Philadelphia's throwback-jersey-maker has ridden the highs and lows of hip-hop fashion. Now Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co. is banking on a more diversified product line, the star power of Michael Jordan and past Dallas Cowboy greats, and a new president.
The Center City sportswear firm was slated to introduce its Jordan apparel, including his No. 23 Chicago Bulls jersey, over the weekend in connection with the NBA All-Star Game. Call it a statement by Mitchell & Ness owner Peter Capolino and newly promoted president Sean McKinney that one of the best-known brands in the throwback-jersey business is aiming high.
McKinney, 31, a former executive with basketball-apparel-maker And1, joined Mitchell & Ness in February 2006 as vice president of sales and marketing. He arrived at a critical time for the company.
Starting in 2001 and peaking in 2003, throwback jerseys by Mitchell & Ness were in fashion with hip-hop celebrities and the urban-wear scene. The vice president of marketing at that time, Reuben Harley, was the Mitchell & Ness front man, placing its jerseys with the likes of rappers Sean "Diddy" Combs, Fabulous and Eve.
Sales exploded, topping out at $35 million in 2003. In comparison, the company had $2 million in sales in 2000. But all fads wane, and, by 2005, Mitchell & Ness sales had fallen to $15 million. Last year, sales bumped higher, to $18 million.
(Harley left the company last February to start R Harley, his own clothing line, which he sells at Joan Shepp in Philadelphia, Fusion Denim, and a dozen other stores nationwide.)
After reorganizing the company during 2006, McKinney and Capolino plan to leverage the brand with the following strategy:
A new, three-year agreement with Nike and Michael Jordan will allow Mitchell & Ness to launch a licensed Michael Jordan apparel line. As part of the line's launch in Las Vegas on Jordan's birthday, Saturday, the company was expected to host a VIP post-game party last night at the Palms Casino Resort's Ghost Bar.
An exclusive, three-year deal with Fames, a Japanese sports apparel specialty retailer with three locations in Tokyo, allows Fames to design, manufacture and distribute Mitchell & Ness-brand merchandise in Korea, China and Japan. Fames began carrying Mitchell & Ness merchandise in 2006. In May, it is slated to open a Mitchell & Ness flagship store in Shibuya, a shopping and entertainment district in Tokyo.
A two-year license agreement with the Dallas Cowboys will allow Mitchell & Ness to sell a licensed Cowboys jersey line starting in September.
Capolino and McKinney expect Cowboys apparel to be a demand item, not the target of ire for rabid Philadelphia Eagles fans. Capolino recalled that Mitchell & Ness bought up a slew of Terrell Owens Cowboy jerseys when Owens was signed by Dallas in early 2006. "For a period of three to five weeks, it was the best-selling jersey in our store," he said.
Mitchell & Ness throwback jerseys are not for the thrifty. League jerseys can range from $225 to $350; wool jackets can run from $400 to $575; and fleece and sweat suits retail for $90 to $150.
"Our goal is to maintain our premium position in the market," McKinney said. "However, we want our brand to be more accessible to a wider range of consumers."
To that end, the company acquired additional licenses from Major League Baseball and the National Football League to produce T-shirts, fleece and outerwear. With the prices of those items to range from $30 to $125, Mitchell & Ness is hoping to reach customers who couldn't afford a collector's item.
Mitchell & Ness was founded in 1904 by Frank Mitchell and Charles Ness. In addition to selling sporting goods, the company made uniforms for local baseball and football teams.
In 1917, Mitchell and Ness hired Sisto (Jimmy) Capolino, Peter Capolino's father, to sweep floors. Eighteen years later, Jimmy Capolino became store manager, and in 1952, when Mitchell & Ness was manufacturing uniforms for both high school and professional teams, Jimmy Capolino purchased the store and brought Peter into the business.
After his father died in 1978, Peter Capolino became sole owner. Ten years later, he moved the company into manufacturing authentic vintage sportswear, renaming it Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co., to pursue an idea generated by a customer's request to repair vintage game-worn baseball uniforms.
Despite all those years of experience, Capolino recognized that his company needed skills he did not have. Reuben Harley brought some of that, and now so has McKinney.
"I knew that, even though Sean was a young man, he was an integral part of a group that helped to build a very small streetwear company into a significant national organization until it got sold," Capolino, 62, said. And1 was bought by American Sporting Goods in May 2005.
Mitchell & Ness now faces stiffer competition. "Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Nordica, Izod and Lacoste - all the giants awakened to the fact that there is a category here that can be exploited and that young people are buying into," Capolino said.
While Harley was the "face" of Mitchell & Ness during his tenure, "Sean is managing the entire company," Capolino said.
The reorganization of the company last year involved both hirings and firings. McKinney hired a new chief financial officer and 25 sales representatives to help the firm expand its U.S. distribution via both fashion and fan-centric specialty independent retailers. But Capolino said he also "let go" five of the 10 employees who had worked for him since 1983. Mitchell & Ness employs 35 to 55 people depending on the season.
Mitchell & Ness also added outside contract designers for some of its branded clothing. "For the first time, we actually have full-time employees overseas in Korea and Taiwan" to ensure quality control and timeliness of deliveries, Capolino said.
With the company poised for growth, Capolino said he didn't want it to grow too fast. "If we grow at 12 to 20 percent for the next year or two, I think we'll be very successful," he said.