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Claiborne, Liz - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Liz Claiborne, Social and Economic Impact

company fashion design inc

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.

Personal Life

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.

Career Details

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

1929: Born.

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.

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