Mitchell Leather Factory
 
The Finest Leather Goods, Made in the USA Since 1968

Articles & Reviews

Review: High End Briefcase Comparison

The following is a review of our Mitchell Classic Briefcase by Joel Ferman, one of the founders of Badger & Blade.  The Mitchell case was compared with several other briefcases and you can read the entire article here: Badger & Blade High End Briefcase Comparison


Mitchell Leather Classic Briefcase – MSRP - $980 to $1180
 
When your hand glides around this bags handle as you scoop it up mid-stride you can’t help but be taken with how natural this bag feels in hand. Everything about this bag is as it should be, like a lifelong friend had designed it for your specific needs. How it sits on your shoulder, its perfect balance in hand; the number of pockets – not too many which would force them to be too small, yet not too few as to be a one trick pony, its “just right” size, everything about this bag is just seamless and perfect. Jerry Mitchell’s (the late founder of Mitchell Leather) lifetime obsession with creating the ultimate briefcase has been an indisputable success.



Things you don’t typically consider in a briefcase stand out like a Mary-Kay Pink Cadillac at a biker rally. The weight distribution and balance of a briefcase with different weights/loads? Who would consider designing a bag around this? What’s the value? Well I thought it was a little silly until I badly dislocated my knee and found with other briefcases loaded up, I couldn’t get halfway across the house without them slipping off my shoulder or twisting out of my hand and pummeling one of my dogs who constantly shadow me. With the Mitchell? Even with a bum immobilized leg, the fully loaded Mitchell is almost unnoticeable when strewn across my shoulder… it feels like an extension of my body. It’s difficult to explain just how well designed every detail of this bag is – but a few pictures and a review on how these bags are created does the best job at painting the picture.

Every stitch on this bag is perfect. I don’t know how to quite describe it, or show it visually in pictures – but the stitching is something inexplicable, it takes a VERY keen eye to spot they double stitch high stress areas. Stitching and sewing leather is an incredibly difficult task – let alone perfectly hitting the same holes twice, which takes decades to master. The interesting thing with a Mitchell though is not just that you’re getting a skilled hand making your bag – it’s the fact that there are only two gentlemen who make Mitchell bags so you know the name of the craftsman making your bag and talk to him about how you'd like each element. Dave Mitchell, the son of Jerry Mitchell and an Argentinian gentleman by the name of Bernardo, who has been working for Mitchell for around 40 years.

Where the proprietary secret lies in the bags impeccable stitching is in Bernardo, who is in his 80’s and has been working with leather/stitching his entire life. Bernardo handles the most difficult stitches on the Mitchell bags and with seven decades of experience, you can be assured you’ve probably got the most skilled and experienced leather craftsman in the world making your bag. Whenever the bag catches my attention, I can’t help but admire and contemplate the history and tradition Bernardo has stitched into the bag.

The leather? It feels as though it’s been marinated in clarified butter and silk extract for six months prior to shipment. While the other high-end bags in this test are drenched in good to excellent quality leather, the Mitchell is hoisted onto a new level. It’s both incredibly thick/rugged, while being sinfully soft and luxurious to the touch. They stockpile some of the finest hand selected leather in the world – sparing no cost. Finding higher quality leather is highly unlikely as due to their small production levels, they’re able to use a quality of leather not possible for larger firms to reliably source.

Since these bags have been handmade and constantly improved over the last 40 years, they have an array of interesting patented features, which improve the look, feel and longevity of the bag. In fact, from time to time Dave Mitchell has customers come into his shop with 30-40 year old bags, that have seen daily use – and they’re still in great shape. The internal zippered pocket is incredibly handy/useful, the key holder is the easiest to use and most effective, the patented modular handle feels the most secure and sports the sleekest profile, the velcro side pocket is the most useful, the latches have a brass sleeve over the clasp which rotates, to make it slide up and down the leather when latching and unlatching the case making it the quickest/easiest buckle to manipulate and the interesting brass feet adorned in leather strips protect the bottom of the bag.

