Liz Claiborne, Inc.
Liz Claiborne combined her design talent and managerial skills to build Liz Claiborne. Inc., a billion dollar fashion corporation that specializes in career clothes for working women. Realizing that the increasing numbers of women entering the workforce in the early 1970s would need stylish but affordable wardrobes, Claiborne founded her company in 1976. Her strategy was an instant success, and by 1986 the company broke into the Fortune 500 list of largest industrial companies in the United States. Liz Claiborne, Inc. is the first company on the list to have been founded by a woman.
Elisabeth Claiborne, widely known as Liz, was born on March 31, 1929, in Brussels, Belgium. Her parents, Omer Villere and Louise Carol Claiborne, were United States citizens from New Orleans. Omer Villere worked as a banker in Belgium, where Liz spent the first 10 years of her life. Claiborne learned to speak French before learning English and remembers being "dragged around to museums and cathedrals" in Europe by her father, who instilled in her a love of painting and a sophisticated aesthetic taste. Claiborne's mother taught her to sew at an early age and emphasized the importance of personal appearance.
Though the family was happy in Belgium, they chose to return to the United States to escape the imminent Nazi invasion in 1939 and settled in New Orleans. Because her father did not consider formal education essential for his daughter, Claiborne never graduated from high school. In 1947, at her father's insistence, she returned to Europe to study painting in art schools in Brussels, Belgium and in Nice, France. Though she knew she would never become a painter, Claiborne appreciated the visual training this experience gave her. "I'm glad I had that training," she told an interviewer, "because it taught me to see; it taught me color, proportion, and many other things that I don't think I would have learned in design school."
Claiborne's Roman Catholic family was strongly opposed to her plans to work in the fashion industry, but the young Claiborne was determined. She entered and won a design contest sponsored by Harper's Bazaar. She then persuaded her parents to let her move to New York City, where she moved in with an aunt and began looking for work.
Claiborne worked for various fashion houses in New York City and continued to develop her design talent. In 1950, she married Ben Schultz, a book designer. They had one child, Alexander G. Schultz. After her son's birth, Claiborne returned to work, becoming one of the relatively few mothers in the workforce during the 1950s. Claiborne's first marriage ended in divorce, and on July 5, 1957 she married Arthur Ortenberg, a design executive at the Rhea Manufacturing Company of Milwaukee.
Since her husband's business concerns were not always dependable, Claiborne assumed the role of breadwinner. Though she was eager to start her own business, she could not afford to take that risk until her son and her two stepchildren finished college. Finally, in 1975, Claiborne left her job at Youth Guild, the junior dress division of Jonathan Logan, and launched Liz Claiborne, Inc. the following January.
With her husband and friends Leonard Boxer and Jerome Chazen, Claiborne built her company into a fashion empire. After 13 years, they retired from day-to-day operation of the business in June 1989 to concentrate on personal and social interests, including environmental projects and a campaign against domestic violence. Claiborne, who enjoys swimming, running, and photography, has stayed involved with the fashion business by teaching and by guiding new division directors in the corporation.
Claiborne was named Designer of the Year in 1976 by the Palciode Hierro, Mexico City and Designer of the Year in 1978 by the Dayton Company of Minneapolis. The Marshall Field Company awarded her its Annual Distinguished In Design award in 1985, the same year that she received the One Company Makes a Difference Award from the Fashion Institute of Technology. In 1986 she received an award from the Council of Fashion Designers. She received a Gordon Grand Fellowship from Yale University in 1989, and a Junior Achievement Award from the National Business Hall of Fame in 1990. The following year Barnard College awarded her the Frederick A. P. Barnard award, and she was named to the National Sales Hall of Fame. Claiborne received an honorary doctorate from Rhode Island School of Design in 1991.
Claiborne began her career doing sketches for Tina Lesser, one of the few sportswear designers at the time. To her surprise, Claiborne was also expected to model for Ms. Lesser, and to wear her hair (which she had just cropped short) in a bun at the back of her head. Claiborne remembers Lesser as an imaginative and demanding boss with very definite ideas about how clothing should be constructed. But she also recognized talent, and Claiborne enjoyed working for her.
