She dressed the working woman

Liz Claiborne, who died Tuesday, revolutionized fashion in the ’70s with her classic designs at moderate prices.

Posted: June 28, 2007

In the late 1970s, before fashion was synonymous with celebrity, designer Liz Claiborne became a household name as among the first to introduce stylish separates to working women.

Her work with tailored knits gave women climbing the corporate ladder the confidence to walk into the office on feminine terms. The softness of her fabrics was all woman, while the neutral colors conveyed a business-appropriate look for the serious-minded.

Claiborne, along with Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein, expanded a fashion empire into a lifestyle brand. Today Liz Claiborne is a multimillion-dollar New York-based company that includes megabrands such as Juicy Couture, Ellen Tracy and Kate Spade.

Claiborne died Tuesday morning at New York Presbyterian Hospital after a long bout with cancer, said Gwen Satterfield, Claiborne's personal assistant. She was 78. In 1997, she had learned she had a rare form of cancer that affected the lining of her stomach, according to the New York Times.

"In losing Liz Claiborne, we have not only lost the founder of our company, but an inspirational woman who revolutionized the fashion industry 30 years ago," said Bill McComb, chief executive officer of Liz Claiborne Inc., in a statement released yesterday.

"Her commitment to style and design is ever present in our thinking and the way we work. We will remember Liz for her vision, her entrepreneurial spirit, and her enduring compassion and generosity."

While Claiborne's label lives on in outlet malls and as a fragrance, her fashion sense is representative of a time and place. By the time the 1990s rolled around, the quiet designer had lost her cachet with the contemporary market, and her clothing, while still functional, was anything but cutting edge.

Claiborne was born Elisabeth Claiborne in Brussels, Belgium. Her father, Omer V. Claiborne, was a banker for Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. who moved the family to New Orleans in the 1930s. When Claiborne was a teen, she studied art in Belgium and France. Her family expected her to become an artist, but she decided to study fashion.

At 21, Claiborne won the Jacques Heim competition sponsored by Harpers Bazaar magazine for a coat design. The award helped her find work in New York's Seventh Avenue garment district, where she worked for fashion companies Dan Keller and Youth Guild.

It was her work at Youth Guild that first caught the eye of Philadelphia boutique owner Joan Shepp.

"She did these amazing knits," said Shepp, who bought the sportswear line for her boutique, then located on Germantown Pike in Lafayette Hill.

"We just sold them out all the time. And then she just got bigger and bigger. She was this creative and sweet person who always wore big glasses. This is such a loss for the fashion world."

In January of 1976, Claiborne launched her own company, Liz Claiborne Inc.; her husband, Arthur Ortenberg, was the company's secretary and treasurer.

The inital investment was $250,000, including $50,000 of the family's savings. Sales topped $2 million in the first year, and had reached $117 million by 1981.

Claiborne wasn't considered a couture designer. The Liz Claiborne style was simple and classic: cuffed trousers, men's-style shirts, fitted jackets fashioned from neutral shades in fabrics that breathed. With pieces between $40 to $100, the line was moderately priced.

"She was a big vendor at Saks in those early days," said Jane Carton, a retired spokeswoman for Saks Fifth Avenue at Bala Cynwyd. "Her designs made clothing for the career girl a necessity. She was very classic and never outrageous and beautifully priced."

The brand was sought after in better department stores and boutiques. In 1988, the company opened its first retail stores, and in 1989, Claiborne retired.

Claiborne and her husband spent time with the Liz Claiborne, Art Orenberg Foundation, a nonprofit organization that funds environmental and philanthropic interests.

Like the Velcro sneakers that enabled women to march to the office comfortably, in the last decade the Liz Claiborne look started to seem dated. While fashion was defining itself with a celebrity edge, Claiborne became synonymous with pleated pants: "mom clothes."

Recently, Liz Claiborne has tried to right itself. Designers started focusing on well-fitting pants, which are at the center of current fashion design. Earlier this year, the company also hired Tim Gunn, of the reality show Project Runway, to juice up the brands.

It is too early to tell if the new Liz Claiborne will speak to the generation that follows Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. But maybe Liz Claiborne's lasting legacy is that while her fashions may have become staid, she stayed true to her core customer.

That's a rarity among brands.


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. To read her recent work, go to http://go.philly.com/elizabeth

wellington.

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