NEW YORK -- Liz Claiborne Inc., as expected, reported earnings skidded 71.3 percent in the fourth quarter and 42 percent in the year ended Dec. 31, and said it anticipates 1994 to be year of rebuilding.

"Without a doubt, 1993 was the toughest year we've ever had," said Jerome A. Chazen, Claiborne's chairman.

Looking ahead, Chazen said that "at least for the first half of 1994, we anticipate a continuation of the difficult market we have all been confronted with in 1993. On the whole, we view 1994 as a year of rebuilding and restructuring."

The earnings results were in line with projections given in October, when the company released third-quarter results. On the New York Stock Exchange, the firm's stock closed at 20 1/2, up 1/8.

In the fourth quarter, earnings fell to $14.9 million, or 19 cents a share, from $52 million, or 63 cents, a year earlier. Sales eased 0.4 percent to $544.1 million from $546.5 million.

For the year, profits totaled $126.9 million, or $1.56, with the help of a $1.6 million accounting gain. In 1992, the company earned $218.8 million, or $2.61. Sales inched ahead 0.5 percent to $2.2 billion from $2.19 billion.

Samuel M. Miller, senior vice president of finance, blamed the profit decline in 1993 on poor demand for apparel at retail, particularly in the latter part of the year. "The original buying plans of our retail customers, for which we had planned higher merchandise receipts, were reduced substantially for the second half of the year as a result of the overall weakness in demand for women's apparel at retail," Miller said. "This resulted in lower than anticipated regular price bookings, leaving us with considerable excess inventory, the majority of which was liquidated at distressed prices during 1993."

Miller also said earnings were hurt by margin pressure at the company's retail and outlet businesses, various start-up costs for the The Villager, Russ and Crazy Horse lines acquired from Russ Togs Inc., and delayed shipments of the Spring I season merchandise into 1994.

Miller pointed out that the company was able to earn a respectable 6 percent after-tax profit margin in 1993, though that was sharply down from 10 percent attained in 1992. The company's goals in 1994 are to shorten its production cycle by 25 percent and improve its gross margins.Miller noted that the company has reached its goals of selling more goods at regular prices each season since holiday. "It has gotten progressively better," Miller said.

Chazen cited a product turnaround in the dress and men's wear divisions, continuing strong results at the Dana Buchman bridge line, and expansion at its First Issue retail chain as "areas for potential growth and profit improvement."

Other growth areas cited by Chazen include new distribution channels stemming from the acquisition of the moderate-priced lines of The Villager, Russ and Crazy Horse, as well as international markets.

Laurence C. Leeds Jr., an analyst at Buckingham Research, said the company's big problem continues to be its core women's sportswear line, but he sees improvement in the second half of this year.

"They still have a lot of work ahead of them. But I think they're going to have a better year in 1994." Leeds said.

Claiborne noted that it has purchased 11.6 million of its shares at a cost of $348 million under a $350 million program started in late 1989. Additional buy-backs will depend on Claiborne's board of directors.

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