The feet are particularly noteworthy as with a handmade/stitched bag, the most vulnerable part of the bag is the bottom. Your heavy items in the bag put the most strain on the bottom stitching, and as your bag is put down day after day on hard and occasionally rough surfaces they found after 20 years or so of hard use, some bags would begin to have problems with the bottom stitching. Granted, the damage can be easily repaired – but it was deemed as a problem nonetheless, which was solved with the assistance of these incredibly smart looking feet…

Mitchell bags are primarily custom made to order, in fact if you go to the factory in Milwaukee you can hand pick the leather for your bag and if you’re so inclined you can take part in a few of the processes involved in making it, such as cutting the leather and such. While they do occasionally have a few in stock (ignore the stock on their website, it’s out of date and they’ve sold all of the bags offered for sale on it) they rarely have more than 1 or 2 available to purchase. Colors (even incredibly sharp looking two-tone bags), leather types, you name it.

No two Mitchell’s are exactly alike which adds to the exclusivity of these bags – and exclusive they are. Sporting a price in the four figures range and with an output of about four briefcases a month, you never have to worry about someone else sporting the same bag at a boardroom meeting. What you will have to worry about however is the amount of time you’ll spend talking about the bag when interested strangers stop you – and rest assured, they’ll stop you. A few weeks ago, a gentleman sporting a snazzy Hartmann stopped me, asked me about the bag and when he found out it wouldn’t be an easy thing for him to purchase directly, he tried to buy the bag off my shoulder right then and there!

Expensive? YES. Exclusive? YES. Drop dead gorgeous? YES. A purchase that will last a lifetime? YES. Worth it? YES, YES, YES! In fact, I’ll eventually be buying at least one additional case in two-tone black/brown pebble grain leather.


6 Month Follow Up- Briefcase Comparison Review Update from Joel at Badger & Blade

I'll start working on part two in June, but so far so good. The Mitchell has stood out as a being the clear pick of the litter. Even when cost is factored in, the tremendous quality of the leather, the impeccable stitching and the simply world class design stand out as the clear differentiator. There's not a case, at ANY price, designed better than the mitchell.

The saddleback has proven to be a nice bag and is clearly a quality piece, but it's just too darn big/bulky. It's wide at the bottom, and more narrow at the top, and the excessive hardware all over the place adds unnecessary weight, and makes it look more like a day bag, than a classy, or classic briefcase. Nothing wrong with this from a style perspective, but from a practicality perspective, the bag is just way too bulky/heavy for day to day use. If you do actually load it up to capacity, unless it's with feathers, or something equally light (maybe a shirt) you're likely looking at it being around 50+ lbs. When it's not full (which is 90% of the time) it's a bit unwieldily. Really this bag makes a tremendous light travel/adventure bag, which seems to be more its intention. As an out and out briefcase, it's just too bulky and hardware laden. A gentleman I work with has had a saddleback for a few years - and the first time I met him I had the Mitchell sitting on my desk and he immediately remarked "Wow, that's a gorgeous bag." He's now planning a trip to Milwaukee to go pick out the leather for a Mitchell in person. Nothing wrong with the saddleback, it's a great bag, and it's quite a bit less expensive... but toe to toe, it's out classed by the Mitchell in design, leather quality, stitching quality/accuracy, easy of use, etc.

The Hlaska leaves much to be desired. While it fits my slim/sleek round-edged macbook pro with ease, my 15" Lenovo W500 barely fits and it's quite difficult to manipulate the zipper around its edges. Also, it's lack of pockets (with the only interior pocket being unable to fit a laptop power supply, which makes it somewhat worthless) and inability to expand/accordion make it narrowly focused. It's certainly nice looking and when my iPad finally shows up from Apple, might make a good iPad case, as the iPad will be small enough to allow sufficient real estate for paperwork, etc.

The Solo is extremely functional, and makes for a surprisingly nice case. With that said, it's showing the most wear (admittedly, the Hlaska isn't getting as much use as the others though, so it could be a tie - and over the next 6 months might change as the Hlaska sees more use with the iPad). Net-net on the solo seems to be - it's a superb case for very little money, but you're looking at a couple of years use out of it, before it starts to look ratty or falls apart, which given it's price tag, it's a big deal. Consider you can get five Solo cases for the price of the next case up in this comparison - and they offer cases with rolling wheels, airport approve laptop "quick check" inserts, etc.

