By  on March 27, 2006

When Jerome Chazen’s grandson recently asked whether he was ever on the cover of Fortune, the answer was a resounding “yes.”

During his time as chairman, Chazen, a partner in Liz Claiborne Inc., made Fortune magazine’s list of top 10 most admired companies not once but twice: in 1992, when the company was ranked number four, and in 1993, when the apparel giant was ranked number eight. (The company has made the list numerous other times in the past three decades.) Chazen retired in 1996 at age 69, and is currently chairman of Chazen Capital Partners, an investment firm.

Chazen and Art Ortenberg have a long history between them. They were in the military together and were college roommates. Chazen said that he, Ortenberg and Claiborne in 1975 discussed the idea of forming Liz Claiborne, a plan that came to fruition in 1976. Chazen, who couldn’t immediately leave his job at a sportswear firm at the time, joined in 1977.

“I never doubted that we would be successful. We had four partners. Everyone was very important in building the company,” Chazen said.

While Chazen focused on sales, Ortenberg was responsible for obtaining financing. Claiborne focused on design, and Leonard Boxer, who subsequently joined the fledgling firm, led the production team.

“We used to each do our job all day long and have dinner together at night to communicate what was going on so we all knew each other’s area. The company grew very rapidly. Liz’s designs were right on target, and the consumer that we thought was out there was [definitely] out there. She responded to the clothes, which were well-made and affordable,” Chazen said.

The former chairman attributed the early success of the company in part to the presence of an actual designer, Claiborne, whose name was on the label. Competitors included the labels Evan-Picone, Ellen Tracy and Susan Bristol, all of which were made-up names. Having a real person behind the name enabled the company to distinguish itself as a designer firm that also provided apparel at affordable prices.

He emphasized that Liz Claiborne was the first to get retailers to change the merchandising model at the department store and allow for in-store shops, a move that also made it easier for consumers to put together entire outfits, since all the pieces in the collection were now in one place and the brand became a destination. Before then, major stores sold by classification, and a consumer who wanted an entire outfit by one label had to go from the sweater department to the jacket department, and so forth.

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