NEW YORK — The family-owned Mitchells of Westport, long known for lavishing the country club set with intensive service, has embarked on a renovation so the ambiance befits the merchandise.

The project, which began in January and should be completed by the end of August, should cost between $4 million and $5 million, according to industry sources. It was triggered by growth in women’s ready-to-wear and accessories, and the philosophy that if the ladies are dropping hundreds of dollars or more on an updated outfit, and it pays to update the interiors too to encourage sales.

"The opportunity to renovate is now, before the economy improves, so when that happens we will really be in a position for growth," said Jack Mitchell, chief executive officer of the Westport, Conn., store.

"There has been a fundamental shift at Mitchells," added Bob Mitchell, who is Jack Mitchell’s son and co-president of merchandising and sales. "Women’s has been over half of our business for the past five or six months. We started women’s in August 1969, but the real entry was in 1993. We have been getting double-digit women’s increases."

Though its reputation was established in men’s wear, for the last 10 years Mitchell’s has been growing its women’s assortments faster. The women’s business gained over 10 percent in the last 12 months, while men’s wear, the firm acknowledges, remains challenging. Currently, women’s represents about 55 percent of sales at the store, according to the Mitchell family, which owns and runs Mitchells, as well as Richards in Greenwich, Conn. The specialty stores sell a similar assortment of women’s and men’s designer ready-to-wear and accessories.

Combined, the two stores exceed $65 million in sales, with the volume split about even, though Mitchells of Westport does more volume in women’s. Richards, too, was originally a men’s store until the Mitchells bought the business in 1995 and relocated it to a much bigger, more luxurious box right on Greenwich Avenue, opened in September 2000, with a huge staircase suitable for a luxury home. Richards began selling women’s merchandise at that time and, currently, women’s accounts for 38 percent of its sales volume.Seeking to enhance its trappings, too, Mitchells of Westport, with 25,000 square feet for selling and 34,000 square feet in total, will create a new exterior and interior. Compared with the array of status designer labels inside the store and the high-caliber service, its previous physical plant lacked character or style.

With the renovation, the exterior will be brick, instead of wood siding, and there will be one main entrance, instead of two, to drive customers to both the men’s department and the women’s department. Women’s will lead off with an Hermès full-line, 1,000-square-foot shop, then a 1,000-square-foot Armani Black Label shop. Adjacent to Hermès will be shops for Tods handbags and Prada handbags. Last fall, Etro was added to the assortment, and Tods handbags, Black Label and Akris are all new to the store for fall ’03. A fine jewelry department will be added, as well.

Mitchells also will pick up some wall space for more displays, and women’s overall will increase about 10 percent in square footage, bringing the department to 13,500 square feet including support areas. On a net selling basis [no dressing rooms or support areas] Mitchells is running about $2,000 in women’s sales per square foot, the company said.

"Although the ready-to-wear business continues to grow. We see enormous growth potential in accessories and jewelry," said Bob Mitchell. He singled out Loro Piana, which has a "soft shop area," as one brand that will be intensified. It’s also considered the store’s largest classic European vendor.

Reporting to Bob Mitchell, who took the reins of the women’s business two years ago, are women’s buyers Linda Mitchell (Jack Mitchell’s wife), who buys the core classic collections, among them Armani, Loro Piana, St. John and Escada; and Lauren Perez, who buys advanced collections, notably Marc Jacobs and Dolce & Gabbana, and some core lines, such as Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren. A third buyer for accessories, shoes and jewelry is being sought, since the departure of Tanya Hartman about two weeks ago. The assortment is similar in both Mitchells and Richards, with Giorgio Armani as the number one brand overall. Other key vendors include David Yurman, Robin Rotenier, Cathy Waterman, Valentino, Burberry and Pucci.Bob’s brother Russell is also co-president, for finance, operations, marketing and real estate.

With all the physical enhancements, the Mitchells hope that the store’s personality doesn’t change completely, though Jack Mitchell did say, "It will have more of a homey feeling, without being folksy. We want the Mitchells character to remain. We are investing to bring it up to the standards of Richards, but without that big staircase, and not the same feeling. There will be more warmth, an updated feeling, without being too Madison Avenue in style. It will still be comfortable for the kids that come in with their parents. We will keep it relatively simple, using wood to warm up the space, and we’re putting in some skylights [called clear stories]."

After all the construction is done, "I’m confident we can increase the business dramatically, women’s especially," said Jack Mitchell. "Even our best men’s customers are outspent by their wives, two to one. God bless them."

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