Claiborne moved on to Ben Rieg, a company that designed more tailored outfits. Next she took a job as Omar Kiam's assistant at his Seventh Avenue shop and then worked for two years at the Junior Rite Company. After joining the Rhea Manufacturing Company of Chicago (where she stayed for only a year but met her second husband, Arthur Ortenberg), Claiborne worked with Dan Keller of New York from 1955 to 1960. These varied jobs gave Claiborne the breadth of experience she wanted in the early part of her career, and helped to make her known as a top designer of dresses.
In 1960 Claiborne joined Youth Guild, the junior dress division of Jonathan Logan. For 15 years she was chief designer for that division, but she grew increasingly frustrated at her inability to persuade management there to develop mix-and-match coordinated sportswear for the new wave of career women. As a working mother, Claiborne knew that career women needed attractive, practical, and affordable wardrobes but had few choices available. Determined to tap this emerging market, Claiborne left Youth Guild in 1975 to found her own company.
Claiborne started her company with $50,000 in personal savings and $200,000 from family and friends. She was head designer and president; her husband, with experience in textiles and business administration, was secretary and treasurer; and friend Leonard Boxer helped with production. The company was swamped with orders from the beginning, and by September of that year the company was showing a profit. Sales in the first year exceeded $2 million.
The company specialized in affordable sportswear, such as casual pants, skirts, knickers, tattersall shirts, cowlneck sweaters, ponchos, and jackets. Designs and materials were coordinated so the pieces could be worn together in various combinations. Claiborne was especially pleased that her prices were kept affordable: her sweaters were initially priced at $36, her pants at $45, and her jackets at $80. In the next few years, she expanded her line with tunics, full skirts, and loose-fitting vests, which were appropriate for either home or office. By 1978, sales had skyrocketed to $23 million. Two years later, Claiborne was named Entrepreneurial Woman of the Year, the first from the fashion industry to win this honor.
Claiborne continued to build on this success by diversifying. She adding a petite sportswear line in 1981 and a dress division in 1982. The next year, she added a unit for shoes. Though a girls' division, introduced in 1984, was disappointing and was phased out three years later, other moves proved successful. In 1985, Liz Claiborne, Inc. bought the Kaiser-Roth Corporation, which produced accessories such as scarves, gloves, hats, handbags, and belts. A new "Lizwear" label also appeared that year featuring jeans, and a men's sportswear line, "Claiborne," was launched. A perfume line, "Liz Claiborne," was introduced jointly with Avon Products and was also a great success, although the venture ended in an out-of-court settlement in 1988. By 1996, the company's brand names included Dana Buchman, Crazy Horse, The Villager, Russ Toggs, Lizsport, and Liz Claiborne.
Central to Claiborne's success has been her appreciation of the needs of her typical customer—the "Liz lady." This customer is not interested in the newest trends, but prefers more classic designs. She is also pressed from time, and does not want to go from store to store in search of the perfect outfit, or to buy clothes that require time-consuming maintenance. To address these concerns, Claiborne concentrated on color-coordinated separates that make it easy for customers to put together complete outfits without having to leave the store.
Chronology: Liz Claiborne
1947: Attended art schools in Europe.
1960: Began work as chief designer for Youth Guild, Jonathan Logan.
1976: Launched Liz Claiborne, Inc.
1980: Named Entrepreneurial Woman of the Year.
1986: Liz Claiborne, Inc. listed in Fortune 500.
1987: Elected chairman of board and chief executive officer.
1988: Opened first First Issue chain store.
1989: Retired from active management of company.
Marketing skill also played a significant part in Claiborne's success. She insisted that her designs be displayed in stores in such a way that customers could put together outfits without having to ask for a salesperson's help. She also listened to store buyers' concerns and, to keep inventory fresh, developed six lines of clothes a year instead of the traditional four. She hired traveling fashion consultants to help retail staff with displays and employed marketing experts to track industry trends through her unique computerized system, System Updated Retail Feedback. In 1988, Claiborne moved into retailing with the opening of a clothing chain, First Issue, intended to compete with The Limited, The Gap, and Banana Republic.
