NEW YORK — Liz Claiborne, who was a pioneer in designing colorful, stylish and affordable sportswear for America's growing legions of working women in the Seventies and Eighties, died Tuesday at New York Presbyterian Hospital.
Claiborne, 78, died of abdominal cancer, a condition she had been fighting for 10 years, according to her husband, Art Ortenberg, former chairman of Liz Claiborne Inc. "It was a battle that, in the long run, was unwinnable," he said Wednesday.
Claiborne was one of the co-founders in 1976 of Liz Claiborne Inc., which became one of the most successful apparel companies in the world. When she retired in 1989, the publicly traded company had grown into a $1.2 billion powerhouse, generating $110.3 million in net profits.
From the get-go, Claiborne had a clear idea of the clothing she wanted to design, and her groundbreaking concepts became the backbone of the better-price sportswear area of department stores. In an interview with WWD last year, Claiborne said, "The concept was to dress the American working woman because I, as a working woman with a child, didn't want to spend hours shopping. Things should be easy. You don't have to dress in that little navy blue suit with a tie. I wanted to dress her in sportier clothes and colors."
Asked by WWD in 2000 what she thought her most important contribution to American fashion was, Claiborne said, "I think fashion and quality at a price, before it was readily available. There were the designers, and then there was what was called better sportswear, which was uptight stuff. There wasn't much in between. And responding to that woman out there. She wasn't a kid. She was somebody who was working, whether she was a teacher or in a business environment or a nurse, and somehow I had a rapport with her and understood what she needed."
During her career, Claiborne went from developing and designing the Liz Claiborne sportswear collection to overseeing 32 designers producing an assortment of labels ranging from Liz Claiborne, Claiborne and Liz & Co. to Liz Sport, Liz Claiborne Dresses, Liz Claiborne Accessories and Elisabeth. The company went public in 1981.A reserved, friendly and proud woman who was rarely seen without her signature red glasses and short hair, Claiborne remained aloof from the fashion pack as well as from the latest season's trends, following her own instincts as to what her customers wanted to wear. She was also outspoken about women's inability to break through the glass ceiling in business and, following her retirement in 1989, devoted herself to numerous charities.
As a designer, Claiborne's strengths were undoubtedly her creativity and her interaction with customers. She would go on the road four times a year, get into dressing rooms with her customers and talk to them about their likes and dislikes. In fact, Claiborne would often go into the dressing rooms pretending to be a salesgirl and would tell the customers how to wear the clothes. Later, she'd tell them she was Liz Claiborne.
"She was like a rock star. People lined up in the stores to see her, and touch her and get her autograph," said Jerome Chazen, a former Claiborne chairman and chief executive officer, who is now chairman of Chazen Capital Partners.
"Liz's forte was color. She revolutionized everything with color and the use of different colors together. People were desperate to find out Liz's colors for the season," he said.
Jim Gordon, president and ceo of Gordon Textiles International Ltd., was an original investor in Liz Claiborne and a board member for 26 years until 2003.
"I knew Liz before Liz knew Art, and I knew Art before he knew Liz," Gordon said. "Together as a team they were the most successful, most intelligent and most ethical husband-and-wife team that ever existed in the fashion business.
"Liz should be remembered as an inspiration, representing the highest standards of ethics and creativity in the business," Gordon continued. "She helped to train a generation of designers and textile researchers that has populated the industry."
Born in Brussels in 1929 to American parents, Claiborne moved with her family to New Orleans in the Thirties. Her father didn't consider formal education important, and before she graduated from high school, she was sent back to Brussels and Nice, France, to study fine art in painters' studios. Her parents expected her to become an artist, but she wanted to pursue a career as a clothing designer.Claiborne began working on Seventh Avenue in New York as a design assistant and a model and worked for several fashion houses. She met Ortenberg in 1954 when he hired her to design Joan Miller dresses, a division of Rhea Manufacturing. Although they were both married to others at the time, they began an affair. "She was absolutely stunning and had an extraordinary taste level," said Ortenberg in an interview with WWD last year. He recalled that the owner's son fired him when he learned of the affair, but the son wanted Claiborne to stay. Claiborne told him, "If you fire him, I'm walking, too."
They moved on to assorted textile and apparel firms, and in 1957, they married. Claiborne landed a job at Youth Guild, where she designed sportswear.