So far, the two clear bags i'd shell out my money for in a heart-beat would be the the Solo, and the Mitchell. The solo being practical, downright "inexpensive" option which offers a-typical features and the Mitchell being the "pinnacle" - leaving nothing to be desired, and being completely bespoke, allowing you to customize every color, closure, leather type, etc.
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- Joel
joel (at) badgerandblade.com

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Article from Milwaukee Magazine

The following is a reprint of an article that appeared in Milwaukee Magazine in January of 2001. 




WATER STREET'S CHARMER BY C.J. HRIBAL                      Jan 2001

Just try to resist Jerry Mitchell, an entrepreneur indifferent to business, an engaging conversationalist who befriends everyone, a perfectionist who is making, arguably the best briefcases in the world.

Jerry Mitchell is dismayed. A couple from Chicago has just walked out of his Water Street luggage shop in a huff because he didn't break off from his conversation with me to wait on them.  "I am just finishing with this gentleman," he's told them.  "I'll be with you in 10 minutes." The couple says they only have 15 minutes on the meter.  "Park in the back," he says.  "You can stay as long as you like- free!"  They walk out five minutes later.  He's shaking his head, upset not that he lost a sale but that they displayed so little patience. 

It's a problem he sees too often in American life.  He remembers from when he was a young man in Europe: "You buy a suit," he says in his lilting Central European accent, "the whole street will know you are buying a suit." His eyes gleam as he recalls the process: paging through magazines, looking at styles, selecting the fabric, getting measured. "You wait so long it becomes valuable.  Now," he says with a touch of disappointment, "we all look the same."

Mitchell makes and sells handbags and briefcases, not suits, but his emphasis on quality, on good things taking time, is the same.  "Technology doesn't give people a choice," he says.  "Things can be made with heart and brains, not only made by machines fast."

Mitchell's briefcases are, arguably, the best in the world. Customers rave about their beauty, craftsmanship and quality.  Stopped on the street and asked if her briefcase was a Coach - the Mercedes of handbags and briefcases, and priced accordingly at about $500 - one Mitchell customer retorted proudly, "Oh, no. It's a Mitchell."

Legions of Mitchell owners here and across the world feel the same kind of loyalty to their briefcases.  Four Japanese diplomats bought Mitchell briefcases just prior to their assignments as ambassadors to Africa.  Gov. Tommy Thompson received a briefcase as a present from representatives of the Chiba Prefecture, Japan.  Judges, CEOs, attorneys, educators and even the founding partner of a law firm headquartered in Milan, Italy, proudly carry handmade briefcases engineered (and I don't use that term loosely) by Jerry Mitchell.

Few People in Milwaukee, though, know about Mitchell or his briefcases.  That may be because of his nondescript shop.  Mitchell Leather Manufacturing and Store (226 N. Water St.) is not a place that screams "high end leather products sold here."

More likely, the reason is that Mitchell, 66, is probably the most amiable, paradoxical entrepreneur in town.  He spends next to nothing on marketing and keeps hours a banker would envy.  "We have hours when people cannot come, but I'm a golfer," he says. "I golf in the morning and I golf at night."

But in the store, customers are doted on.  He claims he has no head for business- "My business is more like a comedy," he says- but Mitchell managed to parlay an engineering commisson into the start-up capital for his first factory and used the resulting credit rating to finance subsequent ventures.  He's an engineer who figured out ways factories could make products more efficiently, a man who made his first real money cranking out a thousand handbags a day for J.C. Penney.  Yet for the last couple of decades, his own factory store has produced handmade leather briefcases and handbags at a pace that seems about right for a 19th century cobbler.

In our use-it-and-toss-it culture, Mitchell is a throwback, a reminder that quality and craftsmanship matter. In a good week, his factory might produce 20 handbags. Or three or four briefcases.  He cheerfully admits he could make more, but he seems to live quite contentedly inside an alternate reality located where the Craftsman Movement and the Renaissance meet contemporary leisure culture.  But he is so proud of his shop's work that for the last several years, he's been signing each piece as though it were a work of art.  And they are.

