Source | Then New York Times Magazine | December 30, 2007 | By Rebecca Johnson
Queen of the Separates
Pants, shirt, jacket. No big deal — now. But back in the early 1970s, before Liz Claiborne became a household name, that outfit was not much of an option for women. Out in the world, you wore a dress or a skirt with a matching jacket. At home, you wore slacks or a housedress. You could be dressed up or dressed down, in other words, but “separates,” as the fashion industry calls the way women now dress, had yet to become a phenomenon. Until Liz.
As with many figures at the center of a paradigm shift, Claiborne was in the right place at the right time. “I can’t tell you we were smart enough back then to say, ‘American women are about to join the work force in record numbers, and they’re going to need something to wear,’ ” admits Jerry Chazen, one of Claiborne’s original partners. “But there was a busy lady who needed something to wear. We saw a niche.”
Claiborne understood that niche because she was a busy lady needing something to wear. A Belgian-born high-school dropout who spoke with a kind of accent Americans usually identify as “grand” — “turquoise” was ter-kwaz — Claiborne began her career as a sketcher and a dress model on Seventh Avenue and worked her way up to designer. Her parents were so opposed to her career choice that her father, a banker, dropped her off on a corner in New York City, handed her $50 and did not speak to her for 20 years. On an interview for a job, Claiborne met the fashion executive Art Ortenberg, and although they were both married to other people at the time, they ended up married to each other shortly thereafter, beginning a lifelong collaboration. Within seven months of starting (along with a handful of investors) Liz Claiborne Inc., they were in the black, an unheard-of feat on Seventh Avenue.
“We started out in the same building,” says the designer Stan Herman, who was president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America for 16 years.
“I watched her take the fifth floor, then the sixth floor, then the seventh. Finally, they had to move to a new building.” The company went public in 1981. Five years later it made the Fortune 500, the first company founded by a woman to do so.
It’s not that other companies weren’t making clothes for working women. But the clothes they were making looked remarkably similar to the clothes men were wearing — conservative blue or camel’s-hair jackets, blouses with bow ties. The message was clear: I may be a woman, but don’t worry, I’m not that different from you. Claiborne’s clothes were actually quite ordinary — high-waisted pants that flared at the bottom, long-sleeved button-down shirts. The revolution was in the details. A talented seamstress herself, she cared a great deal about fit and comfort. “She was a pear-shaped woman,” says Chazen, “who knew how to design for women, most of whom are also pear-shaped.” She was also one of the first to design in color — bright red, yellow and royal blue, the colors female politicians still wear when they want to be taken seriously. Nor did she focus on the East Coast sophisticate. “She also designed for the woman in Dallas, where the light was different,” says her design protégée Dana Buchman.
Claiborne also revolutionized the way clothes were sold. Back then, department stores displayed pants with pants, shirts with shirts. She introduced the concept of “outfits.” Liz Claiborne pants were sold next to Liz Claiborne shirts with all the dye lots coordinated to match. The innovations made Claiborne a star with a certain generation. “Traveling with her in those days was like traveling with a rock star,” Buchman says. “Women were so grateful to her for these clothes.”
As it happened, Claiborne did not have the personality of a rock star.
Sensing the beginning of what is now the global business of branding, her partners pushed her to become more of a public persona. “We didn’t need to spend money on advertising,” Chazen says, “because all the magazines wanted to write about Liz or have her clothes in their magazine.” But in a business of big egos and flashy personalities, Claiborne was a shy person who preferred staying at home to going out at night. “You never saw Liz at the parties,” Stan Herman says. “She was like Garbo.”
As the business got bigger and bigger — today Liz Claiborne Inc. is a $5-billion-a-year company and owns the brands Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand Jeans, Dana Buchman, Kate Spade and Ellen Tracy, among others — she grew more and more miserable. “I found myself spending my whole day in elevators,” she once lamented in an interview. “Liz was a lovely person,” Chazen says. “That was one of the problems with her being a manager. She didn’t know how to say something was terrible, because she knew how hard those designers had worked.”
In 1989, Claiborne and her husband resigned from the company they started, liquidated their stock and began making grants to wildlife-preservation groups. To date, their foundation has given $40 million away. In this, she was also ahead of her time. “The fashion industry hadn’t always been good at giving back,” Herman says. “She was among the first.”
In 2000, the C.F.D.A. recognized that generosity with their Humanitarian Award. Even though the cancer that would eventually kill her was diagnosed three years earlier, Claiborne showed up to accept the award.
That night, the woman who built a multibillion-dollar industry on clothes made of bright, happy colors wore black.