By 1985, Liz Claiborne, Inc. reached $500 million in wholesale sales, and in 1986 retail sales reached $1.2 billion, ranking the firm 437th among the top 500 largest industrial companies in the United States, according to Fortune's annual list. It was the youngest company to make it onto the list, and the first one founded by a woman. By 1989, the company controlled about a third of the $2 billion market in better women's sportswear and sold its products in 3,500 stores. Claiborne and her husband stepped down from active management in 1989 to focus on environmental and social issues. They remain, however, as members of the board of directors. Claiborne has been a guest lecturer at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Parsons School of Design, and is a board member of the Council of American Fashion Designers.
Social and Economic Impact
Claiborne's designs revolutionized women's work attire by offering attractive and affordable alternatives to the conservative "dress-for success" suit (a woman's version of the conservative men's business suit). Women appreciated the fact that a Claiborne wardrobe simplified their busy lives; the clothing was comfortable, easy to shop for, and easy to care for. Because the outfits were reasonably priced, women could afford to update their wardrobes each season. So popular were Claiborne's designs that she became known as "the working woman's best friend."
Claiborne has also addressed concerns within the garment industry as a whole. Though most of her company's clothing is manufactured overseas, Claiborne and her husband have been sensitive to problems in the U.S. textile industry. Claiborne maintains that it is no longer practical to manufacture clothing in the United States because making apparel is labor intensive, and using such skilled labor in this country is too expensive. She defends the industry's use of foreign manufacturing, explaining in an article in the Washington Post that, "Sewing machines are the simplest machines to run. It is natural for emerging nations to latch on to this kind of production." Claiborne and her husband became involved with research projects to modernize outdated textile production in North and South Carolina, where they funded a modest grant to study the effect of new textile technology and to retrain textile workers. In 1994, the Company, concerned about human rights abuses by the Burmese government, announced that it no longer would buy clothing made in Burma.
Broader social issues are also important to Claiborne. In 1981, the company established the Liz Claiborne Foundation to oversee its charitable activities. These include human services, education, health, arts, and the environment. The Foundation also matches employee contributions to organizations in these categories. The company launched a domestic violence prevention program, Women's Work, in the early 1990s. This program has conducted research and engaged in ad campaigns to raise awareness about the causes and prevention of family violence. The Foundation also supports the Wilderness Society, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and the Nature series on public television.
Sources of Information
Contact at: Liz Claiborne, Inc.
New York, NY 10018
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Born: Elizabeth Claiborne in Brussels, Belgium, 31 March 1929, to American parents from New Orleans; moved to New Orleans, 1939. Education: Studied art at Fine Arts School and Painters Studio, Belgium, 1947, and at the Nice Academy, 1948; self-taught in design. Family: Married Ben Schultz, 1950 (divorced); married Arthur Ortenberg, 1957; children: Alexander. Career: Sketch artist and model, Tina Leser, 1950; design assistant, Omar Kiam for Ben Reig, New York; designer, Youth Guild division of Jonathan Logan, 1960-76; founder/partner with Art Ortenberg, Liz Claiborne Inc., 1976; went public, 1981; introduced petite sportswear line, 1981; formed dress division, 1982; introduced shoes, 1983; purchased Kaiser-Roth Corporation, 1985; introduced Lizwear label featuring jeans, 1985; introduced men's sportswear, Clairborne, 1985; inaugurated Dana Buchman and Claiborne Furnishings, 1987-88; introduced larger-size line, Elizabeth, 1988; launched First Issue, 1988, formed Liz & Co. knitwear division, 1989; Claiborne and Ortenberg retire, 1989; Elizabeth Dresses introduced, 1990, Sports Shoes and Suits, 1991, Sport Specific Activewear and Liz Sport Eyewear, 1992; purchased Russ and Crazy Horse labels from Russ Toggs, 1992; closed First Issue stores, 1995; launched swimwear label with Sirena Apparel Group, 1996; signed licensing deal with Candie's, 1998; acquired Laundry, and stakes in Segrets, Lucky Brand Dungarees, and Kenneth Cole, 1999; bought Monet Group, 2000; initiated children's clothing lines, 2000; fragrances include Liz Claiborne, 1986; Claiborne, 1989; Vivid, 1994; Curve, 1996; Lizsport and Claiborne Sport, 1997; Lucky You, 2000; Mambo, 2001. Awards: Winner, Harper's Bazaar Jacques Heim national design contest, 1949; Hecht & Company Young Designer award, Washington, D.C., 1967; Woolknit Association award, 1973; Entrepreneurial Woman of the Year, 1980; Council of Fashion Designers of America award, 1985; award from Barnard College, 1991; High School of Fashion Industries award, 1990; award from Marymount Manhattan College, 1989; the Council of Fashion Designers Humanitarian award, 2000. Address: 1441 Broadway, New York, NY 10018, USA. Website: www.lizclaiborne.com.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, New York Fashion: The Evolution of
American Style, New York, 1989.
