Tailor-made for the job: Condoleo celebrates 50 years at Mitchells
The powerful men in their luxurious offices were what intimidated Dominic Condoleo most when he'd perform a fitting on them for their suits. The clients were wealthy and at the top of the corporate ladder. Condoleo was then an Italian immigrant in his early 20s trying to get his head around the English language.
When he'd walk in these offices, he'd feel small and insignificant. As he became more experienced, that nervousness eventually began to dissipate.
"I saw that they don't talk down to you," he said. "They talk to you eye-to-eye."
That was 50 years ago and Condoleo had just started his career at what's now known as Mitchells of Westport, the family-owned and operated high-end clothing store that first opened its doors in 1958.
Since that time when he was a nervous young man in the company of important businessmen, the retailer has since changed its name, moved from several locations and recently expanded to the west coast. The stock of clothing has also grown from the mere three suits that once comprised the entire inventory. Condoleo has been working at the company through all those changes, and although he's 69 years old, he has no plans to retire just yet.
The lengthy career started simply enough, with a hug and a few words of encouragement from Ed Mitchell, the founder of the store who passed away in 2004.
When he was 19, Condoleo began working part-time at the store as a tailor, so he had little interaction with customers and instead focused on making the clothing fit just right. Things had been going well enough for several years, but in 1963 or 1964 (Condoleo isn't sure when), he got in an argument with one of the managers. Fed up, he told Ed Mitchell that he was going to quit.
"Don't do anything until tomorrow morning," Ed Mitchell said, Condoleo remembered.
Condoleo listened since he respected him greatly, but he was uncertain if the situation could be diffused. The next day, the manager he had argued with was gone. Ed Mitchell came over and put his hands on Condeoleo's shoulders.
"Domenic," he said, "you're not going anywhere."
Sure enough, he offered Condoleo, the poor Italian guy with hardly a cent to his name, the former manager's position.
"He must have seen something in me that I didn't see," Condoleo said, with his Italian accent permeating through his softly spoken words.
The American dream
Condoleo was raised in a small town in the Calabria region in Southern Italy, where practically everybody knew everyone else. His father, who passed away when Condoleo was four, became a naturalized U.S. citizen after he lived in the states for decades. Condoleo grew up not knowing that he could move to the U.S until a Rhode Island couple who had immigrated to the area informed him of what his citizenship entailed. The only problem was that he'd have to move to the U.S. within a year or he'd lose his dual citizenship.
"In the 1950s and 1960s, coming to America was a dream everybody had," he said.
He had plans for his life in Italy, but within six months, the 17-year-old boarded a ship to New York City. He didn't speak English and had few connections aside from some distant relatives who picked him up when the ship landed in the port. Without any money, he managed to land a job in a Norwalk factory making bedtime slippers.
At the beginning, he said, it was a miserable experience.
"I didn't know anybody. I didn't speak the language. I didn't have any friends," he said. "If I had the money, I would have bought a ticket to go back, but I didn't have any money."
He was making $27 a week at the factory, and most of that was going back home to his mother, who had to borrow the money to pay for her son's voyage. Instead of the hearty Italian food that his mother used to cook, Condoleo was now subsisting on sandwiches and McDonald's.
After a couple of years, things were getting better. His English improved, he was making friends and when he was at Mitchells, he began making money. The transition wasn't exactly flawless once he branched out of tailoring and into fitting.
"I had a lot of screw ups in the beginning, and [the Mitchells] knew that," Condoleo said. "They said, `Don't worry, don't worry, you'll get it, you'll get it.'"
Now Condoleo understands what it takes to fit a person for a suit. Everything has to be considered, such as the dimensions of the person's shoulders to their mannerisms and body language.
"You have to be a kind of psychiatrist," Condoleo noted. "You have to know what they want and be a step ahead of them."
Strong work ethic
Now, 17 tailors work under Condoleo and he still performs fittings for powerful people in search of a perfectly-tailored suit.
Bill Mitchell, the son of the man who gave Condoleo his start by promoting him, speaks highly of Condoleo, referring to him as "the most important person we have." On Saturday, a reception will be held in the store with Italian food and wine to celebrate Condoleo's 50 years at Mitchells.
"Mitchells would not be as successful as it is today without Domenic," Bill Mitchell said. "Not only is he an incredible tailor, he also is a top-notch manager and a great sales person. He has a personality that makes people gravitate toward him."
Once in a while, when Condoleo is working in the store, a young person will go up and say, "Hi, Domenic."
"They ask me if I know who they are and I say, `No,'" Condoleo said. "Then they tell me I used to fit their father."
The half-century has flown by. Condoleo likened it to being on a raft floating down a raging river -- there's no time to look behind the raft, or even to the side -- one just has to keep focused on what's ahead.
"It went so quickly because we were always busy," he said. "There never was a boring moment."
It's a rewarding experience, and he said he truly looks forward to going to work when he wakes up in the morning. He typically takes a three-week vacation to visit family in Italy during the summer, but he starts yearning for work after two weeks. Of course, he doesn't tell his relatives that.
Lately, after two knee replacements, Condoleo said he has been "stuck between my brain and my body." His mind tells him to keep on going and doing the work he loves.
"My body says you need to slow down," he said. "I'm trying to see who is right."