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.
Further Reading on Liz Claiborne
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.