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Le Dortz, Laurent, and Béatrice Debosscher, Stratégies des Leaders Américains de la Mode: Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Liz Claiborne, Polo Ralph Lauren, et Tommy Hilfiger, Paris, 2000.
Klensch, Elsa, "Dressing America: The Success of Liz Claiborne," inVogue, August 1986.
Stan, Adele-Marie, "Four Designing Women," in Ms., November 1986.
Sellers, Patricia, "The Rag Trade's Reluctant Revolutionary: LizClaiborne," in Fortune, 5 January 1987.
Gannes, Stuart, "American's Fastest-Growing Companies," in Fortune, 23 May 1988.
Morris, Michele, "The Wizard of the Working Woman's Wardrobe," in Working Woman, June 1988.
Deveny, Kathleen, "Can Ms. Fashion Bounce Back?" in Business Week, 16 January 1989.
Graham, Judith, "Clairborne Opens Its Own Sites," in Advertising Age, 5 June 1989.
Armstrong, Lisa, "Working Woman's Ally," in Vogue (London),February 1991.
Hass, Nancy, "Like a Rock," in Financial World, 4 February 1992.
Agins, Teri, "Liz Claiborne Seems to Be Losing Its Invincible Armor," in the Wall Street Journal, July 1993.
Larson, Soren, "Claiborne to Try the Sporting Life," in Women's Wear Daily, 14 March 1997.
"Liz Claiborne Inc.," in Industry Week, 17 August 1998.
D'Innocenzio, Anne, and Zimmermann, Kim, "Liz Claiborne Gets Virtual," in Women's Wear Daily, 12 February 1999.
Mazzaraco, Margaret, "Liz Claiborne: Some Thoughts About the Future, Before Her Name Became an Empire," in Women's Wear Daily, 13 September 1999.
Agins Teri, "Claiborne Patches Together an Empire," in the Wall Street Journal, 2 February 2000.
Wilson, Eric, "Liz's Wildlife Lessons," in Women's Wear Daily, 14June 2000.
Monget Monget, "Launching Liz Sleepwear," in Women's Wear Daily, 14 August 2000.***
In 1976, after a 25-year career as a designer, Liz Claiborne founded her own company to provide innovative designs for professional women. By 1988 Liz Claiborne Inc. was competently filling the needs of the rapidly expanding women's workforce and its owner was among those profiled in Working Woman magazine's June 1988 series "Women Who Have Changed the World."
Claiborne preferred to view herself as one of her own down-to-earth clients, whom she called "the Liz Lady," one of the working women who had rapidly come to comprise nearly half of the U.S. workforce. Her original concept was, as she explained in a Vogue interview in August 1986, "to dress the women who didn't have to wear suits—the teachers, the doctors, the women working in Southern California and Florida, the women in the fashion industry itself."
In 1980 Claiborne's innovative designs were so successful she became the first woman in the U.S. fashion industry to be named Entrepreneurial Woman of the Year, and in the following year her firm went public, prospering financially to such a degree it was described by Merrill Lynch as "a case history of success." The phenomenal growth of Liz Claiborne Inc. was spurred on by diversification from the two original basic lines—active sportswear and a slightly dressier collection—to include a dress division in 1982 and a unit for shoes in 1983. In 1985 the company acquired the Kaiser-Roth Corporation, which had been a licensee producing accessories, including handbags, scarves, belts, and hats.
Also in 1985, a collection of men's sportswear, Clairborne, was introduced, and 1986 saw the launch of a perfume Liz Claiborne, described by its eponymous designer to Vogue in August 1986 as appealing "to a woman's idealistic version of herself.… She's active, whatever her age. It's the same feeling we try to give in the clothes."