MITCHELL'S BRIEFCASES ARE CUSTOM MADE, and customers can have a hand in their creation, taking a freight elevator up to the shop's second and third floors to pick out the leathers and colors they want.  An attorney, for instance, needed a black briefcases for court but wanted it to have some pizazz. So Mitchell made her a bag with a button down black exterior and a snzzy red interior.  "Nobody thinks to make it in colors," says Mitchell.  "Nobody thinks to change the leathers."

Mitchell claims he's no salesman, but you get the feeling this is a man who could sell fire extinguishers to Satan.  Not that he'd need to.  "If you don't buy something, that's okay with him," says Luis Marrero, product manager for Allen-Bradley. "Because if you're looking for that sort of thing, you'll be back."

Mitchell's marketing plan is simple.  Make the most beautiful, best-engineered bag in the world and garner new customers who salivate over his briefcases when they see them.  "I'm not a very good marketer," he says.  "So I stress attractiveness, practicality, quality.  Every customer is an advertisement."

Craig Stelmach flew in from Boston to have his bag made.  His parents were going to buy one of the 150 briefcases Mitchell has in stock, but he wouldn't let them, insisting that they wait until Stelmach could pick out the leathers and colors he wanted.  Mitchell even let him cut the leather himself. "It's gorgeous, gorgeous," Stelmach says of his bag. 

For Milwaukee architect Ursula Trombley, a principal of Continuum Architects and Planners, Mitchell designed a custom case to fit the outsize planner she needs to carry.  He made to or three prototypes, and the process took several months.  "I appreciate people taking pride in their work," says Trombley.  "I had a lot of fun working with him.

"It is much harder to make individual bags," says Mitchell, "but I want people to buy a briefcase that they will have all their life.  It will be a friend to him."

Such a good friend that when one Marquette University professor came in to pick up her briefcase, she hugged it to her chest, proclaiming, "I'm so happy," and danced with it across the shop.

MITCHELL DIDN'T START OUT MAKING works of art people danced with. In fact, his career would not have been possible at all had he and his parents not escaped from Romania in late 1964.  His childhood was spent under the Nazis, his young adulthood under the Communists.  For 10 years, his father was in prison for being an "exploiter."  He owned a small tannery and held an interest in a racehorse.  Because of his father's imprisonment, Mitchell was kicked off his professional vollyball team and expelled from his university.

Years passed before he could play volleyball again.  Several of his new teammates worked for the security forces and helped get Mitchell's father out of prison and the family out of the country.  Mitchell knows his teammates risked their careers, possibly their lives, in doing so.  In Vienna, they declared asylum, and because his father had been a tanner and could speak German, the Mitchells (Mitchell was born Jerry Mihail Aizicovici, but he changed the name because, "it's easier for conversations") were sent to Milwaukee.  It didn't hurt that Mitchell had a friend there, Dorel Dolberg, another escapee who could sponsor them.  "We left our house, everything.  The only thing we had were new shoes, and with the snow, they fell apart."  He lifts up his hands.  Dissolving shoes - what can you do?  This is a good joke on him.

After that, his story has "only in America" written all over it.  On the family's first day here, his father left their hotel at 6:30 p.m.  When he didn't return, Mitchell and his mother worried he'd been arrested.  But he'd met a German-speaking man who took him to John Ernst restaurant, where he spent the night washing dishes.  He returned in the wee hours with American cash in his pockets. 

Soon after that, Mitchell found a job, too, though his Milwaukee sponsor.  He couldn't speak English, but by the end of his first day, his pay was doubled to, to $2.60 and hour.  He credits having quick fingers.

Mitchell was quick at other things, too.  Just months after his arrival, he married.  He met his wife, Bernadette Kern, at a rummage sale and liked her immediately.  But there was a problem: Neither spoke the other's language.  How did they communicate? Mitchell gestures with a back-and-forth movement of his fingers.  He smiles. "I could make myself understood," he says.  There was another complication, too - Kern was already engaged to someone else.  Engaged? But how?... Mitchell shrugs, beaming.  You get the feeling this was his greatest sale.

