Is Liz Claiborne for real?

The woman whose name adorns one of the most popular and profitable fashion labels in the country was in Washington recently and said some remarkably undesignerlike things about herself and her clothes.

Just listen:

*She doesn't claim to have invented anything in fashion: "We are not leaders; I make no pretention about that. We are followers."

*She's not sure how big her business is: Maybe $400 million wholesale, she says. ("My partners tease me that I have a little trouble with the zeros.") In fact, the business is more than $500 million wholesale and generating more than a billion dollars in retail sales.

*She shares the company's success record with others: "The business relies totally on the cooperation of four people who are all, well, experts in their fields." After listing textiles, production and marketing, the last thing she mentions is her expertise, the designs.

*She takes no credit for any of the current designs: She says she "edits" the sketches of nine designers creating for all the Liz Claiborne divisions. In fact, she says, she sometimes has trouble selling her own ideas to her design team.

Last season, for example, she felt strongly there should be a running suit under the Liz Claiborne label. None of the Claiborne designers agreed, so Claiborne, for the first time in a year, picked up a pencil and made a sketch of the outfit she wanted. The Claiborne showroom kept referring to it as "Liz's outfit," and Claiborne was clearly nervous about how it would sell.

The buyers liked it and so did the customers. "In fact, it was fabulous . . . Thank God," she adds with a big grin.

The grin, the helmet of black hair, the oversized glasses are Claiborne signatures, easily spotted by the enthusiastic crowd at the spanking new downtown Hecht's before a show of her latest designs.

Claiborne is wearing a white silk shirt with epaulets and white twill jodhpurs, a cut apart from the admiring crowd, many in silk dresses. This is her crowd, though, the women who buy her clothes and for whom they are targeted.

"Working women really don't have too much time . . . we all know that. And they hate to shop; it's a chore," Claiborne says. "They like to go to a store, and get it over with and be happy with the clothes."

The working woman, in Washington and elsewhere, "doesn't like to stand out in a crowd, but she likes to be secure in the sense of fashion without being dressed too classically. She wants to be feminine," says Claiborne. "And she wants help in putting her look together. That's the thing that amazed me the most."

While her dress collection may be one of the fastest growing segments of her business, her label is most popular in sportswear separates. That makes good sense, Claiborne says, for both the designer and the customer. A woman can put an outfit together in an individual way not only in terms of the total look but also "sizewise. She may be an 8 on top and a 10 bottom -- and some are lucky and are vice versa, but you can pick your sizes and fit yourself better without alterations. Nobody wants to bother with that anymore."

Certain styles in each collections she pegs "everybodies," things that just about everyone can relate to. Then there are variations on the newer styles, introduced simply, in a few colors, that nudge women to experiment. But, the "everybodies" far outsell the others.

She listens to what store buyers say their customers want and keeps 12 women traveling to speak to customers directly. And she watches closely what other designers are doing -- particularly those in Paris -- to sense and generally reinterpret the avant-garde trends.

She's a bit nervous about the current pet trend of big Paris designers like Azzedine Alaia and Thierry Mugler that includes super-skinny, short skirts. "We're certainly not going to do an Azzedine or Mugler jersey dress that shows off every curve," says Claiborne, but concedes, "You can get the same message across that clothes are getting closer to the body in other ways." Like the Donna Karan bodysuit that Claiborne says she has tried on herself: "It is cut beautifully and doesn't reveal all that much."

She's pleased that the working woman is making more adventuresome choices. "I'm amazed that in the last year women are getting less conservative. It's fabulous. Even in Washington." Sales at Hecht's and elsewhere, she says, show Washington women venturing away from the expected navy blue or gray flannel suits and even wearing dresses to work.

"I think they have a great deal more self-confidence, and they don't mind looking like women. Five years ago, you know what they wanted to look like. They walked into a board room and wanted to fade into whatever else was sitting around." Now, because of their success in business, they are willing to look more feminine.

But she's concerned that some of the new clothes have gotten too sexy -- even some of her own are simply not right for the office. "Fashionwise, the paper-on-the-wall, glued-on clothing can be a little coarse and inappropriate for the office. Primarily, we make clothes to go to work in and then to relax in."

But she won't be quick to give up the look of padded shoulders now slipping out of favor in Paris and elsewhere. "Our customers have just gotten into them, and they feel good about them."

And she's trying to persuade women to wear short skirts again, but so far, without much success. "American women have a love affair with long skirts, and so it's going to be difficult to get them out of that look." There was a "flirtation" with short skirts last summer, but what is selling, for the moment at least, is long skirts, she says.

Short skirts may return next spring, but not in the same way as in decades past, insists Claiborne. Women don't want to be looked at in the same way anymore.

"That was a whole era and you never go back the same way. People who try to bring it back the same way are people making a mistake, because it doesn't look right. Even the yum-yums who can get away with it in the summer with tan legs, even they are not into that really thigh-high-you-can-barely-sit-on-it look in a skirt . They'd rather wear shorts."

Of course, some things never go away. Like jeans and denim, she says. "Call them jeans, dungarees, 501s -- it's a healthy reminder that we, in the United States, will never again give up casual American clothes. It's part of our American heritage, and we do it better than anybody. Sometimes we just need the stamp of approval from Paris to bring it back."

When you like to draw and love to sew -- well, what else do you do but become a designer," laughs Claiborne. "I always knew I would be a designer."

She was born in Brussels. Her parents were from New Orleans but lived in Europe during Liz Claiborne's childhood, then came back to New Orleans, New Jersey, Baltimore. "We traveled a lot."