Since Claiborne's resignation from her company in 1989, the company has pursued various strategies to offer a wide range of fashion apparel, accessories, and fragrances for men and women. The basic strategy was to meet consumer needs and wants on all levels by pursing a multibrand, multichannel diversification. Under the leadership of Paul R. Charron, chairman and CEO, the company grew into a fashion empire including 22 owned and licensed brands available at 22,000 different retail locations throughout the world.
The company's brands can be found throughout the world at upscale, mainstream, promotional, and chain department stores and mass merchandisers. A customer can purchase a suit by the brand Dana Buchman at an upscale department store such as Saks Fifth Avenue or a sweater by Russ available only at Wal-Mart stores. In 2000, Target Stores successfully sold women's apparel under the Niki Taylor name. It will be renamed Meg Allen and available to Target exclusively in 2001. Classifications include upscale brands, middle line, urban, hip, and the budget brand, offering a wide range of prices in varied retail outlets.
Liz Claiborne Inc. was actively testing e-commerce through to of its brands, luckybrandjeans.com and elisabeth.com. The sites proved moderately successful as of 2001 and the company also had its corporate website at www.lizclaiborne.com. Another area of growth was accessories, with a presence in the costume jewelry segment, under the Liz Claiborne name. In addition, the company had acquired the trademarks of the Monet Group in 2000, which enhanced its accessories line and increased market share.
Liz Claiborne also continued to expand internationally. Its first retail outlet on London's Regent Street was opened in 2000 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the company's presence in Europe. Future growth leaned toward Europe and Canada but company executives were eyeing Latin America, especially Mexico, where sales had been strong.
Claiborne herself has been buying back shares of the company recently, and she and her husband run the Liz Claiborne and Arthur Ortenburg Foundation. They spend their time in St. Barts or Montana, active in environmental and social issues. Claiborne does not wear the clothes bearing her name; she claims she would rather wear DKNY or Ralph Lauren casual clothes than her namesake brand, which itself had fallen on hard times in the past few years and moved only when markdowned. More recently, the trendy Kenneth Cole label produced by the company proved quite successful in taking business from the Liz Claiborne label. CEO Charron commented to the Wall Street Journal in February 2000, "It is better to steal market share from yourself than to sit back and let somebody else do it."
In the 21st century Liz Claiborne Inc. was the number-one retailer of clothes and accessories for career women in the United States. As such the company was firmly committed to furthering its brand recognition and making its many products available to consumers wherever they chose to shop.
updated by Donna W.Reamy
Founder of one of the world's most successful women's apparel manufacturing companies, Liz Claiborne (born 1929) was a pioneer in designing reasonably priced, good quality clothing for modern working women.
Liz Claiborne (Elisabeth Claiborne Ortenberg) was born March 31, 1929, in Brussels, Belgium, where her father, Omer V. Claiborne, was a banker for the Morgan Guaranty Trust Company. In the 1930s Omer, his wife Louise Fenner Claiborne, and their young daughter returned to their home in New Orleans, where Liz received a strict Roman Catholic upbringing. Her father did not consider formal education important, and before Claiborne graduated from high school he sent her to Europe to study art in Belgium and France. Although her parents expected her to become an artist, Claiborne, whose mother had taught her to sew, wanted to study fashion and pursued a career as a clothing designer.
When she was 21 years old her sketch for a woman's coat won a Jacques Heim design competition sponsored by Harper's Bazaar magazine. With this award and her sketching ability, Claiborne began working on Seventh Avenue in New York City's garment district as a design assistant and a model. From 1950 to 1955 she held several positions designing sportswear, tailored clothing, and high fashion. From 1955 to 1960 she was a dress designer for the Dan Keller company. From 1960 to December 1975 she was the principal designer for Youth Guild, the junior dress division of Jonathan Logan, a major women's apparel manufacturer. During this time Claiborne also raised her son from her first marriage to Ben Schultz and two step-children from her second marriage to Arthur Ortenberg, a textile manufacturer and consultant.
Claiborne saw a need in the marketplace for more comfortable but professional apparel for working women. Claiborne's fashion sense told her women could use clothing that was easier to wear and softer than the tailored business suits, blouses, and bow ties then sold in department stores. Unable to convince her employer to enter the mix-and-match coordinated sportswear market for working women, Claiborne started her own company.
