By  on August 31, 2009

J. James Gordon, a textile industry executive and one of the original investors in Liz Claiborne Inc., died Aug. 25 after a long illness. He was 78.

Gordon was a vice president with one-time textile and apparel giant United Merchants & Manufacturers before branching out on his own in 1984 to start Gordon Textiles International. The firm specialized in representing upscale fabric mills primarily from Europe at a time when the domestic textile industry was fighting to survive and encouraging shoppers to buy American-made goods.

“He was an importer before almost anyone was doing it,” said Bruce Roberts, executive director of the Textile Distributors Association, which closed in 2007. Gordon was also an officer at the organization.

Gordon was among the first investors in Liz Claiborne and a key figure in the development of the company as it became one of the best-known in the apparel industry. He served on the Claiborne board of directors for more than 26 years before retiring in 2003.

Paul Charron, former chairman and chief executive officer of Liz Claiborne Inc., described Gordon as a quiet leader with a strong influence behind the scenes. The relationship between the two men was established when Gordon served on the subcommittee that recommended Charron to the full board. He joined Claiborne in 1994 as vice chairman and chief operating officer and within a year was named ceo, serving until 2006.

“There were a number of people who probably had reservations about taking a guy with such a long packaged goods background into Liz to succeed the last of the founders,” Charron said. “He gave me good counsel all the time. It was always truthful. Sometimes I didn’t always like it, but I always knew he had the company’s best interest and my best interest at heart. I always said when you cut Jim Gordon open, he’s going to bleed Liz red.”

Charron said Claiborne’s board was “central” in his early years with the company, and that much of his communication with the board came via Gordon and Lee Abraham.

Among his fondest memories of Gordon were their annual discussions on compensation. “They were frequently animated, but Jim always delivered the message and the message that the board wanted,” Charron said. “He delivered it in a way that I understood and appreciated.”

Gordon “served in any way he was asked to serve and always with distinction,” Charron recalled. “This was a very thoughtful and extremely conscientious man who was cared about and respected by his fellow directors and friends.”

Regarding his own company, Gordon Textiles International, Gordon wasn’t above poking fun at himself, and at least suggesting that sometimes the reasons for success could be hard to define.

“We are having the best year in our history, but don’t ask me why,” Gordon told WWD in 1996. “We aren’t any smarter than we were last year, which wasn’t a good year.”

Arthur Spiro, former chairman of Carleton Woolen Mills and a close friend for 30 years, spoke of Gordon’s creativity and ability to translate fabric into fashion.

“He was very close to his customers,” Spiro said. “He knew what they wanted, and he had a good sense of fashion. He was an impeccable dresser himself.”

Spiro said Gordon was skilled in merchandising and establishing brand identities, characteristics he brought to bear in his work at Claiborne.

The relationship between the two men wasn’t all business, however. Spiro and Gordon were avid fly fisherman, traveling around the world to fish in locales such as Russia, Iceland and South America.

“When you’re with a guy for five or six days in a boat together, you get to know each other pretty well,” Spiro said.

Gordon “was always planning what he was going to do tomorrow,” Spiro said. And despite being “on dialysis for several years…you would never know it,” Roberts said.

Gordon was a graduate of Brown University and lived in Greenwich, Conn. for 30 years. He founded the Greenwich Chapter of the American Jewish Committee and was a trustee and former president of the Greenwich Reform Synagogue. In addition to serving on the board at Claiborne, Gordon also served on the board of Cornerstone Bank of Stamford and Paul Harris Stores Inc.

He is survived by his wife of 30 years, Jacquie; four children; a stepdaughter; four grandchildren, and a sister. A memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Sept. 3 at the Greenwich Reform Synagogue.

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