Tag Archives: Wilkes Bashford

Mitchells At 60: Westport Flagship Store Flies High

A couple of Saturdays ago, hundreds of folks from Fairfield County and beyond jammed Mitchells.

They celebrated the store’s 60th anniversary — and its just-completed major reconfiguration.

The 27,000 square feet sparkle with updated designs, new collections, fresh lighting and an ultra-modern feel.

The fresh, new interior at Mitchells of Westport.

One floor below — where dozens of employees direct the operations of the 9 stores Mitchells owns on the East and West Coasts, and 18 tailors work their magic — another renovation has launched the business far into the future too.

It’s a far cry from the first Ed Mitchell’s store in 1958. All those celebrating customers last month could not even have fit in that tiny shop on the corner of Post Road and North Compo.

Back then, “the Mitchells” consisted of Ed and his wife Norma, and Ed’s mother (who did the tailoring).

The original Ed Mitchell’s. It’s now the site of People’s United Bank.

Yet 60 years ago they put out a coffee pot, and poured free cups. It was a small gesture, but a telling one. We want you here, the Mitchells said. And we’ll do whatever we can to make you feel at home.

The coffee pot has been replaced by a fancy machine, with espresso and capuccino options. Ed and Norma’s family is now on the 3rd generation, with a 4th waiting in the wings. Most family-owned businesses don’t make it past generation 2.

The coffee cup and family feeling are why Mitchells has survived — and thrived — over 6 decades.

I’ve known Bill and Jack Mitchell — Ed’s sons — since my father took me to the store as a child. I coached all 3 of Bill’s sons. I know many other Mitchells.

But the other day, as I sat with Jack (now chairman of all 9 stores) and his son Andrew (chief marketing officer) for a quiet, casual conversation about the past 60 years, I realized what a remarkable story this is.

A Mitchell family photo. Jack is at far left; Andrew is 4th from left, and Bill is at far right.

Although the business is now national, its roots remain right here in Westport. And that is the key both to Mitchells’ success, and why it is such a great “06880” tale.

“We’re bucking a national trend,” Jack says. “The headlines across the US are about retailers — Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and a lot more — that are closing stores and concentrating online. We’re investing in brick and mortar.”

Mitchells does have a robust web presence. But, Andrew adds, “we believe the digital world must support the in-store experience.”

“Our value that the customer comes first, and our goal of building relationships, hasn’t changed since I was at Wesleyan University and my dad opened the store,” Jack says.

“But this has changed.” He holds up his iPhone.

His staff uses the internet to track inventory, and ship it so customers can find the right shirt, suit, blouse or shoes online. They’re encouraged to visit a store, try it on and have it tailored. An item in the Seattle store can be shipped quickly to any other store, in Westport, Greenwich, Long Island, California or Oregon.

Customers browse online. But many enjoy the in-store experience too.

But Mitchells does much more. Their website encourages customers to email their personal style advisor, or call a sales associate. All emails are answered by real people.

“People are busy today. If they can only look at shoes at 10 p.m. when the kids are in bed, fine,” Andrew says. “If someone in a London hotel room sends an email or text, it may be 3 a.m. here. But we’ll take care of it.”

When the store is closed, a phone message offers an actual number to call in the event of a fashion emergency. Those calls are answered by an actual Mitchell family member. Immediately, the problem is taken care of.

What is a “fashion emergency”? An unexpected funeral, and no suit. A business meeting, and a forgotten shirt. Things happen.

A Mitchell family member will open the store on a Sunday for those issues. If needed, they send a tailor to a customer’s home.

Jack Mitchell (left) lives in Wilton. Bill lives in Westport. They — and their extended family — go the extra mile (literally) to help customers.

That personal touch is why customers continue to flock to the stores. Each one is different. However — as they’ve bought properties across the country — the Mitchells have been careful to keep each local identity.

And name.

“Why change Richards in Greenwich, Marsh’s in Huntington, Wilkes Bashford in San Francisco and Palo Alto, or Marios in Seattle and Portland?” Jack asks. (There’s also a by-appointment tailor shop on 5th Avenue and 58th Street.)

“Every one of those stores is part of its community. Our customers have 9 times the inventory, but the heart and soul of the customer experience is local.”

And the local Westport experience informs everything the entire company does.

