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.

After her divorce from Ben Schultz, a designer for Time-Life Books, she married Ortenberg in 1957. Besides Ortenberg, survivors include a son from her first marriage, Alexander G. Schultz of Los Angeles and Germany; two stepchildren, Neil Ortenberg of New York and Nancy Ortenberg of Oak Park, Ill.; a brother; and a grandson.

While raising a family, in 1960 she began a 15-year career as chief designer for Youth Guild, the junior dress division of Jonathan Logan, where she spent years unsuccessfully trying to convince top executives that there was a need for mix-and-match coordinated sportswear that would appeal to the growing numbers of women like herself who were not content to stay at home.

Ms. Claiborne started her business with $50,000 in personal savings and $200,000 from family, friends and business associates. She took the leading design and business role in the company; her husband became secretary and treasurer. A friend, Leonard Boxer, handled production, and another, Jerome Chazen (who later succeeded Ms. Claiborne as chairman), focused on marketing.

With their years of expertise and connections, the founding partners and the company more than made back their investments within a year. She said she recognized early on the importance of pricing well.

"We don't do the design and then add the cost of producing and selling," she told Esquire. "We do a sample, and then we think -- I think -- if I was going to wear this to my job, how much would I pay for it? Then we try to keep the cost to that."

In 1981, the firm went public, and Ms. Claiborne began to receive acclaim from the business community for the way it seemed to weather the rough economic patterns of the fashion industry. The company attracted an enormous number of investors, prompting the stock to split within two years.

"The Liz lady still works for a living," she told Forbes at the time, using her common term for customers. "She hasn't been laid off from her executive job, and she needs and buys clothing. So, stores are still planning big increases [in orders for Claiborne designs] . . . despite all the doom and gloom."

Ms. Claiborne was credited with much of the management success. She oversaw a business model that was meant to react quickly to customer advice and complaints. She insisted on store displays that could appeal to the customer's imagination and did not require a salesperson's guidance.

Meanwhile, she produced many new lines of fashion each year to expedite inventory turnover. She also instituted a computerized inventory system to better track sales in all the stores. (She found that clothing targeting girls 5 to 12 did not succeed.)

Before she retired from daily operations in 1989, Ms. Claiborne introduced new lines of dresses and petite sportswear. She also bought the Kaiser-Roth, which produced Liz Claiborne-brand handbags, scarves, gloves, belts and hats. The merchandise was sold at Liz Claiborne boutiques within department stores as well as a retail chain called First Issue, a chief competitor to the Gap and Banana Republic.

She negotiated with Avon Products to create a Liz Claiborne perfume that sold well, but the deal ended in a legal settlement in 1988.

Ms. Claiborne was known for her trademark large, dark-rimmed glasses and a preference for comfortable pants over dresses. At company meetings, she controlled the proceedings by ringing a glass bell. She also had employees listed alphabetically in the company phone directory, not according to rank.

She and her husband started a foundation that has distributed millions of dollars to support environmental causes, such as creating bird sanctuaries and funding the "Nature" series on public television. In addition to two homes in New York, she and her husband owned a large property near Missoula, Mont.

The company, whose brands include Ellen Tracy, Dana Buchman and Juicy Couture, recorded nearly $5 billion in sales last year.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company