Liz Claiborne x J.C. Penney

Once brands start to lose their relevance and sales volume, they’re tough to revive.

Not the case with Liz Claiborne, which was purchased by J.C. Penney Co. Inc. in 2010 and recycled into a major private brand for the department store chain and a key component in the retailer’s turnaround.

This month, J.C. Penney’s recognizes the 40th anniversary of the Liz Claiborne brand, which forever changed how women dress for work. “We’re highlighting ’40 looks of Liz’ inspired by many of the prints and details of classic pieces of the past,” Siiri Dougherty, J.C. Penney’s senior vice president of women’s apparel, told WWD. “They’re a great way for women to refresh their wardrobes.”

The 40 looks are pulled together from 18 updated items, inspired by prints and details of classic Liz Claiborne looks of years past. It’s a way to demonstrate the versatility and mix and match character of the brand, Dougherty said. Among the looks are printed pants, dress pants, faux leather skirts, among other fashion items, are paired with jackets, skirts and blouses to create different outfits.

Tying into the 40th, J.C. Penney’s has launched a Liz Claiborne “uptown collection” of handbags in leather, animal prints, red, black and white, and embellishments such as quilting and grommets.

When J.C. Penney’s took over Liz Claiborne, “the brand kind of lost its way. Over time, the casual piece was really what took over,” Dougherty said. “But there is a great heritage that comes with this brand.”

Since becoming a J.C. Penney’s exclusive, Liz Claiborne has grown to encompass 30 categories including women’s and men’s apparel, footwear, handbags, accessories and home. It covers the gamut from casual and wear-to-work to weekend attire. While modernizing the label, J.C. Penney’s did retain many of the veteran members of the Liz Claiborne design team, which works out of J.C. Penney’s SoHo offices. Owning the intellectual property of Claiborne, J.C. Penney’s utilizes the Liz Claiborne print library and fabric library.

The brand was cofounded by Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg, who are both deceased, as well as Jerome Chazen, chairman of Chazen Capital Partners. In light of the Liz Claiborne milestone, J.C. Penney’s officials invited Chazen to visit the Liz Claiborne operation. He hasn’t been involved in the brand since 1995, but he was naturally curious to check out what was going on.

“It’s interesting. This whole conversation has to be called bittersweet because we’re not up there fighting for the headlines like we used to with Tommy [Hilfiger] and Ralph [Lauren]. But what I discovered is that they really care about Liz Claiborne, which I felt good about. There are so many people involved in the operation that were involved when it existed as an independent company.”

Chazen recalled that J.C. Penney’s first licensed the brand before buying it. Early on, he spoke with then J.C. Penney’s chairman Myron Ullman 3rd who told him at the time that 70 percent of those that purchased Liz Claiborne had never spent a dollar at J.C. Penney. “They would be getting a new customer in and that was a major reason for moving from a licensing thing to buying the company,” Chazen said.

Asked why Liz Claiborne has endured when many brands fail to catch a second wind, Chazen replied, “I think there is a need for that product. But there is no question there continues to be name recognition.”