WESTPORT, Conn. — Mitchells of Westport started selling women’s designer fashion 24 years ago. But not until last month did the business really tilt toward women’s, when the store completed a nine-month renovation touching every square foot of selling space.
Gone is the store’s old suburban wood facade, replaced by brick and stone, and there’s one central entrance direct to women’s accessories, handbags, shoes and jewelry, leaving no doubt where Mitchells sees the most growth potential.Before, there were separate women’s and men’s wear entrances, reducing the chances of cross-traffic.
More significantly, there was never an environment befitting designer collections, or with sufficient ambience to compare to designer stores in Manhattan, where renovating seems rampant. Recently, Bergdorf Goodman restored its main floor and is nearly done reconfiguring its second floor with designer shops. Saks Fifth Avenue created a series of signature designer accessories shops and a jewelry department on its main floor, and Bloomingdale’s 59th Street just completed a renovation of its contemporary floor and opened up such areas as designer accessories and men’s wear.
At Mitchells, right up front there’s an 800-square-foot Hermès shop, where 70 percent of the volume is in ties, scarves and leathers; 25 percent is in ready-to-wear. That’s followed by smaller shops for Prada accessories and Tod’s accessories. Prada is Mitchells’ largest accessories vendor, though Mitchells won’t specify its volume. Prada and Tod’s shoes are sold in the shoe department.
Other important labels in handbags are Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Jacobs, Bottega Veneta and Lambertson Truex. The handbag space doubled to 1,200 square feet.
In jewelry, there are 26 cases, compared with 13 prerenovation. With precious jewelry representing the bulk of the expansion, Mitchells aims to be closely identified as a store for gifts and special-occasion purchases. Key vendors include Michael Beaudry, in precious jewelry, as well as David Yurman, Robin Rotenier, M.J. Savitt and Pomellato in designer jewelry. There’s a custom counter, enabling customers to design jewelry pieces in diamonds, South Sea pearls and precious gemstones.
Overall, women’s increased about 15 percent in space, to 14,000 square feet. Men’s wear was downsized to 11,000 square feet, leaving the store’s size constant at 25,000 square feet, though wall space for display increased by converting to one entrance. The store expects the renovation to yield a 25 to 30 percent lift in the women’s business after a year and a 10 percent jump in men’s wear sales.“We still show a lower penetration of women’s to our total volume, compared with Saks and Neiman’s,” said Bob Mitchell, co-president of Mitchells, responsible for the buying and selling operations and a grandson of the founder, Ed Mitchell.
Mitchells top-volume ready-to-wear vendor is Giorgio Armani, though Mitchell declined to specify its sales. New “hard” shops were built for Giorgio Armani Black Label and, in men’s wear, Hickey Freeman, Ermenegildo Zegna and Polo Ralph Lauren. Other women’s rtw collections sold are Agnona, Escada, Dolce & Gabbana, Missoni, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, Roberto Cavalli, Emanuel Ungaro, Diane von Furstenberg, Akris, Etro, Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Badgley Mischka, Loro Piana and St. John.
Key weekend collections are Catherine Malandrino, Prada Sport and Theory. Key separates lines are Gunex, Autumn, Kinross and Piazza Sempione.
The Mitchell family also owns Richards, the 27,000-square-foot, two-level designer store in Greenwich, Conn. The two stores combined do over $65 million in annual sales, with $30 million-plus from each. Mitchells’ volume is about 65 percent women’s and 35 percent men’s, and Richards is the inverse.
While there is an 80 percent overlap in merchandise from store to store, they have very few customers in common, Mitchell said. The stores each have 70 percent sell-throughs at full price and run only two major sales each year. The stores are able to do this for two principal reasons: They cater to many of the rich corporate executives and country club types who live in the communities or nearby and barrage them with service, which is bolstered by extensive computer data. The staff has easy access to the data, such as birthdays, anniversaries and purchasing histories. Also, all the buyers must be on the selling floors on Saturday so they get to know the shoppers. At Mitchells, there are 23 full-time tailors and alterations are free on merchandise that isn’t marked down more than 40 percent. Richards has 17 tailors.
“We don’t want to give any reason for people in this area to shop in New York City,” Mitchell said. He considers Manhattan stores the primary competition.Prior to deciding to renovate Mitchells of Westport, the family considered other ways to spend its money, like buying another specialty store. In 1995, the Mitchell family purchased Richards and took out a strong men’s wear competitor. Richards was relocated to the opposite side of Greenwich Avenue in a much larger and luxurious box, with men’s and women’s collections. Richards reopened in September 2000, leaving the Mitchells to decide on their next big project. “We were convinced the [next] best investment was right here in Westport,” Mitchell said. “There is still tremendous growth potential here.”
With the renovation in Westport, “We decided to go all the way,” he added, pointing to the granite tables with brushed nickel frames housing shoes, the marble floors and the wood floors “impregnated” with stain and finish so scratches can be buffed out. Moreover, large atrium-like skylights, called clear stories, in the center of the men’s and women’s areas brighten Mitchells and make it feel more spacious than before, even if it isn’t.
The new facade of Mitchells captures the urban spirit of Richards, though the interiors, while handsome, don’t quite match the elegance of Richards, with its grand flying staircase reminiscent of Versailles, 13-foot windows, glass elevator and patio for receptions. “Women love the sleekness of Richards,” Mitchell noted, though he acknowledged that some men consider it a bit “chi-chi,” and something they’re still getting used to.
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