In 1975, they decided to go into business together and Claiborne's uncle, Albert F. Milton, gave them seed money. They turned Ortenberg's consulting space at 80 West 40th Street into a design room and showroom, obtained credit and took out a classified ad in WWD for a production executive, which landed them another partner, Leonard Boxer. They raised $255,000 and the company was incorporated in 1976. Jerome Chazen — who had been Ortenberg's roommate at the University of Wisconsin — became their fourth partner.
The company was built on the concept of value, and the idea was to go in with a low markup, run a tight overhead and control inventory. The Claiborne line was an immediate hit at department stores. At the time, the better area of department stores had Jones New York, "which had higher armholes," said Claiborne last year, and Evan-Picone, "which was mostly flannels and linens." One of Claiborne's biggest thrills during the early days was going out on a Saturday night and buying the Sunday New York Times, where Saks had taken out the very first full-page ad highlighting a fitted Liz Claiborne white flannel double-breasted jacket and pleated skirt.
"I am very sad. I knew Liz since 1977," said Burt Tansky, ceo of the Neiman Marcus Group, who met Claiborne when he was a Saks Fifth Avenue merchant. "I had many meetings and lunches with Liz, visited the showroom and, in the early days, Saks was very much behind her efforts. She really reshaped the way women thought about sportswear, introduced a lot of color and many looks. They clicked in immediately in the late Seventies. The Eighties were a time of growth. The Saks business grew like crazy."Michael Gould, Bloomingdale's chairman and ceo, and a former Giorgio ceo, recalled, "I remember when I was at Giorgio, and we sold Belk's. To them, Liz Claiborne was the cat's meow, the top of the line. Bloomingdale's also did a ton of business with her. How she transcended across America was quite remarkable."
"She was very talented, very smart and had strong opinions about design, society and the environment," said Marvin Traub, of Marvin Traub Associates and the former chairman of Bloomingdale's. "I remember Liz and her team began with a very edited sportswear collection and she made appearances in Bloomingdale's to promote the brand. She designed very wearable clothes and the best-fitting pants that women across the entire country could wear. At one point, her collection was the backbone of better sportswear for most American department stores."
As they built the company, each of the partners found their respective strengths. Chazen handled all sales, Ortenberg was in charge of operations and finance, Boxer handled production and Claiborne was in charge of design. "Art always had the vision," said Claiborne last year. "I thought we'd be a nice little company."
"She created a remarkable synergy — a team with very complementary skills," said Isaac Lagnado, president of Tactical Retail Solutions. "Jerry was Mr. Outside. He got the brand positioned correctly in all the key retailers. Art was Mr. Inside, the administrative genius, and Liz was the creative genius. She had an aristocratic manner, almost like a French chatelaine — restrained, ladylike, but a very perceptive conversationalist."
Observers believed that what set the company apart from its competitors early on was the creative atmosphere at the office and camaraderie among management and employees. Claiborne would frequently bring in flowers to decorate the office and there was white everywhere.
"All of our sample rooms were in New York and they had the same plants and flowers. The lowest-level patternmaker was on par with the highest salaried executive. The company was run that way. When we had doors, they were glass doors. I don't think I ever had a door," said Claiborne last year.
Stan Herman, designer and former president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, knew Claiborne since the Sixties, when she designed the Youth Guild collection and he owned the competing Mr. Mort line."I remember we went down to the Smithsonian Institute to do a lecture on fashion, and she was constantly carrying on about men getting the biggest breaks in business. On the train ride back, I finally said to her, 'It's time you go into business yourself,'" he said.
Though Herman maintained that he wasn't the trigger, Claiborne started her own business within a year and took a floor in the same building as Herman, at 80 West 40th Street.
Herman recalled the moment in the mid-Nineties when the CFDA gave Claiborne a special award for her humanitarian efforts.
"She arrived on the red carpet in a men's tuxedo with a men's fedora and her dark glasses, and the paparazzi went crazy," he said.
In the beginning, everything designed under the Liz Claiborne name had the same feeling, but over time, that changed, and the various lines didn't reflect Claiborne's sensibility. She began receiving complaint letters. Toward the end of their tenure, Claiborne became unhappy with the way the various lines were turning out, and she made no secret of it. Although the dress and accessories divisions were successful, some of the looks she really couldn't swallow, she said in an interview last year.
Intertwining her personal and professional lives was never a problem for Claiborne. Although some married couples might find it impossible to work together, Ortenberg and Claiborne had an easy time of it.