“Our corporate office is here,” Jack says. “We have more Mitchells on the floor here than any other store. This is our heart and soul. It’s where it all began.”

For 60 years, Mitchells has embraced the community. They host 2 major fundraisers each year — Pink Aid (which started here) and Near and Far.

But they open their doors to 150 or so smaller events each year. Shopping nights for charity, group meetings, small fashion show fundraisers — just ask, and the Mitchells say, “Sure!”

Their quiet, behind-the-scenes help is even more legendary. The stories could fill a book. (In fact, Jack — the “hug your customer” expert — has written 3.)

“My father always said, ‘if you’re good to the community, you’ll have a healthy business,'” Jack says.

“Westport has been good to us. We just try to give back.”

FUN FACT: Why — when Mitchells changed the name from “Ed Mitchell’s” — did they eliminate the apostrophe? “It’s not about us owning it,” Jack explains. “It’s about all of us growing, one customer and one family member at a time.”

And, he adds: “If we were starting the business today, it would not be Ed Mitchell’s. It would be Ed and Norma Mitchell’s.”

He pauses, thinking about his mother’s enormous contributions to the success of the store.

“Or Norma and Ed’s.”

Tyler Mitchell Dresses With Levatee

Mitchells does not sell t-shirts.

But Tyler Mitchell does.

The 1997 Staples grad — a 3rd-generation family member, who co-owns and runs Mitchells’ 2 Wilkes Bashford luxury stores in San Francisco and Palo Alto — has embraced the Bay Area’s entrepreneurial, tech spirit.

And — although this is a solo, private venture — he’s married it to the apparel business he knows so well.

The Levatee app offers plenty of options.

The Levatee app offers plenty of options.

Tyler — who hangs with friends like the co-founder of Instagram — has created an app. Users can quickly and easily design t-shirts with their own words or phrases, in different colors, styles and fonts. Shirts are printed within 24 hours of an order.

They’re available in V-neck, crew, neck and tank styles. (Of course, they’re made from high-quality material.)

Tyler is not the first person to offer the service. But, he says, his shirts are digitally printed, creating a better look. And the ordering process seems quicker than competing companies — 30 seconds, not 30 minutes.

Users can share their design by text, or on Facebook and Instagram (duh). Shirts can be sent as gifts via a phone’s contact list.

The app is called Levatee. “Levity” and “t-shirts” — get it?

You can’t get it at Wilkes Bashford. Or at Mitchells.

Tyler’s out in San Francisco. This is all about the web.

Tyler Mitchell poses with a vareity of Levatee shirts. (Photo/San Francisco Chronicle)

Tyler Mitchell poses with a vareity of Levatee shirts. (Photo/San Francisco Chronicle)

Wilkes Bashford And Westport

Today’s New York Times carries the obituary of Wilkes Bashford. The “clothier whose eponymous emporium is famous for having dressed affluent, elegance-conscious San Franciscans for the last half-century” died Saturday at 82.

Why is this “06880”-worthy?

In 2009, the Union Square store and its affiliate in Palo Alto were bought by Mitchells of Westport. Third-generation family member Tyler Mitchell now runs the 2 California locations.

And — in a typical Mitchell move — the company allowed Bashford to continue working there. Which he did, until nearly the end of his life.

Wilkes Bashford (2nd from left), flanked by Mitchell family members Tyler, Jack and Andrew.

Wilkes Bashford (2nd from left), flanked by Mitchell family members Tyler, Jack and Andrew.



Jack Mitchell Hugs His Customers — Again

Any author would kill to sell 225,000 copies of a book in North America — and another 50,000 globally.

Jack Mitchell did that. And “author” is his 2nd career. For the 1st 40 years of his working life, he was best known as the co-owner of Mitchells of Westport.

Of course, without his phenomenal success there — and his hands-on, very personal approach — he would not have found his other calling: best-selling writer.

Jack Mitchell, and his updated book.

Jack Mitchell, and his updated book.

Now his book sales will skyrocket again. Hug Your Customers — first published a dozen years ago, and a wild success through 18 printings — has been updated. The revised edition (on sale April 14) includes an updated history of the company (which bought Marshs on Long Island in 2005, and Wilkes Bashford in San Francisco and Palo Alto in 2009), and improved customer service techniques with the surge of the digital age.