In telling his story, there are only a few times when Mitchell is anything but cheery: when he talks about his father's incarceration, his death years later and the death of his first daughter. "It is much harder than living under the Communists, to lose a child." Mitchell was working as an engineer at the time, while studying for a degree in industrial engineering.  After the infant's death (the couple later had another son, David, now 29), he got sick himself.  "I was depressed, but at that time nobody knoew what to do with this."

His father did. If Mitchell rescued his father from prison, it was his father who rescued him from depression.  He recommended his son to General Split, a leather manufacturing company for whom Mitchell's father worked as a jobber.  Split had a problem - too much scrap was wasted. Mitchell designed a conveyor that ran beneath each machine and transported the scraps to where they could be recycled.  He got $60,000 for that bit of consulting - a fortune in the late '60s.  With the money he founded General Automatic Corporation, which manufactured control boxes, reciprocating circuits and photoelectric cells, but it wasn't long before his father came to him with a new problem.  He wanted to take advantage of the booming "hippie look" and import fringed bags from California.  Mitchell wondered why his father needed to buy the bags; Mitchell could easily design a factory, and the bags could be made in Milwaukee.

Eventually, father and son went into business, landing an account with J.C. Penney.  Ralph LaRevere, a buyer at the time, remembers them coming to him on "open seeing day," when manufacturers' reps could come without appointments. "They came," says LaRevere, "with their very pleasant accents and their enthusiasm.  They had very little other than enthusiasm and faith, but the impression was that this was someone you could trust."  After a few visits he gave them a trial order much larger than they were expecting: bags for all 1700 stores.

Soon the Mitchells were manufacturing 1,000 bags a day and in 1974, a Mitchell bag landed on the cover of J.C. Penney's annual report.  But their windfall was short-lived.  The next year, the store decided to import all of its bags.  Mitchell had lost his biggest, practically only account.  In typical "if life hands you lemons" manner, Mitchell says "They did us the best service.  We were scared to lose our only customers, but we also learned that quality material would sell." Soon he started making and selling upscale bags to other stores - Neiman Marcus, Marshall Field's, Lord & Taylor, Dayton's - and subcontracting for Anne Klein and Coach. 

After his father died in 1979, Mitchell opened his own outlet store, originally he says, "as something for my mother to do."  He was still doing subcontracting work, making about 600 bags a week, but the profit margin was terrible.  So he decided to design and make his own bags the way he wanted. 

He picked an awful time for such a move.  The Late 1970s and early 1980s were tough years for leather manufacturers.  "At one time," says Mitchell, "there were more than a thousand manufacturers of leather goods in the New York City area alone."  Now they were all closing, moving their operations to Korea,or Taiwan,  LaRevere says that most of the "manufacturers" that remained in this country essentially became importers; it was the cost-effective thing to do.

Mitchell had plenty of offers for relocating.  China kept calling him, offering him a free factory and low cost labor - 45 cents for a 14 hour workday and no benefits- but Mitchell rebuffed the offers.  "I didn't want subsidies - ever," he says.  "I lived in a Communist country. I don't want to be in a Communist country.

His thinking had changed, too, about what kind of bag he wanted to make.  His competitors offered mass-produced bags at low cost.  Mitchell decided instead to make high-end products.  "We're a shop now, not a factory," says Mitchell.  "If we did not bags completely differently from everybody else, we would not survive."

Mitchell's idea - something that others had not thought to do - was to engineer the briefcases.  He now holds patents on a modular handle mechinism (often the first thing to wear out), a new strap holder using Velcro inside ("300 times stronger than leather or stitch," he says) and a modular strap mechanism.  Other improvements he didn't patent include protective brass feet, a no-sag back pocket, no bulge construction on the bottom,and key holders.

"I have a tremendous advantage," he says.  "I can do anything.  I'm the janitor, I design the bags, the machines.  I'm mechanically inclined.  I have taste.  People like what I am doing.  I'm not afraid to do things harder, which takes a long time."

