By  on March 27, 2006

Sitting in her Broadway showroom this month, Dana Buchman reminisced about her first encounter with Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg in 1982. Buchman, then a designer at Ellen Tracy, was being interviewed by Claiborne for a design job in knitwear.

“I was nervous,” the designer recalled. “Liz was already so famous, and I really wanted the job. She offered me a cup of coffee, which I accepted, but my hand was shaking so much that I had to put it down.”

Much has changed for Buchman since those early jitters. In 1987, the designer started an eponymous bridge collection as part of the Liz Claiborne company, which began its brand diversification efforts with her label. By the mid-Nineties, the Dana Buchman brand had become one of the leaders in the bridge segment. The recent challenges of the bridge sector, which started losing steam when trends became more feminine and frilly and the contemporary area began to flourish, have had their impact on Dana Buchman. Industry sources now estimate the brand’s volume at $180 million annually, down from $230 million in the late Nineties.

Working at Liz Claiborne for more than two decades, Buchman witnessed many changes firsthand, from the retirement of her mentors Claiborne and Ortenberg in 1989 to the tenure of Paul Charron, who has transformed the Liz Claiborne business into a $4.85 billion conglomerate with a portfolio of 46 brands.

Buchman said she felt at home at Liz Claiborne practically from the day she set foot in the company, and that sentiment hasn’t changed through the years. A Memphis [Tenn.] native, Buchman said she immediately bonded with Claiborne, whom she considers a fellow Southerner (Claiborne was born in Brussels but raised in New Orleans). She said Claiborne and Ortenberg quickly became a “second family,” and the bond was strengthened on regular travels to the Far East.

“It was this heady, exciting, intense group,” she said of those trips. “Liz and Art were very intense. We all knew if you wanted eggs for breakfast, you had to go down early because they take so long, and Art always wanted to get to work quickly. But it was what I had always wanted — fashion, 24 hours a day.”Claiborne and Ortenberg took notice of Buchman’s talent and drive, and four-and-a-half years after poaching her from Ellen Tracy, they made the head knit designer and vice president of sportswear an offer she couldn’t refuse: to create a namesake collection under Liz Claiborne ownership. “We all thought Dana had the right taste level and the talent to do her own collection,” Claiborne told WWD at the time of the launch.

Buchman said she felt like Cinderella when Claiborne and Ortenberg made the offer.

“I started working on it in 1986, and we shipped the first collection in 1987,” the designer said. “To have my own collection was the fulfilment of all my dreams. It was also terrifying. Liz gave me the keys and told me to go for it. There were no strings attached, no looking over my shoulder — just good wishes and strong financial backing.”

For Claiborne, the Dana Buchman label represented the first venture outside of the Liz Claiborne moniker, offering an entry into the bridge market, which was beginning to heat up, without oversaturating the retail floors with the Claiborne name. By the mid-Nineties, the Buchman business had taken off and become one of the top bridge resources in department stores.

Buchman conceded that she was so accustomed to the Claiborne and Ortenberg way of conducting business — mixing fashion instinct with business acumen — that she was challenged to overcome her initial reservations regarding the regime change at Liz Claiborne.

Charron, who joined Claiborne in 1994 as vice chairman, chief operating officer and a director and became president and ceo in 1995, was a Harvard Business School graduate and had held executive positions at VF Corp. and Procter & Gamble. Buchman noted that the company’s principles became “more classic Harvard Business School.”

“At first, I was skeptical,” Buchman admitted. “When I first came to the garment center in the Seventies, most companies were run by designers and business partners who just lived and breathed clothes and made their decisions intuitively. Art and Liz would look at a sweater and know how big a seller it would be. Paul brought more general business practices to the company. When [management] changed, I had to learn to accept doing things in a different way by using classic business practices.She noted that Charron brought in “great new ideas, like leadership training, executive off-site meetings and the concept of ‘best practices,’ where one company looks at how another operates. He has also brought a lot of management training. Paul really understands the business, and I learned so much about the business side.

“That said, if Liz and Art were here now, they’d be running it like Paul,” she added. “You just do it differently now. I have actually enjoyed this phase. The world is also different now from when Art and Liz retired.”

Indeed, the bridge sector has become more challenging in recent years, owing to such factors as consolidation and closures of many major department store chains, and the casual fashion trend that has resulted in the rise of items and the decline of coordinates.

In recent seasons, Buchman has made a concerted effort to update her aesthetic, growing her denim division and adding trendier items to the line. Like Claiborne and Ortenberg, Charron gives her a creative carte blanche and supports her where necessary. “I still get the benefit of financial base, terrific shipping and operational expertise,” she said. “The company recognizes how important it is for the brand to have its own expression. Each brand brings something different to the company.”

The Buchman brand currently has five stores — New York; Las Vegas; Boca Raton and Palm Beach, Fla., and Scottsdale, Ariz. A store recently closed at the Americana Manhasset; at the time, executives said it didn’t fit in with the label’s current strategy.

Buchman said there is no competition between the bridge brands in the Claiborne portfolio, which includes Ellen Tracy and Laundry by Shelli Segal. Still, relations are cordial but everyone keeps business matters to themselves. “Ellen Tracy is the label that is closest to me, and [Ellen Tracy creative director] George Sharp and I are friends, but I don’t show up at his show or discuss fabrics with him,” she said.

As for the future, Buchman hopes to grow her business by opening more stores and possibly expanding the line to handbags, shoes and jewelry. But for now, her main focus remains clothing.“What hasn’t changed in all these years is how women still love the thrill of having something new,” Buchman said.

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