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Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010

Mitchell Continues Its Leather Legacy

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If you ask, you’ll find that Milwaukee abounds with compelling immigrant histories. Many people are eager to share stories of how they or their ancestors came to live in Milwaukee, as well as what the city was like and how it treated them when they arrived. Strength, perseverance and a willingness to sacrifice in order to carve out a place for one and one’s family are common themes in these tales, and the story of Jerry Mitchell, founder of Mitchell Leather, is no different.

Mitchell, who was born Jerry Mihail Aizicovici in Romania, spent his childhood under Nazi occupation, followed by the Communist regime. His father, Leo, owned a small tannery and an interest in a racehorse. He was imprisoned as an “exploiter” and served 10 years. Because of this, Jerry was expelled from his university and dismissed from his professional volleyball team. With the help of some of Jerry’s well-connected friends, Leo was released from prison, and the family was aided in escaping the country in 1964. When they declared asylum in Vienna, Leo’s tanning experience and ability to speak German compelled the authorities to send the family to Milwaukee, once the largest producer of plain tanned leather in the world.

“Jerry arrived in Milwaukee with $12 and next to no English,” says Bernie, who was Bernadette Kern when Jerry met and married her within months of moving to the city. A few years into their marriage, Bernie says Jerry changed their last name to “Mitchell” to avoid the confusion that arose every time he was asked to pronounce or spell his name.

Jerry’s father was employed as a jobber (a leather merchant) for General Split, a small leather manufacturer in Milwaukee. When the company needed a solution for lowering the amount of leather it wasted, Jerry, who had earned an engineering degree at MSOE, was commissioned to design an automatic conveyor that caught wasted material from beneath each machine and then transported it to a recycling location. Jerry founded General Automatic Corp. with his engineering commission and began manufacturing photoelectric cells, control boxes and reciprocating circuits.

When Jerry’s father wanted to import fringed bags from California to take advantage of the hippie subculture sweeping the nation, Jerry convinced his dad he could design a factory in Milwaukee that could manufacture the bags for them. In 1968, Mitchell Leather was born. The father-son team landed a lucrative contract with J.C. Penney, and soon they were manufacturing 1,000 bags a day.

In 1975, J.C. Penney made the decision to import all of its bags, and Mitchell Leather suddenly lost its biggest, most important client. Jerry and his dad decided to focus their business on making and selling high-quality, exclusive bags for high-end boutiques, upscale department stores like Neiman Marcus and Lord & Taylor, and designers such as Anne Klein and Coach.

According to Jerry’s son, David, who took over the family business when his dad began succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease in 2006, Jerry was obsessed with creating a briefcase that could survive the stress of heavy daily use for decades. He engineered two patents that addressed the critical stress points where breakages eventually occur: where the handle attaches to the body of the bag and where the strap attaches to the gussets. By 1992 both of these patents were incorporated into every briefcase Mitchell made. Over the years the company has continued to improve and refine its design, creating what many consider the world’s best briefcase.

Jerry died in 2009, but David and Bernie continue the Mitchell Leather legacy—fashioning and selling belts, wrist cuffs, custom watches, wallets, purses and, of course, the renowned Mitchell briefcase—at the store’s original location at 226 N. Water St., just south of Buffalo Street in Milwaukee’s Third Ward.

For more information, visit www.mitchell-leather.com.