Being raised in Europe made a huge difference. "You get a different exposure and a different upbringing. Even though both my parents were from New Orleans, as I said, they really had a European attitude. We were taught to notice how things look. My father loved painting. You care about everything. About what's brought to the table. The look of things is as important as their function."

There were strict rules for personal appearance as well. Explains Claiborne, "You were also told, very clearly, what you wear and what you don't wear, what colors look well on you. You may disagree with what they thought, but they made those decisions."

Her short hair is a reaction to all that, she says. "One of the things my parents were adamant about was long hair." Her hair was waist-length when she applied for her first job. Once hired, as a strike for independence, she cut it off. She discovered the designer had hired her as much to model as to assist in design and loved her long hair. "She made me wear a bun at the back of my head," Claiborne adds with a Cheshire grin.

Claiborne's father was a banker, her mother, "an ordinary housewife" who sewed beautifully "and still does." It was her mother, Claiborne says, who taught her to sew at an early age.

She studied fine arts because her father frowned on her going into business or fashion and "really had hopes of my becoming a painter, which I knew I was not going to be. But I went along. I'm glad I had that training, too, because it 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. I then crammed and took pattern-making courses at night."

Her first job was at Tina Leser as a sketcher and model. It was a good place to launch a fashion career, she says. "She Leser was always a person with so much imagination and so unconventional in the clothing business. She had very definite ideas about how you constructed clothes and ruled with an iron fist, but she recognized talent and was fun to work with. Then I went around trying to find out what I really liked. My next job was with a very high-priced firm on Seventh Avenue."

Then she moved around. From Ben Rieg, who made beautifully-tailored clothes, she became Omar Kiam's assistant, not during his Hollywood period, but while he designed on Seventh Avenue. There was a stint doing jewelry design, then classic, preppy "Peter Pan collars and so on" in the early '60s.

By that time she decided that sportswear was what she wanted to design "but something snappier than the ordinary." She signed on with a junior-sportswear company. "I was in the backroom, you know, hidden as the second designer."

She moved on to Youthguild, but it was only after 15 years in the back room there that she started to grumble that it might be nice to see her name on the label. "I was never that interested in seeing my name," she confesses. Now she sees her name everywhere.

The label, Liz Claiborne -- that's her maiden name -- started 10 years ago this January as a partnership with her husband, Arthur Ortenberg plus marketing pro Jerry Chazen and production expert Leonard Boxer. The usual designer ego never quite developed.

"It was a second marriage for both Art and me, with children from both marriages," says Claiborne, and "I needed the work . . . we had a family to support. But really I loved what I was doing. Oh, I had friends who were designers and much more publicity-minded, egocentric, and I enjoyed them, but they lived an entirely different life than I did."

Today, she can live any life she wants. She and her husband have a house on Fire Island, N.Y., a new home in St. Barts. "We like to travel, but we don't have enough time. We certainly enjoy being able to help our children, doing things like that, but we really hope to get time to travel . . . I want to see Africa, New Zealand. I want to climb the Tibetan mountains."

She raises her eyebrows at the suggestion such travel might inspire clothing design. "NO! I want to see how people live -- the scenery, the animals. I love nature. I just would like to experience it."

Besides, she has those other designers to worry about the Liz Claiborne clothes.

She has plenty of travel that is strictly business. Just days after the Washington visit, Claiborne took off for the Far East, where much of the Claiborne clothing is manufactured. She checked factories in Hong Kong and Shanghai and opened a Shanghai office for the Claiborne line. She has made similar trips to the Philippines, Korea and Taiwan but has yet to see the factories in Israel, Central America and the Caribbean where her clothes are also produced. That will come.

It's not just the lower price of manufacturing overseas that makes it so appealing, she says, but the superior quality as well. "In all honesty there are certainly things not made well here; we don't have the 'hands' for it. It takes a certain expertise and patience, for example, to work in silk or fine-filament fabrics like polyester georgette or rayons."

The current publicity being pushed by "textile people here is misleading," she says slowly, carefully measuring her words. "I don't think that this country has kept up in the textile areas as it should have to be competitive. The Japanese are master copiers; the Europeans continue to develop a vast range of textiles, while the United States has been cutting back, not modernizing machinery, not making an effort to offer a variety of fabrics." When she orders a fabric from an American mill she must order 9,000 yards per pattern, she says; in the Orient she need only order 1,000 yards of each pattern.

Clothing manufacture is impractical in the United States today, she says. "It's labor intensive, and we don't have that kind of labor. It becomes too expensive. Sewing machines are the simplest machines to run. It is natural for emerging nations to latch on to this kind of production.

Money used to attack imports would be better spent on retraining and rechanneling people, an effort she supports with the same vigilance and energy she gives to her own business. She and her husband are currently working on development projects with universities in both North and South Carolina, the heart of the U.S. textile industry, to modernize textile production "not just to keep the factories running but in terms of what the consumer wants."

The Liz Claiborne Foundation has funded a $100,000 study at the business school of the University of South Carolina to consider the effects of technological innovation on employment and to develop a program directed at retraining factory personel as the industry modernizes. A grant for $25,000 has been given the University of North Carolina to start a similar study.

There's more. The company is helping create a factory in New York's Chinatown, says Ortenberg,"under the aegis of one of our top Hong Kong manufacturers to set up a prototypical modern stitching facility" in the U.S. Just as important, the Claiborne company will guarantee it continuous work with the most modern technical and administrative techniques available.

"The point is to demonstrate that with the Hong Kong mind set and continuing involvement on our part, it will be possible for the United States to be competitive with high-quality work produced in the United States."

"It is a small and experimental effort," says Claiborne, "but if we concentrate, maybe we can make a difference."

With Liz Claiborne behind it, it undoubtedly will.