Liz Claiborne is an iconic fashion designer who revolutionized the women’s fashion industry from the late 1970s to the 1990s (see Paul Pelosi’s biography, the other millionaire of her time). She still holds the record as the second woman to lead a company to be listed in the Fortune 500 list by Fortune Magazine.
She was hailed as an icon in her death, with most media houses paying tribute to her as a fashion legend.
It is this journey “the making of a Fashion Legend” that this biography will take you through, right from her birth in Brussels, to when she breathed her last in New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
Let’s start with the quick biofacts;
Summary of Liz Claiborne’s Bio Facts
Full Name: Anne Elisabeth Jane Claiborne
Birth Date: March 31, 1929
Death: June 26, 2007
Birth Place: Brussels, Belgium
Nick Name: Liz
Children: Alexander G. Schultz.
Partner / Spouse: Arthur Ortenburg (1957 -2007), Ben Schultz (1950 to 1954)
Profession: Fashion Designer, Business Woman.
Net Worth: $1.5 to $5 million, Forbes and IMDb
Companies Associated With Liz Claiborne Inc.
Last Updated: June 2021.
Liz Claiborne Key Facts Summary
- Her company was the second woman-led company to merit listing in the Fortune 500 list by Fortune Magazine.
- She got an Honorary Doctorate in 1991 from Rhode Island School of Design.
- Was recognized as an outstanding salesperson in 1991 by the National Sales Hall of fame.
- Received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000 from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
- Liz Won the Jacques Heim National Design Contest in 1949.
Liz Claiborne’s Birthplace and Early Life
Liz Claiborne was born to American parents Omer Villere Claiborne and Carolyn Louise Fenner on March 31, 1929, in Brussels, Belgium. Claiborne was the only daughter of the late Omer Villere, who worked at Morgan Guaranty Trust Company as a banker.
Together with her two brothers and mother, Liz Claiborne hurriedly left Brussels for New Orleans, Louisiana, in the late 1930s. The imminent invasion catalyzed their departure by Nazis and the threat of another world war. Her father had to be left behind in Brussels when they left, hoping to go back later.
They could later go back to Brussels in 1946, soon after the end of World War II.
In her short stay in the USA, she entered a fashion design competition by submitting a portfolio of her designs. Much to the chagrin of her parents, she won both at the local and national levels.
The reward of the competition was a scholarship to study in Nice, France.
Later, when she was 21, while driving through Seventh Avenue in New York with her family, she got out of the vehicle and told her father that she wanted to pursue fashion design. His father, a conservative that wanted her to be an artist, calmly got off the car, pulled her suitcase out, and handed her $50 before driving off. And that is how she got into New York.
The decision to have her study art was not by mistake as her father, an avid art lover, saw no significant value in formal education. This love for Art by her father saw a young Liz “dragged around museums and Cathedrals” to appreciate Art.
On the other hand, her mother taught her how to sew long before even coherently speaking. Alongside the informal hands-on training, her mother taught her the importance of personal appearance.
These two contrasting pursuits by her mother, sewing, and her father, lover of sophisticated painting and Art, laid the foundation for her later career as a fashion designer.
Unknown to her then, both the practical skills of sewing and aesthetic appreciation of Art were intertwined with her dream career as a clothing designer. To her parents, though, all they wanted in her was an artist, which is why they had her study art.
It was until later in life that she got value for the art course she had undertaken. For her new life, which her Roman Catholic parents were so passionately against, as a fashion designer, the visual training she got from painting was one of the secret arsenals behind her business success.
In an interview, Liz confessed, “I’m glad I had that training…..it taught me color, proportion, and many other things that I don’t think I would have learned in design school.”
Early Business Success
Soon after she graduated from art schools across schools in Europe, was 21 by then, she returned to the US and moved to Manhattan, New York.
She kick-started her long career in the fashion industry in 1950, soon after being left cold and dry in the street of New York. Her first call was Harper’s Bazaar, the first contest sponsors who made a few calls and had her start with the Tina Lesser Sportswear.
In her new posting in Tina Lesser House, she was a sketch artist who put the owner’s ideas to paper. During the next 5-years, she worked across different companies designing dresses and tailored clothing.
She also worked under Omar Kiam, a renowned Hollywood costume who later morphed into a Fashion designer. From 1955 to 1960, she worked with the Dan Keller and Youth Group Inc., designing high-end fashion dresses.
She joined Jonathan Logan, a reputable women’s apparel manufacturer, in 1960 and left in 1975.
During her stay in the company, she was the head of design for the junior dress division.
