NEW YORK — If the name Liz Claiborne has more to do with the $3.7 billion corporation representing some 30 brands today than its signature sportswear line, then Liz Claiborne — the woman —?has even less to do with the firm she helped found.
Since retiring from the business some 14 years ago, Claiborne spends her time far from the corporate workings of Seventh Avenue. She and husband Art Ortenberg are more concerned with conservation issues and the preservation of wildlife and wetlands. Most recently, they’ve dedicated themselves to helping save elephants in Africa and the Congo forests, and protecting penguins in Patagonia, sea mammals along the South American coastline and jaguars in South and Central America.
Claiborne, 73, was in town recently to present her friend and former colleague Dana Buchman with CancerCare’s distinguished Fashion Leadership Award at the organization’s 20th Human Services Dinner. Always outspoken, Claiborne has often commiserated about issues as diverse as women’s roles in the industry and chargebacks and, during an interview last week, she expounded on a wide range of topics from fashion to the business today.
WWD: What have you been up to lately?
Claiborne: We have a foundation called the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation, which is really dedicated to conservation issues, wildlife, the wildlands they depend on. We work internationally and a great deal in the West. We have a ranch in Montana and got very involved in the Montana conservation and the whole interior west. We live there for four months of the year, in New York for a couple months and we have a house in St. Barth’s. It’s not a bad life.
WWD: How did it come about that you came to town to honor Dana Buchman?
Claiborne: I’m delighted for two reasons to help CancerCare. I’m a cancer patient and I have survived — so far, so good — and am still having treatments. But I’m also delighted to be giving this honor to Dana. She’s one of my favorite people and she’s as great a person as she is a designer.WWD: What’s your relationship to the industry now, if any?
Claiborne: I still love fashion, but I have nothing to do with it. But I can’t help loving fashion and following fashion. My favorite designers today are probably Ralph Lauren because of his classical approach and Calvin Klein, but I like a lot of people. I also like Emporio Armani, it’s great and I get all my jeans there and jackets.
WWD: Do you miss the business at all?
Claiborne: I just keep saying, ‘Thank God, we’re out of it.’ I gather it’s not the fun it used to be. You don’t have the personal relationships we used to have with buyers and merchandise managers of stores. There used to be an exchange of ideas. You could talk to people and it wasn’t just about the bottom line and guided by dollars. It sounds like a lot of fun has been taken out of it, but Dana still likes traveling the country and meeting the customers, and having personal relationships with the customers, as I did.
WWD: How do you feel about the closing of the Liz Claiborne stores, such as the one on Fifth Avenue?
Claiborne: Our office happens to be above the ex-Liz Claiborne store and now it’s being dismantled. In a way, I’m glad and in a way, I’m sad that they couldn’t make it on Fifth Avenue. They’ve diversified into many labels and that’s great, but maybe I would have done things differently with the original label. They’re catering to, perhaps, a [certain] audience. I’m 73, I love fashion; obviously, I’m not going to wear what an 18-year-old wears, but I still want to be in fashion. Most women do. But as a whole, it sounds like the business has done fairly well in these days.
WWD: Did you ever imagine that your name would be the name of one of the most important, biggest companies in the apparel industry?Claiborne: That’s something I’m afraid I’m going to have to live with. In the United States, there’s no way of ever getting your name back. The company was pretty huge the last few years I was there and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to leave. Well, I’m not really Liz Claiborne anymore, I’m Liz Ortenberg. But I enjoyed the company very, very much and I appreciate the fact that it made it possible for us to have a foundation and live the kind of life we’re living.
WWD: What issues is your foundation working on right now?
Claiborne: Helping with elephants in Africa, helping save some of the Congo forests which would help the wildlife, the chimpanzees in East Africa. We work on Patagonia to help with the penguins and along the coastline, [where] many of the sea mammals are suffering. The birds and the fish are suffering. We never concentrate on one issue. It’s basically to help wildlife and as a result of that, help the land. In general, we’re helping to protect jaguars in South and Central America. It all depends on what comes up.
WWD: Do you think you had an advantage when you started Liz Claiborne, in terms of being perceived as new?
Claiborne: We started at the right time when women were flooding the workforce and working clothes for women were an echo of working clothes for men. But there weren’t any sportier, looser lines. Today, sort of anything goes. There’s not that kind of niche that we had the opportunity to fill. The business then was different and it gave us the opportunity to start a company. Buyers knew who I was and they could come to me, and Art, my husband, was well known in the textile business and he knew bankers, etc. Today, it would be much more difficult and we didn’t need that much cash up front — we started with $250,000. In 1976, things were much different.
WWD: You said you still love fashion. Do you still go to fashion shows?Claiborne: No, but in the spring and fall I do go shopping along Madison Avenue and whatever I see in magazines, I follow up on that. But I shop everywhere, Gap, Banana, H&M. I happen to be wearing an H&M denim jacket today. That’s one of my favorite designers.
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