Liz Claiborne, Inc. was founded on January 19, 1976, with approximately $250,000, including $50,000 of Claiborne's and her husband's savings. Ortenberg was the company's secretary and treasurer; industry executive and friend Leonard Boxer was in charge of production; and the fourth key executive, Jerome Chazen, joined the company in 1977 to direct marketing operations. Sales for the first year were over $2 million, as Claiborne's collection of pants, skirts, shirts, sweaters, and jackets was instantly popular.
Priced in a moderate range, from about $40 to $100, and sold in department stores, the Liz Claiborne label became known for its good quality materials, comfortable fit, good construction, color selection, and clean silhouettes. Not a couture designer but more of a stylist, Claiborne produced a collection of fashionably appropriate clothing that perfectly matched late-20th-century working women's clothing needs.
As sales increased from $2.6 million in 1976 to $117 million in 1981, production, delivery, and marketing demands increased in proportion. Credit for a well managed company belonged to the original management team of Ortenberg, Boxer, and Chazen. The company was regarded as one of the best managed in the highly competitive and volatile women's fashion apparel business.
Liz Claiborne, Inc. became a public company in 1981. Within a few years their stock holdings made Claiborne and Ortenberg millionaires. The company's market share continued to expand and the profits were high. To continue increasing its market share as well as to diversify its product, Claiborne expanded her fashion lines to include petites, dresses, shoes, accessories, menswear, and perfume between 1981 and 1986. Six years later there were 19 divisions. Computer analysis of sales and traveling consultants provided the company with constant feedback, making it possible to quickly fill or reduce merchandise orders. The majority of merchandise was manufactured in the Far East with an overseas staff to monitor quality control.
The company's success was partly due to what Ortenberg described as an "exploding market" of millions of baby-boomer women who during the 1980s were graduating from college and graduate schools to enter the professions. Encouraged by Claiborne's merchandise selection, women were becoming more confident about dressing for work and selected clothing that was appropriate for work and reflected their personalities.
In 1986, when company sales reached $1.2 billion, it joined the list of Fortune magazine's 500 largest industrial companies in the United States; it was one of only two companies started by a woman included on the list. Also in 1986 Claiborne, who was company president, became chairman of the board and chief executive officer. Until she retired in 1989, Claiborne remained the creative force behind the company's success and advised its design teams. She always emphasized fit, color, comfort, and good value as the company's goals.
In spring 1988 the company opened its first retail stores, and by spring 1992 it had approximately 45 stores. Sales were $2.1 billion for 1992. However, by early 1993 the company began to feel the effects of a growing popularity of discount stores compared to department stores in their decreasing sales.
Claiborne and her husband retired from active management of the company in 1989 to pursue their environmental and philanthropic interests. The Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation was established in 1989 with assets of $10 million; it provides substantial support for wilderness preservation. They spent six months of each year at a ranch house in Swan Valley, Montana; they also had a home on Fire Island, New York, and one on the Caribbean Island of St. Barts.
In 1990 Claiborne and her husband were elected to the National Business Hall of Fame, sponsored by Junior Achievement. A few of the many honors awarded Claiborne were induction into the National Sales Hall of Fame in 1991 and an honorary Doctorate degree from the Rhode Island School of Design the same year.
Liz Claiborne Inc. remains a fashion mainstay in mid-1997. Sales for 1996 reached $2.2 billion and the company now employs over 7000. Liz Claiborne herself remains active through a variety of charities. She and her husband still travel between their homes and avoid the public eye as much as possible.
There are several sources for additional information on Liz Claiborne's business and fashion sense. Elsa Klensch's interview article in Vogue (August 1986) gives Claiborne's views on how fashion had changed since 1976. "Can Ms. Fashion Bounce Back?" Business Week (January 16, 1989) discusses the company's growth, market share, and history. Valerie Steele, Women of Fashion, Twentieth Century Designers (1991) provides a brief perspective on the Liz Claiborne label, emphasizing its practicality and clothing for ordinary working women. Liz Claiborne, Inc. 1992 Annual Report describes each division and indicates its relative success. □
Born: March 31, 1929
American fashion designer and businesswoman
Founder of one of the world's most successful women's apparel (clothing) manufacturing companies, Liz Claiborne is a pioneer in designing reasonably priced, quality clothing for modern working women.
