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Claiborne Pursues Sweet Smell of Success

Liz Claiborne started her fashion firm in 1976 with her husband, two partners and a $250,000 investment, because she felt the working woman needed more options.

Since then, her followers have become so fervent that the company’s wholesale volume topped $550 million in 1985, and Claiborne estimates it will soar nearly half again as much this year.

And now the smell of success will become even headier with the introduction of a signature scent from the designer, a joint venture of her company and Avon Products. The perfume--described as floral with fruity qualities, a hint of spice and a twist of green--will be launched on Monday and Tuesday at Robinson’s Woodland Hills and Newport Beach stores, with Claiborne herself in attendance.

Intuitive Preferences

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That personal touch is typical of the designer, who explained in an interview last week that even the bottle design and packaging were based on her own intuitive preferences, rather than on extended marketing research, as one would expect.

The triangle shapes and the red, yellow and blue color scheme that figure so importantly in the packaging and promotion, she said, were chosen for somewhat mystical reasons.

“It has to do with numerology and my astrological sign (Aries),” Claiborne said. “I’m a great follower of all that. The color yellow has always been important to me. It’s a color that always makes you smile.”

And she has departed from current industry techniques to sell the fragrance, she added, by de-emphasizing exclusivity.

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Millions of Samples

“What we are doing is not launching in a limited number of stores,” she says. In fact, 9 million samples will be given out during the launch. “We’re distributing, very honestly, to all the stores that do well with our Liz Claiborne lines and that will give us the space and commitment we’re asking for. I thought this was the correct way to launch. We’re not a status, snobbish kind of company at all.”

Sex, which is the current vehicle of choice for selling most fragrances, is also de-emphasized in Liz Claiborne advertising. No cleavage or come-hither looks here. The model in one ad is leaping athletically, wearing a pristine white sweat suit. Copy emphasizes words like “spirit,” “energy,” “ladylike,” “fun” and the “great mood” into which the scent will, presumably, put the wearer.

“Even though we know that scent and cosmetics are not viewed in the same reality as clothes--there’s a little more fantasy going on--I don’t think my customer sees me that way,” said the designer, who has a kind of Katharine Hepburn quality about her--a smart, straight-forward manner and an angular attractiveness that doesn’t translate in photographs.

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“My customer trusts me. She’s confident in the function of my brand. So I didn’t want to sell my fragrance with a sexy mystique or give the impression you’d have this wonderful guy leaping at you if you wear Liz Claiborne. I’d rather appeal to a woman’s idealistic version of herself. She’s active, whatever her age. It’s the same feeling we try to give in the clothes.”

Claiborne recalled her first awareness of scent: “I think one always associates fragrance with one’s mother,” she said. “I remember when she was dressing up to go out. It was so exciting, very romantic and, at the same time, familiar. I used to love to watch her dress to go out. She was into fashion. She still loves clothes. She sewed a lot and taught me how to sew.

“I’m not a great fragrance user. Before my scent was developed, I used Clinique men’s colognes a lot and Clinique’s aromatics, because they’re both very light and fresh.”

Claiborne, 57, was born in Brussels, Belgium, and raised in Europe until the age of 11, when she moved to New Orleans, her family’s original home. She stayed in the United States through high school, returned to Europe after World War II and then came back to the States again in 1950. Her father was a banker in Brussels, and she attended art school in both Brussels and Paris.

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How did a woman from a well-to-do family, who was mostly raised and educated in Europe--a rarefied life style at the time--manage to end up relating so successfully to the needs and wants of the average American woman?

“We were very comfortable but not wealthy,” she emphasized. “From early on, I believed in women’s independence. We didn’t call it women’s rights at that point. My mother was held up to me as the perfect image--beautiful, ladylike. I thought, well, that’s great, but I want to be independent and be able to support myself--not have to rely on a man. I think I always wanted to be that average American woman, and when I joined the work force I identified with her.”

Claiborne manages to stay one jump ahead of what’s happening in the marketplace--without being accused of trend-chasing. For example, her recently launched Liz Claiborne sunglasses line is labeled to let consumers know that all harmful ultraviolet rays are blocked by the lenses. In an era of health awareness, this is a smart move that many other designer-sunglasses firms have not yet made.

“We try,” she says, looking out from the goggle-size eyeglasses that have become her personal trademark, along with her close-cropped haircut.

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Product Comes First

“We don’t do revolutionary silhouettes, so we concentrate on product. We ask ourselves: ‘What can we bring to the marketplace that will be different from everything else out there?’ We always want to work at the intrinsic value of the product first. If we decide we want linen but it’s too expensive, we’ll scour the world to get the best linen at the right price.”

Liz Claiborne Inc. continues to grow at a phenomenal rate. The company has been named to the Fortune 500 list. It has been estimated that personal stock owned by her and her husband, Art Ortenberg, is worth about $190 million.

Asked what motivates her to continue expanding an already hugely successful business and to amass alarger personal fortune, Claiborne replied: “It’s not American not to. You have to grow.”

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“Also, the excitement is in the new product. This year, it’s the fragrance. Last year, it was the menswear. Before that, the children’s wear. There’s always a new angle that keeps us interested.”

Sacrifices and Compensations

With success goes sacrifice. And Claiborne has made her share.

“We don’t have any friends left,” she says, laughing at the personal predicament into which her profession has put her. “We didn’t have time for them, working day and night, and now we’re with people so much during the day and into the evening with business dinners. Weekends have become sacred to me. I just don’t want to see anybody--even friends. Hopefully, when I can take more time, it’ll change.”

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There are compensations, although Claiborne says it’s still very hard for her to be extravagant with herself.

“I now allow myself to buy things I never would have thought of doing,” she says, indicating a gold bracelet on one wrist.

“I’ve actually bought things without looking at the price tag, though normally this would never have been the case. The first extravagant thing I did was to go out and buy a fur coat--a beautiful Swedish raccoon.”


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