. The members of the family know their customers, cultivate relationships with their vendors, throw parties for their suppliers and even break bread with A-list designers in their homes. By valuing their employees, their community and their customers, the Mitchells have struck gold.