‘Borne Business Woman: Liz Claiborne!

July 10, 2009

Her motto: “fit the way you live”

I am certain that you have heard her name more than once, maybe you and your mother have even worn clothing that bares her name, but what else do you know about her? Well she was a pioneer in the business world who paved the way for women like me to own our own companies.

Liz Claiborne, also known as Anne Elisabeth Jane Claiborne, was the first woman to become chairperson and CEO of a Fortune 500 Company. The road that led her there is one less traveled. Let’s take a closer look!
Liz was born in 1929 in Brussels, Belgium. Her family was prominent in Louisiana with an ancestor named William C. C. Claiborne who was the Governor of Louisiana during the War of 1812. When she was 10 her family returned to Louisiana. She attended a boarding school in Maryland, however instead of finishing high school her father, a banker, sent her to Europe. She was to study art informally since he did not believe Liz needed a formal education. Though her parents wanted her to become an artist, Liz knew she wanted to be a designer ever since her mother taught her how to sew.

When she was 21 she won the Jacques Heim National Design Contest sponsored by Harper’s Bizarre and jumped at the chance to move to New York the first moment she could. Unlike many other designers she did not attend Parson’s or a fancy design school, she merely worked as a sportswear sketch artist for Tina Leser and as a designer for Dan Keller, Youth Group Inc, and Johnathan Logan.
At the age of 47 she became frustrated with the lack of clothing for working women. Her boss at the time would not entertain her idea of mix and match coordinated sportswear for women, so she began her own company. She started with $50,000 of her and her husband’s savings money and $200,000 from other investors and more than quadrupled their investments.

Liz Claiborne Inc., established in 1976, was an instant success making $2 million the first year and $23 million 2 years later in 1978. By 1988 she had captured one third of the women’s upscale sportswear market. In 1981 her sales reached $117 million. Absolutely amazing for someone who did not even finish high school, isn’t it ?! Even more amazing was the in 1985 with retail sales of $1.2 Billion she was considered a fortune 500 company. Part of this incredible success can be accredited the the baby-boomers who were graduating from college and going out into the working world in the 80’s. Her company also received recognition as one of the best managed companies in the highly competitive area of women’s fashion.
Another reason for her success was that Liz Claiborne knew exactly what she wanted. She demanded that her clothes be placed together in department stores, something that was unheard of at the time. That decision has impacted the way that department stores are organized today. Thanks to Liz, we don’t have to go searching all over the place to put together a Liz Claiborne outfit.
Liz not only had influence in the business aspect of clothing but in the design aspect. She believed that women shouldn’t be confined to boring colors in the work place, she wanted to add fun and color to their wardrobe which would expand their work attire options. She designed clothes of quality and at an affordable price point so that working women could buy them, wear them, and feel great in them. She didn’t play into trends, her style was relevant across the different age groups and withheld its relevance during the changing seasons.

Liz and her second husband/co-founder, Art Ortenburg who was a textile manufacturer and consultant, retired in 1989 from management after acquiring other companies. During her retirement she donated millions of dollars to environmental organizations, she was definitely a forward thinker because we certainly need those funds today. Additionally, she founded the Liz Claiborne Foundation in 1981 to focus on ending domestic violence and promoting economic self-sufficiency for women and positive development for girls. She also lent her time to Parson’s School and The Fashion Institute of Technology as a lecturer.
In 1990 Claiborne and her husband were elected to the National Business Hall of Fame. She also received an 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. At the 2000 American Fashion Awards presented by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Claiborne received the humanitarian award for her environmental work, more specifically for helping to fight the ivory trade in Africa.
Sadly, in 1997 she was told that she had a rare cancer that affected the lining of her abdomen. In 2007 she passed away after her struggle with cancer, at the age of 78.

Her legacy still lives on today through CFDA’s scholarship to Seniors earning a degree towards fashion design who have showed that they are addressing the lifestyle of working women in 2010. This merit based scholarship is worth $25,000 towards a student’s second semester in senior year or college expenses.

I have to say that I am impressed by the way that she handled the business aspect of her company. Her timing and the quality of her work combined made her a huge hit. She even sold over 15,000 units of a velour peasant blouse. Amazing right!? I would have never thought that her company had this much success. I just remember shopping with my mother before my freshman year in high school, buying 10 Liz Claiborne skirts that were all amazingly adorable and 10 dollars each. Not only that, but recently I went to LizClaiborne.com and typed in my size ( which is a double digit) and got 61 pages worth of clothing, 61! That is astonishing. What is more surprising is that all of my options were cute, affordable, and multifunctional ( wearable for work or for play)

Though some may have said her line never had edge, they can no longer say that today because of the fabulous new addition to their team, Isaac Mizrahi. To add a little extra flavor, her company also acquired Luck Brand Jeans , Kate Spade, Juicy Couture, Kenzie, Kenzie Girl, Monet and Marvella. It also holds the license to DKNY jeans and DKNY active. If that’s not edge, I don’t know what is.

Please, let’s all take a lesson from the late, great Liz Claiborne who impacted not only the fashion world, but the business world, the environment and much much more. This woman was truly amazing. I will continue to wear her brand with honor and pride.

Here’s to you Liz, you ROCK!

Enjoy some pictures of the Fall 2009 Line styled and designed by Isaac Mizrahi. He has kept her same theme and modernized it!

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