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November 2008


FEATURES

50 Years of Fashion
By Sarah Firshein
Photographs by Robert Norman

FIFTY YEARS AGO, ED AND NORMA MITCHELL OPENED THEIR FIRST SHOP IN A MODEST 800-SQUARE-FOOT RETAIL SPACE IN WESTPORT. THEIR TRADITION CONTINUES TODAY—COFFEE AND ALL.

"All designers take from the past and re-interpret it for the present. Some of the new trends that have a flavor of the '60s are full-leg pants, peep-toe shoes, vests, long skirts, satiny, romantic blouses and platform shoes."
—Marlene Bernikow, sales associate, Richards of Greenwich

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The colorful finds at one vintage-clothing store in Chicago made Andrew Mitchell's sides hurt. "I was smiling and chuckling as I was going through the different items," says the vice president of communications for Mitchells, the luxury retailer celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. "I thought smiling and chuckling would be a great reaction from the audience."

The experience prompted Andrew to organize an eye-popping retrospective fashion show toasting styles characteristic of each of the company's five decades. Mitchells' 50th Anniversary Gala, held this past September in a tent next to the Westport store, demonstrated just how far the business has come since its start. After all, much like his other family members—most of whom also work for the company—Andrew attributes the company's large-scale success to much smaller things: a single coffee pot, three suits and dreams of making it big.

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When his grandparents, Ed and Norma Mitchell, opened their first haberdashery in Westport in 1958, Ed handled sales and Ed's mother, Gertrude, worked as a seamstress. Norma set the standard for a new kind of customer service. "She read to Paul Newman's kids, and Paul had to bribe the kids with a new bicycle to get them to leave the store," remembers Ed and Norma's son Jack, Mitchells' CEO.

"Chic style to me means being totally pulled together with the complete outfit, and feeling great about it to the point where if you were not wearing what you were wearing, you would not feel NEARLY as good."
—Tyler Mitchell, vice president & men's furnishing buyer

Mirroring the outside social and political development of the time, Mitchells grew tremendously during the late 1960s, '70s and '80s. Jack and his brother, Bill, officially joined the business (Jack introduced women's fashion to the store); the company celebrated its 15th anniversary in 1973; and in 1979 Mitchells came to rest at its current location, 670 Post Road East in Westport.

"Mom and Dad set the standards, Bill and I hopefully raised the bars. And our sons and non-family executives continue to raise the bars," Jack says of the company that is now used as a case study in success at Harvard Business School. Perpetually underlying Mitchells' growth was a standard of community involvement set forth by Ed and Norma. "It's been part of our DNA since Mom and Dad started the business. We lived in the community, we like to be part of the community and like to give back to the community," Jack says.

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The fashion show at the company's 50th Anniversary Gala included a luxury-gift auction that raised $140,000 for four local charities: the Breast Cancer Alliance, the Inner-City Foundation For Charity & Education, the Westport Country Playhouse and the Near & Far Aid Association. "My grandparents built the business with the community and by giving back to the community," says Andrew. "Through events, we've been able to raise millions of dollars for charities."

"(chic style is) Just something special that makes you feel great and comfortable at the same time. It could be as simple as a pocket square that accents a beautiful new suit or sport coat. It's something new that's consistent with your own sense of style, and yet has a certain pop or uniqueness."
—Jack Mitchell, CEO

Since 1995, Mitchells has ballooned its presence by opening two additional stores, Richards of Greenwich and Marshs in Huntington, Long Island. The company crew has welcomed more third-generation family members to its helm; retail spaces have been expanded and lavishly adorned; and unparalleled design houses such as Hermes, Giorgio Armani, Ermengildo Zegna, Michael Kors and Brunello Cucinelli have come to set up shop.

Wander into Mitchells on any Saturday today and you're bound to find Bill shooting the breeze with customers. In the men's department, his son Tyler, a company vice president and men's furnishing buyer, gushes about a certain, this-just-in piece de resistance, a cashmere sweater jacket lined in mink fur from long-time vendor Brioni. "Regulars come in every Saturday to have a cup of coffee and to chat. We want people to think of the store as their home," Jack says.

Andrew encountered the same familial spirit while gathering current and vintage pieces for the runway retrospective. "After the event, a customer came over to me and said, 'If you ever decide to do this again, come find me: We had to build an entire extra closet, just for my treasures,'" he says.

"The fashions of today are very '60s influenced. The cute little dresses, decorative tights and chunky shoes. Coat sweaters and the shape of pants. Chunky jewelry and statement handbags, fur-collared coats and stacked heels."
—Taffy Parisi, marketing

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