Liz Claiborne was a fashion designer and icon who created a clothing empire. She’s also the first woman to found a company (Liz Claiborne Inc.) that landed on the Fortune 500 list.
After 25 years as a New York designer, Liz Claiborne co-founded her own firm in 1976, first designing stylish, moderately priced sportswear that freed working women from plain, dark suits, then expanding into menswear, accessories and perfume. Liz Claiborne Inc. broke into the Fortune 500 list of "America's largest corporations"—becoming the first company founded by a woman to be so honored. She died in New York City in 2007.
Early Life and Career
Born Anne Elisabeth Jane Claiborne in Brussels, Belgium, on March 31, 1929, Liz Claiborne is best known for revolutionizing the women's apparel industry in the United States. She served as head designer and co-founder of the company that bears her name, Liz Claiborne Inc., for more than 20 years.
The daughter of a banker, Claiborne spent many of her early years abroad, and became fluent in both French and English. Claiborne and her family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1939. After World War II ended, she moved to Europe, where she studied art. Claiborne never earned a high school degree. At the age of 19, she won a design contest held by Harper's Bazaar magazine, and soon moved to New York City to pursue a career in the fashion industry.
Claiborne's first job was as a sketcher for sportswear designer Tina Leser, also working from time to time as a size model. She worked for several other designers over the next few years, and, in 1950, married book designer Ben Schultz. The couple had one son, Alexander, before splitting. In 1957, Claiborne married Arthur Ortenberg.
Top Fashion Designer
In 1960, Liz Claiborne became head designer of Jonathan Logan's Youth Guild label, and stayed with the junior dress line for more than 15 years before breaking out on her own. With $50,000 of her own savings and $200,000 from friends, family members and associates, she co-founded her own firm, Liz Claiborne Inc., in 1976 with her husband, Arthur Ortenberg, and partners Leonard Boxer and Jerome Chazen. At a time when women were entering the workforce in great numbers, Clairborne built the company into a billion-dollar-a-year business, first designing stylish, moderately priced sportswear that freed working women from plain, dark suits, then expanding into menswear, accessories and perfume.
Additionally, Claiborne collaborated with other stores in order to showcase her entire collection in one department. Previously, clothing had been broken up across separate departments such as pants, shirts and skirts, and this new concept helped streamline the consumer's shopping experience.
Sales of Liz Claiborne Inc. reached $5.6 million in 1986, and the firm broke into the Fortune 500 list of "America's largest corporations"—becoming the first company founded by a woman to be so honored. In 1987, Claiborne was elected chairman of the board and CEO of the company, but she retired from active management in 1989.
After retiring, Liz Claiborne devoted much of her time to social causes. She and her husband started the Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation to support a number of different projects around the world; over the years, the organization has supported conservation and environment efforts, including those aimed at protecting elephants in Gabon and Mozambique.
Claiborne faced a health crisis in her later years: She was diagnosed with peritoneal cancer, which she courageously battled for many years. Claiborne died from complications related to her cancer on June 26, 2007, at the age of 78, in New York City.
In 2012, Claiborne's once-dominant fashion company went through a corporate makeover: Liz Claiborne Inc. was renamed Fifth & Pacific Companies, Inc. While her brand may have faded, Liz Claiborne's fashion revolution continues in the wardrobes of working women today.