Liz Claiborne, Fashion Designer, Dies at 78

posted 2007-06-27 16:44:07 by beth

Liz Claiborne, the designer of indefatigable career clothes for professional women entering the workforce en masse beginning in the 1970s, died Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 78.

Her death, at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, was caused by complications of cancer, said Arthur Ortenberg, her husband. Ms. Claiborne learned in 1997 that she had a rare form of cancer that affects the lining of the abdomen.

She had homes in Manhattan and the Saltaire section of Fire Island, N.Y., and on a large farm in Swan Valley, Mont.

Before she became the most successful women’s apparel designer in America, Ms. Claiborne had worked for 20 years in the backrooms of Seventh Avenue sportswear houses like Youth Guild and Juniorite, making peppy dresses.

A strong-willed designer with an acute sense for business, she defied the male-dominated ranks of the fashion industry by starting her own company in 1976 with Mr. Ortenberg, a textiles executive. In an apt reversal of roles, she gave him the corporate title of secretary.

Ms. Claiborne correctly anticipated a market for affordable, professional-looking clothes that women could wear to compete on an equal footing with men in corporate professions. In her no-nonsense way, she became something of a role model, and her label an inspirational emblem, to those who, like her, were looking to break through glass ceilings.

As a measure of her success, when Ms. Claiborne retired from active management of Liz Claiborne Inc. in 1990, it was the largest women’s apparel maker in the country, with $1.4 billion in sales.

The company remains among the largest in fashion with $4.85 billion in sales in 2005 and a portfolio of brands that now includes Dana Buchman, Juicy Couture, Ellen Tracy and Lucky Brand jeans.

Ms. Claiborne’s company was the first founded by a woman to enter the rankings of the Fortune 500, in 1986, and she was one of only a handful of women who were chief executives of companies on that list.

As a designer, Ms. Claiborne did not care to be considered a trendsetter. She placed practical concerns over the glamour of the catwalks and the prestige of designer prices. Her arrival as a fashion brand was precipitous, catching the beginning of a great change in American society as women headed to the workplace in large numbers.

She created a new foundation for a modern working woman’s wardrobe, which had begun, she once acknowledged irritably, as the bland re-interpretation for women of a man’s navy blue suit and tie. Blouses that closed with frilly bows did not appeal to Ms. Claiborne. Her creative expressions were made of colorful tailored separates that could be mixed with other pieces to create many outfits.

As women made headway in corporate America, Ms. Claiborne expanded with office-friendly sportswear that conveyed a potent blend of intelligence, strength and femininity. It eventually transcended the workplace, becoming a lifestyle brand. One of her first designs was a velour peasant blouse; she sold 15,000 pieces in one season.

“I wanted to dress busy and active women like myself, women who dress in a rush and who weren’t perfect,” Ms. Claiborne said in a 1989 interview in Women’s Wear Daily. “But loving clothes, I knew clothes could do a certain thing for you from a flattering point of view. And I tried to bring good taste to a mass level.”

Her strategy was to provide an alternative to the expensive options facing women. Her designs, she said, were “businesslike, but not too pinstripe, more casual, more imaginative, less uptight.”

The formula was an instant success. Starting with initial investment of $50,000 in savings and $200,000 raised from friends, Liz Claiborne Inc. grossed $2.6 million in its first year. The company went public in 1981, with net income of $10 million on sales of $117 million. By its 10th anniversary, sales exceeded $560 million, its payroll had grown to 2,200 people and its operations included multiple showrooms at 1441 Broadway and warehouses throughout Secaucus, N.J. In 1990, the company shipped over 35 million garments and accessories.

Ms. Claiborne, with close-cropped black hair and oversized glasses, was an imposing boss to her staff and an aloof chief executive to financial analysts, presiding over design meetings with a delicate glass bell she rang to maintain order.

And Ms. Claiborne became something of a celebrity, traveling about the country to department stores to meet her fans, often appearing in three different cities in one day. Once, flying from a fashion show luncheon to a dinner show in another city, her plane was delayed. Ms. Claiborne assumed she had missed the appearance. After landing, however, she discovered that the audience had remained waiting for several hours.

“I changed in the hotel room in about two seconds flat and went out, and when I walked in that room— the applause,” she said. “It was the first time I realized it was like being a star for a short while. It was a great feeling, but it was a feeling also of responsibility when you have women reacting that way and depending on you.”

Ms. Claiborne was a vocal critic of the fashion industry and spoke out about a lack of opportunities for women to achieve equality in other fields. But after retiring, she and Mr. Ortenberg separated themselves from fashion almost entirely, setting off on travels to remote corners of the world in what could have been described as storybook adventures.

They shared a second career by founding a charitable foundation for environmental conservancy projects, among them a wildlife preserve in northeastern Tibet, rain forest education programs in Brazil, education and health projects in Kenya and efforts to rescue elephants in Myanmar, fish and eagles in Madagascar and European brown bears in the Carpathian mountains of Romania.

In Montana, where they lived part-time, they bought more than 3,000 acres of farmed and overgrazed ranches with the ambition of letting the land revert to its natural state.

Anne Elisabeth Jane Claiborne was born March 31, 1929, in Brussels, the daughter of Omer Villere, a banker, and Louise Carol Fenner Claiborne. As a teenager, she and her mother followed her father around Europe and spent summers with family in Baltimore or New Orleans. She was a direct descendant of William C.C. Claiborne, the first governor of Louisiana.

When she was 19, Ms. Claiborne, who had studied painting in Brussels and Nice but never completed high school, won a design contest advertised in Harper’s Bazaar magazine and was inspired to pursue a career in fashion. Her parents did not approve. According to Irene Daria’s book “The Fashion Cycle” (Simon & Schuster, 1990), the family was driving through Manhattan two years later when Ms. Claiborne declared, “I’m staying.” Her father let her out of the car, handed her $50 and said, “Good luck.”

“It wasn’t as bad as it sounds,” Ms. Claiborne recalled at a meeting with Liz Claiborne’s current designers last year.

She stayed with her grandmother for a month while looking for a job. Tina Leser eventually hired her to work at her dress house as a sketcher and fit model. She went on to work for a few other dress companies — Ben Reig, Juniorite and Dan Keller — and later the Rhea Manufacturing Company, where she met her second husband, Mr. Ortenberg, in 1954. Although they were both married at the time — she to Ben Shultz — they began an affair and left the company because of it, Mr. Ortenberg said. They divorced their spouses and were married in 1957.

Jonathan Logan, another large dress manufacturer, later hired Ms. Claiborne as the designer of its Youth Guild division, where she worked for 16 years. When the label folded, she and Mr. Ortenberg started Liz Claiborne Inc.

In addition to Mr. Ortenberg, she is survived by a son from her first marriage, Alexander G. Schultz, a jazz guitarist who lives in Germany, and by Mr. Ortenberg’s children from his prior marriage, Neil Ortenberg of New York and Nancy Ortenberg of Oak Park, Ill.