By James Lomuscio
Bill Mitchell was 15 when his dad, Ed Mitchell, took a step that would alter the Westport family’s course for generations to come.
“He worked for Grey Advertising as an account executive, and one day he stepped off the train in Saugatuck and said, ‘I quit my job,’” Bill Mitchell said.
It was 1958, the era of Dashing Dans and Mad Men vying for lucrative advertising accounts. But Ed Mitchell’s focus was closer to home, selling tangible goods face to face in his hometown as a haberdasher.
With his wife Norma, Ed Mitchell opened a boys’ clothing store, Ed Mitchell’s, in a small building on the corner of Compo Road North and Post Road East, the current site of People’s United Bank.
Ed’s 88-year-old mother Gertrude worked as the store’s tailor. Two years later, the Mitchells hired Dominic Condoleo as its tailor, and in 1965 the Mitchells’ business model transformed into a men’s clothing store.
Today, Condoleo was still hard at work in the lower level tailor shop with six other tailors he manages at the iconic 670 Post Road East store, the location the store moved into in 1979.
And today Mitchells of Westport — now a men’s and women’s luxury clothing and jewelry store — is hosting a 60th anniversary with a milestone party replete with food, cocktails, entertainment and prizes until 4 p.m.
The Westport location is also the family’s national headquarters. The family has seven other high-end stores including Richard’s of Greenwich, Mitchells of Huntington, N.Y., as well as two in California and one in Seattle, one in Portland, Ore. and one in Tigard, Ore.
The exterior of Mitchells was ready for party time today. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) James Lomuscio for WestportNow.com
”It just fills my heart and my soul that we have been able to continue for 60 years with my family, personnel that are like family and our customers and vendors that have supported us,” said Jack Mitchell, company chairman. “I feel very blessed, as do my wife Linda, my brother Bill and our seven sons who are part of our family business.”
Bill Mitchell, who has been the company’s face on myriad service and charitable organizations, eschews titles. Though technically listed as vice chairman, “I tell people I’m a sock salesman.”
Bill Mitchell also calls himself “the maître di around here,” as he routinely greets customers effusively and warmly like friends who stopped by.
“He (Jack) and I have a culture of making people feel great, and oh, and by the way, we sell clothes,” he said.
Jack’s son Bob Mitchell, who serves as co-CEO with his brother Russell, recalled his first job he had in the family business.
“I’d pick up pins in the carpet; I’d get a penny a pin,” he recalled. “The reason was they would get sucked up and ruin the vacuum cleaners.”
He refers to his uncle Bill as “the soul of the company, Mr. Westport.” From his work as a Rotarian, to speaking out in support of the Conservative Synagogue when it faced planning zoning hurdles to open in the mid-1990s to being front and center at store sponsored fundraisers for Near & Far Aid and Pink Aid and many others, Bill Mitchell seems ubiquitous around town.
And beyond its borders, too. One Christmas Eve he drove a tie a woman bought for her husband but left behind to her home in Brookfield.
“I don’t want to talk about other things,” he says about going the extra mile. “It’s not why you do it.”
He says customer service is integral to the values his parents built into the business.
That prevails as online shopping poses challenges for most retail. Mitchells has taken the reins, Bob Mitchell said, coupling customer service with screens around the store that help customers “draw on the inventory of all eight stores.”
Keeping with the times while not forgoing the business’ core values “will keep us going for the next 60 years,” he said.
“We have a mom and pop philosophy, but the strength of a larger company,” he said.