Liz Claiborne, 78; clothes designer for career women built vast fashion empire

Times Staff Writer

Liz Claiborne, the designer who built a global fashion empire by taking career women out of “uptight” suits and offering them a wide range of affordable, feminine and colorful separates that were stylish without being trendy, has died. She was 78.

Often called the working woman’s best friend, Claiborne died Tuesday at New York Presbyterian Hospital after battling cancer for several years, a family spokesman said.

Although she catered to the masses with her namesake mall brand, Claiborne earned the respect of such high-fashion icons as Oscar de la Renta, who on Wednesday called her “one of the great pillars” of the industry, and Calvin Klein, who said she gave working women “originality and style.”


She founded the Liz Claiborne label with her husband, Arthur Ortenberg, and two other partners in 1976 at the height of the feminist movement, when women were storming the workplace. The fashion industry had responded to the social revolution with pants and unimaginative tailored suits. Claiborne, by then a veteran of the fashion business, sensed an opportunity.

“At that point you either looked like a hippie or you looked like you were Donna Reed. She filled that hole,” said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Assn. “That whole concept of sportswear as career clothing is her legacy.”

Outspoken but wary of interviews, Claiborne had a commanding presence and distinctive appearance, with close-cropped black hair and huge black eyeglasses. When she went into business with Ortenberg, a textile executive, she wanted to design clothes for women like herself who wanted to dress attractively but didn’t have the time or the fashion sense to put together appealing outfits.

“I wanted to dress busy and active women like myself -- women who dress in a rush and who weren’t perfect,” she once told Women’s Wear Daily. She said her goal was to “bring good taste to a mass level.”

Her success far exceeded predictions. After an initial investment of $250,000, Claiborne and Ortenberg turned a profit by the end of their first year. By the time the husband-and-wife team retired in 1989, Liz Claiborne Inc. was an apparel giant worth more than $1 billion.

Despite some major setbacks in recent years, the company now encompasses more than three dozen brands, including Juicy Couture and Lucky Brand Jeans. It reported $5 billion in sales in 2006.


Claiborne, a lifelong nature lover, devoted her last years to supporting wildlife conservation through the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation.

She was born Elisabeth Claiborne in Brussels in 1929 to American parents. Her father was a banker who encouraged her to become a painter and took her to museums around Europe. Her mother was a homemaker and excellent seamstress who taught her to sew. She credited her European upbringing with giving her a “careful sense of the visual.”

She never graduated from high school but studied painting in Brussels and Paris. Disinclined to become an artist, she moved to New York and demonstrated her independence from her rather old-fashioned parents by cutting off the long hair they had insisted she maintain. Against their wishes, she pursued her interest in fashion and won a national design contest sponsored by Harper’s Bazaar with a sketch of a high-collared woman’s coat.

Her first job was as a sketcher for Seventh Avenue sportswear designer Tina Leser. In 1950, the year Claiborne began her fashion career, she married Ben Schultz, a designer for Time-Life Books. She continued to work after the birth of their only child, Alexander.

Her marriage to Schultz ended after she met Ortenberg, an executive for a textile company, whom she married in 1957. In addition to her son, she is survived by Ortenberg’s two children from a previous marriage, Neil and Nancy.

Claiborne changed jobs several times during the 1950s, including a stint as an assistant to costume designer Omar Kiam. In 1960, she was hired by the Youth Guild division of Jonathan Logan to design junior clothing. She spent the next 15 years there.


By the mid-1970s she was restless and eager to fill a niche she saw in the market for moderately priced career clothes, but was afraid to risk her family’s savings until her children completed college. That moment came on Jan. 19, 1976, when Liz Claiborne Inc. was established with $50,000 in personal funds and $200,000 from relatives, friends and associates.

As head designer, she oversaw a collection of 35 pieces for the fall of 1976 that included pants, knickers, pleated skirts, cowl-neck sweaters, ponchos and shirt jackets. The pieces -- which she described as “business-like but not too pinstripe, more casual, more imaginative, less uptight” -- could be mixed and matched and ranged in price from $36 to $80.

“The concept was to dress the American working woman because I, as a working woman with a child, didn’t want to spend hours shopping. Things should be easy. You don’t have to dress in that little navy blue suit with a tie,” Claiborne told Women’s Wear Daily in 2006. “I wanted to dress her in sportier clothes and colors.”

In 1980 Claiborne became the first woman in the fashion industry to be named Entrepreneurial Woman of the Year. In 1981, the company went public and dazzled Wall Street with stock that shot from $19 to $31 in the first six months.

The growth continued even during the recession of the early 1980s when other apparel manufacturers were suffering. The reason, said Claiborne in a 1982 interview in Forbes, was that “the Liz lady still works for a living.... She hasn’t been laid off from her executive job, and she needs and buys clothing. So, stores are still planning big increases” in orders for Claiborne designs “despite all the doom and gloom.”

The company diversified through the 1980s, adding divisions for dresses, shoes, accessories and men’s sportswear. It also introduced a line of jeans called Lizwear. It made the Fortune 500 in 1986, ranked No. 437. It was one of the youngest firms to ever make the list.


In later years, Claiborne turned the designing over to her staff but continued to supervise their work, select fabrics and edit the collections. In contrast to her more jovial spouse, she was serious and known to ring a delicate glass bell when staff meetings got too disorderly. She nearly always wore pants to the office; on the rare occasions when she showed up in a skirt, her staff applauded.

Customers remained loyal to the brand even after she left the company in 1989. In a 1994 Redbook magazine poll, 43% of women surveyed nationwide said they would choose Claiborne over such designer labels as Calvin Klein, Anne Klein, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Adrienne Vittadini.

The core customers were still working women who did not reside at the cutting edge of fashion, who just “like to go to a store and get it over with and be happy with the clothes.”


Times staff writer Jocelyn Stewart contributed to this report.