But one thing never changed, from the 1958 day Jack’s parents Ed and Norma Mitchell opened an 800-square-foot men’s clothing store on the Post Road/North Compo corner, with little more than 3 suits and free coffee*: Hugging customers works.

Some of the hugs — given freely by Jack; his brother Bill (to whom the book is dedicated); the 7 third-generation sons, who now run the business, and their super-loyal staff — are literal.

Many more are figurative. But all — from free M&Ms and coffee, to sending a suit to Japan so a customer’s son can attend a funeral (the solution: find another customer flying there on a private plane) — help make Mitchells’ stores legendary, in the often impersonal world of retail.

They also make for very entertaining reading.

Mitchells logo

My favorite stories describe:

  • Tying bow ties for formal events for people who did not purchase their apparel at Mitchells — and altering a dress for a woman who’d bought it at Bergdorf’s
  • Opening the store on Sunday for complete strangers, thanks to an answering system that routes “emergency” calls to owners’ homes (you’d be surprised how many “clothing emergencies” there can be)
  • Going to customers’ offices to fit them, then returning to deliver the tailored goods — even if those offices are in New York or New Jersey
  • Giving their long-time, Italian-born head tailor a gift worth more than gold: tickets and plane trips to World Cup soccer matches
  • Allowing a great customer who loves Mitchells to work as an associate on the floor one Saturday. The man called many friends and clients, sold nearly $10,000 worth of merchandise — and Mitchells made a donation to his favorite charity, in his name, as thanks.

“Hugging is universal,” Jack says. “And it still works.”

Hug Your CustomersSo does book-selling. Hug Your Customers has been bought in bulk by large companies; copies are given to top executives, salespeople, even entire staffs.

The book’s success led to a 3rd career for Jack: motivational speaker. He’s spoken around the globe.

Literally. Business groups in Estonia and South Africa have hired Jack to help them understand the Mitchells way.

Now an updated edition of Hug Your Customers is being shipped. It includes new anecdotes, and an instructive section on how Mitchells weathered, then roared back from, the Great Recession.

But the heart of the book is the same. The focus on great customer service has not changed.

Just as, in the Mitchells stores themselves, it never will.

(Hug Your Customers is available April 14 online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble — and of course at Mitchells of Westport.)

*Because that courtesy can lead to sales of $2,000 or more, it’s been called “the world’s most expensive free cup of coffee.”

Robin Tauck’s Tesla

Today is Earth Day.

You and I might celebrate by taking a quicker shower, or finally buying a compact fluorescent light bulb.

Robin Tauck will drive her brand-new Tesla in New York City’s 1st Earth Day road rally.

Robin gets excited about a lot of things, like international travel.  (Her family’s company, Tauck World Discovery, is a global leader in inspirational, innovative touring.)

National parks.  (She has helped renovate treasures like Mesa Verde, and been praised by presidents for it.)

And the Tesla Roadster.

Hers is the 1265th produced.  There is at least 1 other in Westport; perhaps 8 or 10 throughout Connecticut.

Robin Tauck's Tesla.

The Roadster is the 1st all-electric vehicle in the US.  It goes far beyond gas/electric hybrids like the Chevy Volt.

The  Volt travels 25 to 50 miles on a lithium-ion battery.  The Tesla gets 275.

Welcome to tomorrow — on display now in Robin’s garage.  That’s where she keeps her battery cords.

One plugs into a regular 110-volt outlet.  A fully depleted battery takes 24 hours to charge.

A 220-volt hookup (dryer type plug) gets 40 miles for each hour of charging.  “It’s like charging your cell phone,” Robin says.  “And the battery is strong enough to power your entire home.”

Her work with the World Travel and Tourism Council first opened her eyes to the incredible damage carbon dioxide emissions inflict on the world.  (The organization, of which she is a leader, is helping the global travel industry reduce emissions, and encourages sustainability plans.)

Robin — who travels 120 days a year, and contributes carbon offset miles to worthy programs — had long rented Priuses wherever they’re available.  (She spends lots of time in California; nearly all rental agencies have them there.)

She knows that Fairmont Hotels offer free parking for hybrids, and Logan Airport has preferred lots for them.  She understands their value to the environment.

But then Robin — who has a home in the San Francisco Bay Area, and studied at Stanford — got an up-close look at Teslas, which are far better known in California than here.