Elisabeth Claiborne was born on March 31, 1929, in Brussels, Belgium. She was the only child of American parents, Omer V. Claiborne, a banker for the Morgan Guaranty Trust Company, and Louise Fenner Claiborne. Her father taught her to appreciate art and her mother taught her to sew. Claiborne spent her early years in Belgium and learned to speak French before English. In 1939 the family left Belgium for their home in New Orleans, Louisiana. Claiborne's father did not consider formal education important. Before she could graduate from high school, her father sent her to study art in Belgium and France. Although her parents expected her to become an artist, Claiborne wanted to pursue a career as a clothing designer.
When Claiborne was twenty-one years old her sketch for a woman's coat won a design competition sponsored by Harper's Bazaar magazine. She began working in New York City as a design assistant and model. During the 1950s she designed sportswear, dresses, and tailored clothing. From 1960 to 1975 she was the main designer for the junior dress division of Jonathan Logan, a major women's apparel manufacturer. During this time Claiborne also raised her son from her first marriage to Ben Schultz and two stepchildren from her second marriage to Arthur Ortenberg, a clothing manufacturer.
Starts her own company
Claiborne saw a need for more comfortable professional clothes for working women. Unable to convince her employer to try to meet that need, Claiborne started her own company. Liz Claiborne, Inc. was founded in 1976 with approximately $250,000, including $50,000 of Claiborne and her husband's savings. Ortenberg was the company's secretary and treasurer; industry executive and friend Leonard Boxer handled production; and Jerome Chazen joined the company in 1977 to run the company's marketing operations.
Claiborne's clothes were instantly popular. Total sales for the first year were over two million dollars. Priced in a moderate range and sold in department stores, Liz Claiborne clothes became known among working women for their good quality materials, comfortable fit, good construction, and color selection. Sales increased to $117 million in 1981. The company was considered one of the best managed in the highly competitive women's fashion business.
Within a few years after the first shares of stock in Liz Claiborne, Inc., went on sale in 1981, Claiborne and Ortenberg were millionaires. The company's market share and profits continued to grow. Claiborne added shoes, men's clothing, and perfume to the product line. The company's success was helped by what Ortenberg described as an "exploding market" of millions of women who graduated from college and entered the workforce during the 1980s. Encouraged by Claiborne's merchandise, women were becoming more confident about dressing for work.
In 1986, when company sales reached $1.2 billion, it joined the list of Fortune magazine's five hundred largest industrial companies in the United States, one of only two companies on the list that had been started by a woman. Also in 1986 Claiborne, who was company president, became chairman of the board and chief executive officer. She continued to advise the company's design teams, placing great importance on the company's goals of providing good fit, color, comfort, and value.
Claiborne and her husband retired from active management of the company in 1989 in order to pursue environmental and charity work. The Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation was established in 1989 to provide support for protection of the wilderness. In 1990 Claiborne and her husband were elected to the National Business Hall of Fame. Claiborne was elected to the National Sales Hall of Fame in 1991, and she received an honorary (received without meeting the normal requirements) doctorate degree from the Rhode Island School of Design the same year.
Liz Claiborne, Inc., remains a fashion power and now employs over seven thousand people. The company continued its growth by purchasing other clothing companies such as Lucky Brand Dungarees and Laundry. In 2000, after receiving complaints from Muslims, the company was forced to recall eight thousand pairs of jeans with verses from the Koran (the holy book of the Islam faith) printed on them. The company also received some criticism over the 2001 release of a perfume called Mambo, which was seen as an attempt to cash in on the growing Hispanic population of the United States.
Liz Claiborne and her husband remain active in a number of charities and avoid the public eye as much as possible. At the 2000 American Fashion Awards presented by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Claiborne was honored for her environmental work, particularly in helping to fight the killing of African elephants for their ivory tusks.
For More Information
"Can Ms. Fashion Bounce Back?" Business Week (January 16, 1989).
Klensch, Elsa. Vogue (August 1986).
Steele, Valerie. Women of Fashion, Twentieth Century Designers. New York: Rizzoli International, 1991.