NEW YORK — Hurt by markdowns of excess inventory, Liz Claiborne Inc., in line with expectations, reported first-quarter earnings fell 35.7 percent and said second-quarter earnings would also be down.

However, the company said it expects to resolve inventory problems by the end of the second quarter and in the last few weeks has seen strong sales at retail at regular prices.

In the first quarter ended April 2, the company earned $27.4 million, or 35 cents a share. A year ago, earnings after a $1.6 million gain from accounting changes totaled $42.7 million, or 52 cents. Wall Street analysts said the earnings were in line with the company’s forecast. They agree that the second quarter will be difficult and expect the full year to improve. Claiborne’s stock on the New York Stock Exchange closed Monday at 25 3/4, down 1/4, after a rise of 7/8 on Friday, following the announcement that Paul R. Charron, executive vice president of VF Corp., was joining Claiborne as vice chairman and chief operating officer.

Discussing the quarter’s outcome, Samuel M. Miller, senior vice president, finance, said gross margins were hurt by continued liquidation, at distressed prices, of inventory manufactured in 1993, and noted the problem will continue, denting second-quarter gross margins as well. However, he said, “We do believe that by the end of the second quarter, we will have worked our way out of virtually all of last year’s inventory problems.”

Sales inched up 1.9 percent, to $541.4 million from $531.3 million.

Jerome A. Chazen, chairman, said, “We have seen some encouraging signs in the last few weeks with some strong selling at retail at regular prices.” He said he hoped the momentum would continue, but still expects a down second quarter.

“Overall, we continue to view 1994 as a year where we have begun a far-reaching process of rebuilding and restructuring,” Chazen said.

“Claiborne’s earnings were exactly on target,” said analyst Jay Meltzer of Goldman Sachs. “We think the outlook is positive after another poor quarter, caused by remaining inventory closeouts. After that’s cleaned up, there will be a moderate bounce back.

“The company has a very conservative plan,” he noted, “which should produce flat sales and better margins in the second half, and slightly better earnings for the year.”

Meltzer said sell-throughs of new fall lines are better than last year at this time, and that is encouraging. He projects earnings per share of 20 cents for the second quarter, against 38 cents last year, and earnings per share of $1.60 for the year, against $1.56 in 1993.

Meltzer called the appointment of “an outsider” like Charron “a good move” because cost-cutting measures are needed he and said it would be tougher for an insider to make them.

“Charron is a team player,” Meltzer added.

Brenda Gall of Merrill Lynch said she is expecting a tough second quarter for the firm, but the markdown pressure will ease up.

“There has been some pickup in March, but we’ll see whether it will be sustained in April, because of the early Easter,” she said. “The general pickup in women’s apparel at retail helps Liz Claiborne.”

Gall said she expects positive earnings comparisons for the full year.

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