Claiborne Sent Women to Work in Style

Cancer claims fashion designer Liz Claiborne at 78. She founded what was for years the largest women's apparel company in the United States, designing of sleek, affordable clothes for the professional woman.

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Fashion designer Liz Claiborne has died at the age of 78. Her line of clothes became popular in the late '70s. It was a time when women began working outside the home in large numbers, and Liz Claiborne designed clothes for professional women at prices they could afford. For years, hers was the largest women's apparel company in the U.S.

Here's NPR's Jim Zarroli with more.

JIM ZARROLI: Claiborne had been working in the fashion industry for two decades when she decided to break away and form her own company together with her husband and a business partner. The company did so well that they decided to go public in 1981. By the mid-80s, it was the first company started by a woman to enter the Fortune 500.

Claiborne's success was at least in part about timing. Before she came along, the uniform of the workingwoman tended to be a dark suit with a blouse and a big bow. Claiborne designed separates that were fashionable without being overly trendy. Her look was feminine, but still professional in a way that women found appealing.

Ms. LORI HOLIDAY BANKS (Consultant, Tobe Report): I think she was a designer for real women, real people.

ZARROLI: Lori Holiday Banks is a consultant at the Toby Report. She says Claiborne's designs were especially versatile.

Ms. BANKS: It was casual clothing for their weekends. They were suits that could take them to the office. It wasn't cheap. It was quality fabrics and attractive designs, and it worked well together. And I think that women reacted to that.

ZARROLI: In 1989, Claiborne resigned from the company. In the years since then, the company has acquired a number of smaller clothing lines, and today its many brands include Ellen Tracy, Dana Buchman and Lucky Brands. But as tastes have changed, the company has struggled to compete. Just last week, it announced a major restructuring.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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Designer Liz Claiborne Dead at 78

Liz Claiborne photographed in hot-pink sunglasses and black hat. i i

hide captionLiz Claiborne attends The American Fashion Awards in June 2000 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.

George De Sota/Liaison/Getty Images
Liz Claiborne photographed in hot-pink sunglasses and black hat.

Liz Claiborne attends The American Fashion Awards in June 2000 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.

George De Sota/Liaison/Getty Images

Fashion designer Liz Claiborne, whose styles became a cornerstone of career women's wardrobes in the 1970s and 1980s, has died, the company she founded said Wednesday. She was 78.

Claiborne died Tuesday at the New York Presbyterian Hospital after suffering from cancer for a number of years, said Gwen Satterfield, personal assistant to Claiborne.

Claiborne founded Liz Claiborne Inc. in 1976 along with her husband Art Ortenberg and Leonard Boxer. Their goal was to create a collection of fashions aimed at the growing number of women entering the work force.

The new approach to dressing revolutionized the department store industry, which had only focused on stocking pants in one department and skirts in another.

The clothes became an instant hit, and the company went public in 1981. By 1985, Liz Claiborne Inc. was the first company founded by a woman to be listed in the Fortune 500, according to the company's Web site. The company, whose brands now include Ellen Tracy, Dana Buchman and Juicy Couture, generated sales of almost $5 billion last year.

Liz Claiborne retired from the day-to-day operations in 1989.

"In losing Liz Claiborne, we have not only lost the founder of our company, but an inspirational woman who revolutionized the fashion industry 30 years ago," said Bill McComb, CEO of Liz Claiborne, in a statement. "Her commitment to style and design is ever present in our thinking and the way we work. We will remember Liz for her vision, her entrepreneurial spirit and her enduring compassion and generosity."

Of the original founders, Boxer retired from the company in 1985 and Claiborne and her husband retired in 1989. There have been a number of changes since then. Jerry Chazen, the fourth original partner, became the company's chairman in 1989.

Paul R. Charron succeeded Chazen in the mid-1990s, and spearheaded an aggressive campaign to acquire different labels to diversify beyond the company's namesake brands, which struggled with increased competition.

Last November, McComb joined the company as CEO, succeeding Charron, and is planning to overhaul the business again to meet the demands of the consolidated department store industry.

The Associated Press

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