Liz Claiborne, 78; Fashion Industry Icon

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 28, 2007

Liz Claiborne, 78, an American fashion designer who built a billion-dollar apparel enterprise by clothing career women in stylish but casual outfits at moderate prices, died June 26 at New York Presbyterian Hospital. She had cancer.

With the backing of a handful of investors, she and her second husband, design executive Arthur Ortenberg, formed Liz Claiborne Inc. in 1976. An immediate hit, the business broke within a decade into Fortune magazine's list of the 500 largest companies in the United States. Her company was the first started by a woman to make the prestigious list.

A working mother much of her career, Ms. Claiborne spent years frustrated at her former employer's inability to sense the emerging number of women moving into the work force and wanted an alternative to the dreary business suit.

A gifted designer, she imagined a mix-and-match collection of skirts, tunics, vests, cowl-neck sweaters, pleated skirts, peasant blouses, ponchos, shirt jackets and culottes, offering a variety of interchangeable possibilities suitable for the office or casual night out.

She told an interviewer that because "every working woman wasn't ending up in the boardroom or aspiring to that" her approach was "to dress the women who didn't have to wear suits -- the teachers, the doctors, the women working in Southern California or Florida, the women in the fashion industry itself."

Anne Elisabeth Jane Claiborne was born March 31, 1929, in Brussels, where her American parents had settled. She came from a prominent Louisiana family. One of her ancestors, William C.C. Claiborne, governed the state during the War of 1812. Her father had been a New Orleans banker.

Ms. Claiborne attributed her fluency in French, which she learned before English, and her facility for European culture to those early years in Belgium. She once said that constant visits to museums and cathedrals -- as well as her mother's insistence on immaculate grooming -- left her with one lasting principle: "The look of things is as important as their function."

"Europeans have a more careful sense of the visual than Americans," she told Esquire magazine in 1986. "Americans might put a paper carton of milk on the table. Europeans would pour the milk into a pitcher and put the pitcher on the table."

She moved to New Orleans in 1939, at the start of the Nazi advance across Europe, but returned to Belgium and then France after the war to study painting in art school. She had never finished high school, because of her father's insistence that a formal education was unnecessary.

She said that she aspired to become an artist mostly at her father's behest and that she recognized early her limitations in the field. But, she once told The Washington Post, her training "taught me to see. It taught me color, proportion, and many other things that I don't think I would have learned in design school."

As she began to study pattern-making at night, she found that she enjoyed the creativity of sewing and decided to enter the fashion trade. She found early recognition after winning a design contest sponsored by Harper's Bazaar magazine and soon moved to New York's Garment District to start her career.

She worked as a sketcher and sometime model for the sportswear design house of Tina Leser before doing design work for the Juniorite line, the firm of Dan Keller and Rhea Manufacturing of Milwaukee, where she met her second husband.

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