By  on March 16, 1994

WESTPORT, Conn. -- Those who worry about the shrinking ranks of independent retailers carrying designer merchandise can find solace at Mitchells of Westport.

Mitchells, which has built its reputation primarily on men's apparel, is aggressively revving up its women's selections with some high-end names and fashion-forward merchandise, and has given the department a new home.

The company has more than doubled the size of its women's department with an 8,300-square-foot addition to the 35-year-old store, bringing the total to more than 25,000 square feet. The new wing opened in September.

Fall 1993 marked the first time Mitchells has carried high-end women's clothes from designers like Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Miss V by Valentino. This spring it is further expanding its designer selections with the likes of Giorgio Armani Le Collezioni, Yves Saint Laurent's Encore, Ungaro's Sola Donna and Nino Cerruti.

"We've always been thought of as a men's store that sold some women's clothing," said Jack Mitchell, who owns the store with his brother, Bill. "Now, we want to develop our name as a women's store, too. We've put less emphasis on the classic, traditional looks, like Pendleton, and added more fashion lines like Anne Klein, Ellen Tracy, Tahari, DKNY and Laundry. Basically, we went from Liz Claiborne to Dana Buchman."

Total volume for Mitchell's exceeds $10 million a year, and the retailer has been experiencing annual growth of more than 20 percent for several years. The increase was particularly strong last year with the addition, he said.

Before the addition, women's merchandise -- including apparel, a small selection of shoes and accessories -- was housed in about 4,000 square feet and accounted for about 20 to 25 percent of the business.

Now, the assortments in all the categories have been broadened and the women's business is "comfortably over 30 percent," Mitchell said.

The change from traditional to fashion merchandise actually began about six years ago, Mitchell said, but the enlarged selling space has allowed the retailer to make more of a style statement.

Important parts of the women's business include shoes, now accounting for 7 percent of total store sales, and accessories, contributing 8 or 9 percent, he said. The business in these two areas has doubled with the expansion.

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