The Wilkes Bashford store in Palo Alto — owned by Westport’s Mitchell clothing family — sits across the street from Tesla‘s world headquarters.  The company was founded in 2003 by Silicon Valley engineers.  It took 5 years to produce its 1st car — the hand-built, carbon fiber Roadster.  There are now 1,500 of them, in 30 countries.

They look very cool.  Hidden inside, a large (recyclable, after its 10-year life) battery sits above a watermelon-sized motor.

Robin test drove a Roadster.  So did her husband, Pete Romano.

They went all around Palo Alto.  “You’ll come back with the ‘Tesla grin,'” a company executive predicted.

They did.

“It’s fast, responsive — and totally silent,” Robin says. “It accelerates extremely fast — 0 to 60 in 3.7 seconds — and slows quickly too.  It’s very nimble, and takes quick turns.

“It’s the most exciting drive I’ve ever had.”

Though a tight fit for Pete — “he’s 6-3, a big guy,” she says — he loved it too.

Robin Tauck, holding her battery charging cord.

The Roadster goes out of production next year.  It will be replaced by a roomier, mass-produced Model S that gets (depending on the battery pack selected) 160, 230 or 300 miles per charge.  It can be recharged in just 45 minutes.

Robin knows all the questions about electric vehicles.  What if I run out of juice?  Where can I get it serviced?

She called Roadster owners in the tri-state area.  “It gets 275 miles on a full battery charge,” she says.  “Who drives 285 miles in a day?

“You can charge it in any garage.  And almost every hotel and garage has a 110-volt outlet.”  Owners, she says, tell each other the “best places” to charge.

Servicing, she says, takes place once a year:  “basically for tires.”  With no oil or gas to worry about — and few of the traditional under-the-hood components to fail — maintenance is almost an afterthought.

Robin is a fun person, and Tesla is a fun company.  They know their customers by name, and seek out events like today’s Earth Day rally in New York.  Two dozen or so Teslas will join other CO2-friendly vehicles in a loop around Manhattan.

Then it’s back to Westport with her Roadster.  Robin says the Gaults may put a charging station in their new Saugatuck development; she’s heard talk there might be one at the train station too and at several town buildings.

She hopes to show the Roadster at next month’s Eco-Fest at the Levitt Pavilion, and possibly join other electric car drivers in the Memorial Day parade.

You can’t miss it.  It’s sharp-looking, and Tesla calls it “glacier blue.”

Though a better description might be “Robin’s-egg blue.”

The Mitchells Family Grows

The news that Mitchells of Westport is expanding to the West Coast is in some ways surprising.  In others, it is business as usual.

Mitchells — which grew from a tiny mom-and-pop men’s store to an enormous mom-and-pop-and-the-kids men’s and women’s store, then acquired 2 similar family-owned clothiers — is ready to add San Francisco-based Wilkes Bashford.

The deal is contingent on a competitive bid process.   The stores in Union Square and Palo Alto are in bankruptcy.

Jack and Bill Mitchell

Jack and Bill Mitchell -- the 2nd generation

While cross-country expansion may raise eyebrows, the acquisition seems a perfect fit.  Wilkes Bashford — the 76-year-old founder of the chain that bears his name — will still be part of the business, news reports say.

That’s the Mitchells way.  Ed and Norma Mitchell — who, when they opened their 1st store in 1958, did their own tailoring and coffee-making — have passed the family-store gene on to their offspring, in a big, important way.

Their sons Jack and Bill eventually took over, helping the store expand and diversify. 

Jack’s 4 sons, and Bill’s 3 — Ed and Norma did not, apparently, pass along the female gene — have now taken over, in a variety of roles.  Under the 3rd generation’s direction, Mitchells now operates Richards of Greenwich, and Marshs of Huntington, NY.

Now the 4th generation is poised to make its mark.  Jack’s teenage grandchildren are being brought in to the family council — regular meetings of the entire clan.  In Mitchell tradition, they will work in the industry — in non-Mitchells stores — before being brought formally in to the company.

Up to 90 percent of family-owned businesses fail to make it to the 3rd generation.  The emergence of a 4th bodes well for Mitchells, Richards, Marshs — and, hopefully soon, Wilkes Bashford.