FASHION : Claiborne Again

Times Staff Writer

"I have done what I set out to do," working women's designer Liz Claiborne told her board of directors and stockholders this spring, as she and husband Arthur Ortenberg were about to exit their $1-billion empire to devote more time to environmental and social issues. "I thank you all for having been, with me, part of a grand adventure."

Liz gone? A jolting thought for millions of American women whose wardrobes and careers thrive on components that seem to come straight from the heart and soul of Claiborne herself. Since founding the company--with Ortenberg and two partners--13 years ago, the designing entrepreneur has become the working woman's heroine, offering casual, coordinated separates in updated silhouettes, at a moderate price. The well-received concept has turned Liz Claiborne Inc. into a Fortune 500 corporation with $1.2 billion in sales last year.

In getting ready to take her leave of the executive suite, she has spent two years preparing her successors. But at least one admiring retailer expects that she will now be like the mythical Betty Crocker: "Women will continue to feel she's there, looking after them."

Victoria Montana could be just such a fan. A manager of a high-ticket furniture showroom in Los Angeles, she feels sure nothing will change. "Following in her footsteps" is how Montana visualizes those newly placed at the company's helm.

She recently went on a shopping spree at Robinson's in Beverly Hills and came home with the kind of merchandise she has learned to expect from Liz: a "wonderful" navy-and-white plaid skirt and jacket with "beautiful" gold buttons; an "unusual" double-breasted navy-and-white cardigan with brass buttons, T-shirts with crests on the pockets ("a nice touch") and an entire collection of linen skirts (in yellow, tomato red, purple, black, white) with coordinated floral-print blouses.

"Part of my success," Claiborne once explained, "is that I realize my customers want simple, young, feminine clothes that take half a minute to pick out of a closet." So she gave them fashionable (but not faddish) clothes in vibrant colors and natural fabrics for nearly every moment of their lives.

The Liz legacy includes the designer's own dramatic personal style (short-cropped black hair, goggle-size glasses, a penchant for pants, T-shirt and a blazer) along with her original working-woman's wardrobe concept, which has spawned three sportswear divisions. There are also dresses, accessories, eyewear, cosmetics, fragrances, large sizes, petites, the higher-priced Dana Buchman label, menswear and a new East Coast chain of stores called First Issue stocked with special private-label merchandise.

She promises she has also left something else behind--"The new Liz of sportswear," as Claiborne calls her replacement, longtime friend Robert Abajian. "An extraordinary amalgam of talent, integrity and professional know-how," says Claiborne of the man whose mark is already on the company's merchandise in stores.

The founding couple "are not gone ," explains Abajian, who doesn't actually design. He oversees, as Claiborne did for a number of years, six sportswear designers and their staffs.

"Liz and Art are still members of the board," Abajian says. "I think we're more aware of their presence than ever because of the goals they set for us. They taught us well. They were very demanding of us, and we're very demanding of us."

Abajian, 57, recalls: "Liz and I were both part of a group of young designers at one point. We have the kind of experience that people don't get today, because companies are structured differently. We literally had to drape our own muslin and run around the market to come up with fabric ideas--in addition to designing."

For the sake of unique textiles, every Claiborne fabric is created in-house. "We start everything from scratch," Abajian explains. "We don't give the artists a color card. Instead, we might give them a piece of paper or a snip of thread."

The red stripe on the company's logo was formulated in much the same way. According to vice chairman Jay Margolis, it is a mixture of reds found in Liz's nail polish and a glove. At the company's recent annual awards breakfast, which turned into a tearful farewell party for Claiborne, 60, and Ortenberg, 62, they were given a framed remnant of the red glove.

And what does the future hold, now that Liz is the Betty Crocker of Seventh Avenue? "I don't think the company is going to change much. It's not as if she walked out in one day," observes Marc Ware, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for the Broadway. "I think everything will be as wonderful as before."

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