While working with Jonathan Logan, she saw the emerging need for more comfortable clothes for working women. The clothes she visualized were a mix and match kind of clothing that could be softer and easier to wear.
A sharp departure from the trending, as of then, blouses, bow ties, and tailored business suits sold across different stores.
She broached the idea with her employer, who could hear none of it. Feeling frustrated that her employer couldn’t consider her idea, Liz resigned in 1975 to start her own company.
The Birth of Liz Claiborne, Inc.
After her resignation, Liz was able to convince her husband Art Ortenberg and two friends Jerome Chazen and Leonard Boxer, to establish Liz Claiborne, Inc. The company started with a $250,000 initial investment contributed by the friends, with $50,000 of the initial fund coming from Claiborne’s savings.
The company officially launched on January 19, 1976, heavily focusing on producing affordable and stylish business attire for women. To cater for an even wider range of the women who were joining the work environment, Liz moderately priced her clothes between $18 and $100.
To give her clothes an upper edge, she used superior quality materials, provided a more diverse color selection, ensured they had a comfortable, body-hugging construction, and paired them with clean silhouettes. She also had a collection stocked in sections dedicated only to her line.
Her collection prominently featured low-maintenance clothes that were color-coordinated and easy to match. This, plus the fact that her clothes were in a designated section, made it easier for consumers to pull a business class look without hopping from store to store.
Unlike her competitors, her collection featured a wide range of clothing including, shirts, sweaters, jackets, and pants, all designed to meet the needs of a working 20th-century woman. Most of them were joining the workforce after graduation from college.
Leadership in the Company
When starting, Ortenberg (Liz’s husband), who had a background in business administration and some experience with textiles, started as the Industry Executive, Secretary, and Treasurer. Leonard Boxer was in charge of production while Liz served as company Designer and President.
Jerome Chazen joined a year later, 1977, to serve as director of marketing operations.
Sales and Marketing within first 5 years
Liz’s collection was an instant hit, recording a gross turnover profit of over $2.6 million (see Arthur Huffington, another woman legend in the making ) within the first year. $23 million in 1978 and over $117 million by the year 1981.
Her fashionably designed clothes were appropriate, comfortable, and met the growing need that had been overlooked for so long. Her company’s reputation grew, with most people ranking it as one of the best managed and ever-evolving company within the volatile women’s apparel industry.
To better understand her customers, Liz often posed as a salesperson to get feedback from her clients. She also insisted that department stores dedicate a section that would only stock the Liz collection alongside everything else her company sold.
Fast forward to the present day, and it is this very strategy that companies and manufacturers are using to push their products.
In 1980, Liz Claiborne accessories was founded by one of their workers Nina McLemore. This was a year to the mother company, Liz Claiborne Inc., going public(see how Jack Dorsey differs from Liz). Nina continued working for the company before later resigning and starting her own company in early 2000.
To remain competitive and expand the reach of her collection, she hired traveling fashion consultants. The consultants’ key role was to help retail staff professionally display her collections.
She also enlisted the help of marketing experts to keep up with changing marketing trends and report back to her through her computerized system.
She could then keep an inventory of the feedback, which could later be actualized through her annual 6-lines rather than the industry norm of Four.
In later years, she had her manufacturing base move from the US to the far East. A move she explained in a Washington Post interview as necessary for labor in developing countries was cheap and readily available.
Liz Claiborne, Inc. becomes a Publicly Owned Company
Liz’s vision was to expand and diversify her clothing line to dress both men and women across the globe.
Her company, however, lacked the financial muscles to undertake such an expansion. This is why in 1981, they took their company public to get more financial muscles to meet the growing need.
Soon after moving from a privately held entity to a publicly owned company, her fashion line expanded to include perfumes, Petites, shoes, menswear, among many others. This saw the company divisions increase to 19 and gross sales soar from millions to a billion, $1.2 billion to be exact, from 1981 to 1986.
The clocking of over $1.2 billion (here is a list of 14 other influential business operators) in sales saw her company appear on the list of fortune 500 companies as one of two women-led companies. She also rose through the ranks from company president to Chief Executive Officer and Company Board chair.
In 1988, the company ventured into the retail business a year before Liz and her husband retired. The retail stores rapidly expanded to a record 42 by spring of 1992. By this time, however, there was a rapid increase in the number of discount stores that significantly reduced their market share.
Nonetheless, the profit margin increased at a decreasing rate, and by 1997, the company had 7000 employees and grossed over $2.2 billion.
Liz and her husband could later retire from active participation in the company affairs in 1989. However, she remained as an advisor on matters of design.