Perhaps that's why he likes to show off his anachronism of a factory.  "I like to show how they made bags in old times.  Everything we do is obsolete in a way, but I see there are a lot of people who like this obsolete."

"Did he take you upstairs?" is the one question everyone asks when I say I'm writing an article about Mitchell.  The tour, in its own way, is amazing.  You take a freight elevator to the second floor ("that horrendous elevator," Bernadette calls it) and it's like stumbling into a museum that's amassed everything for an exhibit of early to mid 20th century manufacturing but forgot to pretty things up for the customers.  Strewn about are cutting, sewing and staining tables; tables of patterns, tables of tools.  Leather is heaped everywhere - in bins, on racks, on pallets.  "There's no shine, there's no polish, there's nothing," says Bernadette.  "What there is, is the truth of the beginning."

Mitchell picks up one of those early suede bags and hands me another from his subcontracting days.  "I'm like a child, I get goose bumps," he says, gesturing at his history.

At 66, MITCHELL IS THINKING ABOUT THE NEXT STAGE.  He's had offers to buy his operation but wants someone who is willing to spend the time to learn the business and who shares the same quixotic vision.

That's a tall order.  Making briefcases you can dance with, after all, is labor-intensive, with 250 separate operations going into making a Mitchell briefcase. Just learning to skive (thin) leather is becoming a lost art because it requires knowing the different properties of different leathers.  It's another reason why MItchell's operation is smaller than it used to be.  "We would destroy a person if we train them," says Mitchell.  "It takes five, six years to train, and they'll never find work in this country."

Mitchell is down to two workers now.  Khanhlang Tran and Micaela Alvarado.  Two more women- Genevieve Svevdlin and Beverly Bolling - work in the store.  They've been with him anywhere from 12-16 years.

He's also thought of moving the entire operation to the first floor, renovating the upper levels for apartments and offices.  It dismays him a little that he hasn't found a suitable heir (his son is interested in high end audio - that was then, now David has dove in head first!) "We don't know how long we'll be" he says in that lovely accent.

Bernadette doesn't think he'll ever retire - he takes too much pleasure in his work.  That's a word that cropped up with everyone I talked to regarding Jerry Mitchell - pleasure.  "I love sports and I love to live my life," he says.  "Maybe that's a disadvantage, but I think it's an advantage.  This store is unique.  We don't push.  We make quality.  Everything we make I want to be the best possible.  I want to make everyone one thing that's something special."

"As an engineer, I'm impressed," says Allen Bradley's Luis Marrero.  "I don't like to buy something twice, and with Jerry's stuff, I don't have to."

PEOPLE DON'T NEED TO BUY MITCHELL BRIEFCASES MORE THAN ONCE, but they frequently do.  Dr. Lauren Leshan of St. Mary's Hospital bought bags for an entire class of graduating family practice residents, and Harvey Sperling, former University School headmaster, often buys them as gifts.  "It's a reflection of the giver, to give something so special," says Sperling.

Jack and Barb Williams have made giving Mitchell briefcases a family tradition.  As each niece or nephew graduates from college, they bring them to Mitchell's shop, give them a tour and offer a choice: They can take cash as a graduation present or a briefcase.  "We wanted to give them something they would use and remember us by," says Jack.  "I'm afraid they're going to use the bag and remember Jerry Mitchell."

"They're just enchanted by Mr. Mitchell," adds Barb, putting her finger on exactly why, in addition to the beauty and the quality, people treasure their Mitchells."

When I ask former Penney's buyer Ralph LaRevere why he decided to take a chance on the Mitchells, he replies, "Because they showed such passion for what they were doing."  Then, pausing a moment, he adds, "The charm.  The charm of the individuals."

Thirty years later, they're still friends.

That seems to be a common occurance.  "Everyone becomes my friend," Mitchell says, shrugging as though it's something he can't help.

"I look at him like the state of Wisconsin, like the city of Milwaukee," adds Jack Williams, "an undiscovered gem."








Mitchell Leather Factory
414-272-5942
dave.mitchell@ultrafi.com