Fashion designer Liz Claiborne revolutionized the way working women put together their wardrobes because she was one of them. She made it easy for them as they pioneered up corporate ladders in the 1970s and 1980s, offering coordinated outfits at once serious and stylish, but also affordable. Claiborne died Tuesday at the New York Presbyterian Hospital after suffering from cancer for a number of years, said Gwen Satterfield, personal assistant to Claiborne. She was 78.
With husband Art Ortenberg and partners Leonard Boxer and Jerome Chazen, Claiborne launched her label in 1976 after working for years as a relatively unknown dress designer. The brand emphasized ensemble sportswear, quality and keeping the price tag below that of other designers. Liz Claiborne and her husband retired from the day-to-day operations in 1989.
The new approach to dressing revolutionized the department store industry, which had focused on stocking pants in one department and skirts in another.
“It’s what the working woman needed,” said Joanne Arbuckle, chairwoman of the art and design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Her coordinated pieces - you went from the turtleneck to sweater to pants to the socks. It’s like what Gap did for kids, and she did it beautifully.”
The clothes became an instant hit, and the company went public in 1981. By 1985, Liz Claiborne Inc. was the first company founded by a woman to be listed in the Fortune 500, according to the company’s Web site.
As the company grew, the designer expanded her offerings to include more casual clothes and also popular licensed accessories. Her handbags with the triangular Liz Claiborne logo and taupe trim were fixtures on the arms of both high school girls and their mothers in the 1980s.
“She was proof that licensing could be done well,” Arbuckle said.
She soon entered the bridge market with Dana Buchman, who had been a designer under Claiborne, just the beginning of her company’s vast diversification: Brands like Ellen Tracy, Kate Spade, and Juicy Couture, helped to generate sales of almost $5 billion last year. In May, the company acquired the high-end design firm of Narcisco Rodriguez.
“The concept was to dress the American working woman because I, as a working woman with a child (from her previous marriage) didn’t want to spend hours shopping. Things should be easy. You don’t have to dress in that little navy blue suit with a tie,” Claiborne told trade paper Women’s Wear Daily in 2006. “I wanted to dress her in sportier clothes and colors.”
Fashion designer Stan Herman, a former president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, said he felt as if he grew up with Claiborne in the fashion industry. He recalled the first time they met was at a fashion-themed lecture at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.
“She wasn’t `Liz Claiborne’ then, she was working for a dress company, Youth Guild, and she gave everyone a hard time for letting men get the best questions. I said, `It’s time you went into business by yourself.’”
He added: “She was tough but with soft knuckles.”
Elisabeth Claiborne was born March 31, 1929 in Brussels, Belgium. She moved to New York in the 1940s to pursue a career in fashion. She married Ortenberg in 1957 after divorcing her first husband, Ben Schultz. She and Schultz had a son, Alexander.
While Herman said that Anne Klein, a contemporary of Claiborne’s, is largely credited as the godmother of the American sportswear movement, Claiborne did it on a grander scale and brought it to the masses.
“She was perhaps the beginning of the great designer-stylists of our time,” Herman said. “She was a trained designer but, more than that, she had a vision of how women should dress. … She suddenly understood the shape of women and the emancipation of shape and the change of a woman’s shape.”
The CFDA gave her a design award in 1985 and then a humanitarian award in 2000. “She came back looking better than ever. She wore a black tuxedo and a fedora, and the dark glasses that were her signature,” Herman recalled.
Claiborne founded the Liz Claiborne Foundation in 1981 to serve as a center for charitable activities, focusing on ending domestic violence, and promoting economic self-sufficiency for women and positive development for girls.
After retiring, Claiborne and Ortenberg spent much of their time in Montana, where they owned a ranch near Helena, and supported numerous local charitable, civic and educational groups. They sponsored the Race to the Sky, a 350-mile sled-dog race, from 1991 to 1994. The following year they received the Governor’s Humanities Award for their financial support of causes such as the Montana Heritage Project.
Until her death, she was involved in the day-to-day activities of the Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation, dedicated to wildlife conservation.
Meanwhile, after Claiborne and Ortenberg left the company, Chazen became Liz Claiborne Inc.’s chairman in 1989.
Paul R. Charron succeeded Chazen in the mid-1990s, and spearheaded an aggressive campaign to acquire different labels to diversify beyond the company’s namesake brands, which struggled with increased competition.
Last November, Bill McComb joined the company as CEO, succeeding Charron, and is overhauling the business again to meet the demands of the consolidated department store industry.
“In losing Liz Claiborne, we have not only lost the founder of our company, but an inspirational woman who revolutionized the fashion industry 30 years ago,” said McComb in a statement. “Her commitment to style and design is ever present in our thinking and the way we work. We will remember Liz for her vision, her entrepreneurial spirit and her enduring compassion and generosity.”