On retiring, the couple established The Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation with an asset base of $10 million. The foundation focused on philanthropic and environmental matters with a special interest in wildlife preservation.
Acquisition of Kaiser-Roth Corporation
At about the same time her company made it to Fortune Magazine’s 500 fortune companies, Liz Claiborne acquired Kaiser-Roth Corporation. The company specialized in the production of accessories including gloves, belts, handbags, and scarves.
Lizwear and Claiborne
In 1985 still, she launched two other companies that solely focused on men’s wear. Lizwear line produced jeans for men while Caliborne produced men’s sportswear.
Other brands that clatter appeared under the Liz Claiborne Inc. brand include Russ Toggs, Crazy Horse, The Villager, Lizsport, and Dana Buchman.
Liz Claiborne’s Videos
In this hour-plus interview that almost turns out to be a monologue, Liz takes the listeners through her journey.
She explicitly gives the finer details of how she started, built her company, struck relationships, the current fashion trends, and how she finally choose to bow out of the fashion industry.
In this tribute to the 1980s fashion legend, the reporter takes us through a collection line that Isaac Mizrah partnered with Liz to produce. Isaac, an Iconic American Fashion designer, fondly recalls Liz’s words, how she liked colors matched, and of course, the stylish look she always donned.
Liz Claiborne’s Business Failure
The perfume, a joint venture between Liz Clairborne Inc. and Avon products, is one of the few lows Liz recorded in her 5-decade lifetime in business. Though vaguely recorded, the venture started on the right footing recording great success within the first few years.
This partnership didn’t last for 3-years later; in 1988, they were in the corridors of justice on a deal gone bad. The two, however, agreed to an out-of-court settlement.
Liz Claiborne’s Partner and Family
Shortly after moving to New York, Liz met and married her first husband, Ben Shultz, a designer for Time-Life Books, in 1950. The marriage lasted 5-years, the Schultz’s divorced. Liz got her first and only son, Alexander G. Schultz, from this marriage.
While working for another gig, Liz met her second husband, Arthur Ortenberg. Liz later married Arthur Ortenberg in 1957. Art had two children from her first marriage, Neil Ortenberg, and Nancy Ortenberg.
Liz passed on in a New York-Presbyterian Hospital on 26, 2007, at age 78, after a long bout of cancer.
Liz Claiborne’s Net Worth and Career Earnings
Though there is no verifiable estimate of her net worth, most projections estimate it to between $1.5 to $5 million.
Liz Claiborne’s Real Estate Holdings
Liz Claiborne owned three homes across the US. Her first main home is in Manhattan, New York; the second is in Saltaire section of Fire Island, New York, and the third one was an expansive ranch in Swan Valley, Montana.
Liz Claiborne’s Quotes
“I looked around and saw that no firm was fully taking care of the career woman with a limited budget. I knew we could fill that gap.”
“That’s always the first hurdle. Sales took off, and then the problems began.”
“Good value and quality for the price….”
“My intention was always to make tasteful, attractive clothes at a reasonable price.”
I wanted to dress busy and active women like myself — women who dress in a rush and who weren’t perfect,”
“The success is nice but in many ways secondary…….”
“My father has traditional views on women……. He gave me $50 and wished me luck.”
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: What happened to Liz Claiborne?
Answer: Liz Claiborne passed away on June 26, 2007, at New York-Presbyterian Hospital after a decade of battling abdominal-related cancer. Her death came when her company’s fortunes had started dwindling significantly for the over 5-decades of its existence.
Question: Who is Liz Claiborne’s son?
Answer: Her son is Alexander Schultz, whom she got from her first marriage with Ben Schultz.
Question: Where is Liz Claiborne from?
Answer: Liz Claiborne was born in Brussels, Belgium, by American parents Louise Fenner and Omer V. Her father Omer is Fernand and Marie Louise Villeré. Fernand, one of ten children, is the son of Liz’s great grandfather Fernand Francois Claiborne. Her ancestral home is in Louisiana, New Orleans.
Question: Why Did Liz Claiborne come to America?
Answer: She came back to America to pursue Fashion Design, a career she was so passionate about. Her parents were opposed to the idea.
Question: Does JCPenny own Liz Claiborne?
Answer: JCPenny has a long list of brands under its brand, including Liz Claiborne, Arizona, and Worthington.
Question: Is Liz Claiborne French?
Answer: No, she is American with roots from a prominent Louisiana family that includes the state’s first Governor. She was born in Brussels, Belgium, where she spent her first decade. Then came back to America during World War II before going to France and Belgium to study Art.