How One of Milwaukee’s Few-Remaining Leather Goods Makers Became a Worldwide Force

Get to know Milwaukee’s three-person luxury leather factory

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Eleven years ago, Dave Mitchell walked into what was left of his father’s leather business. The sewing machines sat empty. Mitchell Leather was defunct in everything but name.

In 1965, his grandfather, Leo, and his father, Jerry, had fled USSR-controlled Romania for Milwaukee, where they eventually started Mitchell Leather, which came to specialize in briefcases.

Now, with Jerry suffering dementia, Dave stood amid the abandoned equipment and thought about what a shame it would be to sell all this off. He had an idea. What if he switched the business’ whole direction? Ditch mass manufacturing and go bespoke. Each briefcase, each wallet, each belt would be personally hand-crafted, based on Jerry’s expert design.

So instead of selling the equipment, he started it up again, this time with only three employees – Dave, his mother, Bernadette, and his girlfriend, Lisa.

“The first few years were tough,” he says. But then, without warning, dozens of orders came in at once. It turned out someone had posted a review of a Mitchell briefcase online. Word spread fast, reaching people in Singapore, Australia, the UK. In a few years, Dave went from searching for customers to giving them a year-and-a-half wait for one of his briefcases.

Four years ago, he moved the business to an old post office in Thiensville. Racks overflow with leather, and the sturdy old sewing machines are still going strong. Mitchell Leather is alive again. And Jerry’s words hang framed on the wall: “If you’re going to make something, why not make it the best?”


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s April issue. 

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