"We respected each other's talents," said Claiborne last year. "I certainly respected Art's financial and management skills, and he respected my talent, although he'd sometimes try to box me in." They often found themselves working around the clock, and bringing work discussions home.
When the couple decided to retire in 1989, they never looked back. "I couldn't take it anymore," said Claiborne last year. "I was supervising 32 designers and spending my time on the elevator going from one floor to another. It had gotten so big."
"Everybody would say, 'Let's run it by Liz,''' said Ortenberg last year.
Once they stepped down, Claiborne was outspoken about what was happening to her namesake brand and the fact that it was getting less attention than the company's acquisitions. The group she founded went from a one-brand business to a $4.99 billion firm today with more than 40 labels in its portfolio, which besides Liz Claiborne, now includes Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand, Ellen Tracy, Sigrid Olsen, Dana Buchman, Kate Spade and Mexx."I was very proud when the name was all over the place. [Now] it's like a poor stepchild," she said last year. "My only ill feeling is what happened to the name, and that part of their philosophy was to make that a very small portion. The goods got so cheap-looking and unappetizing."
Claiborne felt it wasn't possible to build the kind of company today that she and her husband created in the late Seventies and Eighties.
"They can't do it on a shoestring the way we did it," she said last year. "There doesn't seem to be a mind-set for it. Designers don't have the proper partners. First of all, you should have three other partners. I don't know anything about finance. I hate selling. I know how to sew, but don't know production. I don't know how to structure a company. If you have three other partners who are very good at their jobs, it's a leg up."
Paul Charron, former chairman and ceo of Claiborne, who retired last year and was succeeded by William L. McComb, said, "Liz was a pioneer and a visionary. She was a designer who fundamentally changed the way American women dress.
"She was so beautiful she would literally light up a room. You could just feel her energy. Even though I never worked with her, Liz's ways were always instrumental in my decision-making while I was there. I don't know another woman like her. Even though she, Art and Jerry disagreed on some of my decisions, they were always supportive and I always knew they had my back. She truly showed women that they could be successful in business," Charron added.
Dana Buchman, who was a protégé of Claiborne's, said, "Liz was always about the clothes. She believed in the design, fit and comfort of a garment and really didn't care about what the department stores were demanding. What the designers thought was important, and we always worked as a team. She was gracious and generous, not about politics or drama. The only thing she cared about was creating great, beautiful clothes for the American woman. This was her mission. She created a great company, a dream company."I just saw Liz for the last time last week and she said to me, 'Oh, Dana, we really had fun,' and we did. We really had a great time. She was not only my boss, but a mentor and friend."
Monika Tilley, who befriended Claiborne and her husband in the Sixties when they had neighboring houses on Fire Island, said Claiborne could often be found designing in one of the summer getaway's back rooms.
"Liz worked an awful lot. Eventually, they turned it into something very positive with all their charitable giving," Tilley said. "She always wore a black-and-white bikini. She was a woman of great definite style and she was a wonderful human being. The house was always impeccable, it was quite sparse. One of her strengths was how she kept so many friends throughout the many years," said Tilley.
Leaving Seventh Avenue as multimillionaires, Claiborne and Ortenberg were eager to build a new career in philanthropy, establishing the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation in 1984. Over the past 23 years, the foundation has funded dozens of conservation management and education programs throughout the world.
The couple spent their retirement travelling around the world and spending time in their various homes. They would spend three-and-a-half months a year in Montana, and during the summer, they would shuffle back and forth between Manhattan and Saltaire, Fire Island, and in the winter, they traveled between New York and St. Barth's.
Over the years, Claiborne was honored by countless fashion and business organizations and universities. She received an honorary degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1999. She was also the first woman ceo and chairwoman of a Fortune 500 firm. In 1986, Claiborne was honored by the CFDA for her distinction as an American designer, and in 2000, she received the CFDA's Humanitarian Award for the work she and Ortenberg have done through their foundation. In 1990, Ortenberg and Claiborne were inducted into the National Business Hall of Fame.
Besides her husband, she is survived by her son, Alexander Schultz, from her previous marriage, her daughter-in-law and grandson.
According to Ortenberg, Claiborne will be buried Saturday in Montana at their Triple 8 ranch. "It's near the Continental Divide with 360-degree views of the mountains and the hills. We used to ride our horses there, and there are two lovely trees where she'll be buried," said Ortenberg. A memorial service will be held at a later date.
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