By  on February 12, 2009

Leonard Boxer, one of the founding partners of Liz Claiborne Inc., who pioneered the company’s overseas production as it grew into a sportswear powerhouse, died Wednesday at the Hospice of Palm Beach County, Fla. He was 86.

Boxer suffered a stroke three weeks ago, according to one of his sons, Steven.

Boxer was instrumental in setting up Claiborne’s factories in Asia, and the company was among the first to turn out high-value merchandise overseas.

In 1976, Boxer answered a classified ad in WWD seeking a production manager who had experience in quality goods and had money to invest in a start-up company.

“Len was among a number of respondents to the ad, and Liz [Claiborne] and I met with him in the restaurant around the corner from 1407 [Broadway],” said Art Ortenberg, co-founder of Claiborne, on Wednesday. “We sat in a small booth. Liz was transfixed, as was I, by the Prince of Wales check suit, mind you, top and bottom. He was a vision of taste. He was brought on at once.”

Boxer invested $25,000, the same amount Claiborne and Ortenberg each invested; they had raised $255,000. The company was incorporated in February 1976. Their fourth partner, Jerome Chazen, who was moonlighting at the company, joined in 1977.

Chazen recalled Wednesday how Boxer had virtually no overseas experience when he joined, but when the company decided to move all its production overseas, “he was the linchpin.”

“He set up the standards, and our quality was fabulous. That was all Leonard,” said Chazen.

“Liz and Len were the team that made the company in those days,” said Ortenberg. “They worked so respectfully with one another. Len was always doing his best to be Dr. Yes and Liz always doing her best to follow his guidelines.”

Boxer was also known for his gentle nature.

“He was a perfect gentleman, garment industry or not, and was not only respected, but loved by the factory owners we dealt with,” said Ortenberg. He recalled how Boxer once brought red Liz Claiborne caps for all the Taiwanese seamstresses working on Claiborne’s clothes to wear. “How proud they were and how proud we were when we visited the factories making our clothes,” said Ortenberg.

Dana Buchman, who worked with Boxer at Claiborne, recalled, “Liz always talked about how crucial Leonard was to the success of the company. He knew everything about manufacturing clothes, especially tailored goods. More importantly, he knew the standard of quality Liz was looking for and had the expertise to make it happen. Liz counted on him to realize her vision of top-quality tailored clothes that fit real women at a price that had never been offered. She trusted him implicitly. He was legendary within the company.

“In my dealings with Leonard through the years, I was always struck by what a gentleman he was — this amazing talent in a mild-mannered, friendly man: not that usual in our tough apparel business,” said Buchman.

Boxer, “who had been virtually living on an airplane,” according to Chazen, retired from Claiborne in 1985, four years after the company went public.

In an interview in 2006, Boxer described the early days at Claiborne as a “wonderful time.”

“I loved it. We were all garment people…. It was almost like show business.” He recalled his first trip to Hong Kong in 1979, looking to move some production overseas to get the quality that Liz wanted for her product. “We were one of the first pioneers getting over there. The costs were lower [and] women got quality stuff at half the price than it would have been if it had been produced in New York,” Boxer said.

William McComb, current ceo of the $4 billion Claiborne, said, “Thanks to Leonard, Liz Claiborne Inc. was one of the first apparel companies to shift its production to the Far East to deliver high-quality product at a value price; revolutionizing the industry and setting what is now, 30 years later, the industry norm. That is but one example of the strong mark that he made on this company, as well as the fashion business.”

Boxer was born in the Bronx and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After attending City College, he held production jobs at such companies as Susan Thomas and Tucker Knits before joining Claiborne. He also taught pattern making at the Mayer School of Fashion Design. After retiring from Claiborne, Boxer spent his time at his three homes in Jupiter, Fla., Manhattan and Southampton, N.Y. He established the Boxer Foundation, which has donated millions of dollars to prostate cancer research, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.

Besides his son Steven, Boxer is survived by his wife, Anita, who was originally a bookkeeper at Claiborne; his other twin son, Gary, and three granddaughters.

Services will be held 11:45 a.m. Sunday at Riverside Memorial Chapel in Manhattan.

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