NEAL CONAN, host:
Liz Claiborne died yesterday at the age of 78. In the 1980s, her name was stitched into power suits worn by the new generation of women who were infiltrating boardrooms and breaking glass ceilings. Hers was the first company started by a woman to enter the Fortune 500, shoulder pads and all. If you wore a Liz Claiborne skirt or suit to your first day of work, give us a call. How did Liz Claiborne change your life? Our number, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Robin Givhan is the fashion editor of The Washington Post. She joins us today from her office. Nice to have you on the program again.
Ms. ROBIN GIVHAN (Fashion Editor, The Washington Post): Nice to be here.
CONAN: And remind us, before Claiborne came along, what was the uniform of working women?
Ms. GIVHAN: Well, I just want to say that actually, Liz died on Tuesday but it was announced on Wednesday, her death.
CONAN: I apologize. Go ahead.
Ms. GIVHAN: But before she came along, I mean, really, women's work attire was aimed at a woman who was attempting to climb the corporate ladder. And it was really that sort of John T. Molloy dress for success sensibility, which was women dressing essentially like men.
CONAN: Hmm. And how did she do things differently?
Ms. GIVHAN: Well, one of the things that was unique to her is that in many ways, she was like her costumer. I mean, she was a working woman, and she didn't really want to dress necessarily for the stereotypical boardroom. She wanted to dress in a way that reflected her individuality, the fact that she was a woman and not a man, and the fact that she also wanted to be fashionable.
CONAN: Hmm. And she, of course, did not only change fashion, she changed the fashion business, not always comfortable with companies run by women.
Ms. GIVHAN: No. And you know, sadly, there still are not a lot of fashion companies of significant size that are run by women. And there are still very few female designers who helm these big companies. But one of the things that she really did leave her mark on was in the arena of department stores where she essentially pushed them to change the way in which they sold clothes.
And instead of having the, the pants department and the blouse department and - a dress department, she really pushed to have her entire collection shown cohesively in one area so that people could see what her point of view was all about. And that's typically now the way that department stores present clothes.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Valerie(ph) in Georgia. My first Liz suit was a two-piece off-white lined, linen suit, which looked fabulous against my mocha-colored skin. My dear husband washed the suit in the washer one day and it went from size 10 to a size, well, I don't know because I was so busy crying. Eventually, I forgave him but I spent many years looking for an identical suit. I found one about five years ago, another Liz.
My husband is now my ex, but we still laugh about how that suit cost one of our biggest fights. Liz was an icon whose talent will surely be missed by all fashion conscious women worldwide.
Ms. GIVHAN: You know, that e-mail doesn't surprise me, because not so long ago, I wrote a piece about Liz Claiborne and the way that the company was trying to reclaim a lot of its lost appeal for women. And one of the things that I discovered is in talking to women who had been Liz Claiborne costumers in the '70s and in the '80s, there was still such a fond - there were such fond memories about those collections. There were such loyalty to what that brand had meant to them. And it really seemed like this was a group of women who was, the company could just, sort of, get back on track. Those costumers were waiting excitedly for them.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And by the way, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, e-mail is email@example.com. Vince(ph) is calling us. Vince from Cottage Grove in Oregon.
VINCE (Caller): Yes. Hi, how are you?
CONAN: Very well. Thanks.
VINCE: Oh, when I was younger, about - I think it was the '80s, I worked at Nordstrom's in the San Fernando Valley with a lot of my friends. And it was a pretty upscale department store and they had a - the conservative department with clothes that you are referring to and that brand in particular. But, it also attracted a lot of the young kids because they had that department, I think, called Brass Plum. Well, we were 18 years old and very interested in all the women that were in that department, but that was also my first exposure to the whole clothes and what it meant, and what the women were after. And, I don't know, it was interesting. It was kind of - it intimidated us.
CONAN: You think that was the point?
VINCE: That was it. That was just my little story of (unintelligible) show and…
CONAN: All right.
VINCE: …all those different brand names were coming back. I used to work in the Salon Shoe department. And there were all the shoes that went with those outfits.
CONAN: Of course. That's it. Thanks very much.
VINCE: You're welcome. Bye.
Ms. GIVHAN: You know, Neal, one of the things that is sort of striking about Liz Claiborne is that now people look at it, and I think there's a certain segment of the population that doesn't really or never really consider Liz Claiborne to be, you know, a quote, unquote "designer." They didn't put, they wouldn't put it in the same category as, you know, Chanel or Gucci, or something like that. But for her customer, I mean that really was a designer brand and she really was aiming at women who didn't have a fortune to spend on her clothes. And even now, when the industry does these, like, polls and surveys about the most recognized designers and brand names, Liz Claiborne regularly ranks way up there, far higher than a lot of brands like Calvin Klein, for instance.
CONAN: She also - and I don't know whether she was a pioneer in this or not, but she also had - would have several different lines.
Ms. GIVHAN: She did. I wouldn't say that she was necessarily a pioneer or not. But definitely there were a lot of different divisions of the Liz Claiborne brand. And as time went on and she retired from the company in 1989, Liz Claiborne went on to expand enormously, and now it's really a conglomerate, and includes brands like Juicy Couture as well as Kate Spade, as well as, of course, you know, the flagship, Liz Claiborne.
CONAN: Let's get Val(ph) on the line. Val is calling from Cincinnati, Ohio.
VAL (Caller): Thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead.
VAL: What I remember, I graduated from college in '65. And the one thing I remember is that Liz Claiborne made clothes that we could afford. Up until then, the suits, you can have one and you wore it every day of the week, kind of like a uniform with - maybe a different blouse or you washed and ironed your blouse, because you couldn't afford it. But Liz Claiborne made nice looking fashionable feminine suits that we could afford. And for that, I thank her. I still buy her stuff, and it's also all very well made.
CONAN: I was going to ask, Val, if you stayed loyal to the brand?
VAL: Absolutely. Absolutely.
CONAN: Affordability, not to be sneezed at Robin Givhan.
Mr. GIVHAN: No, not at all. And sadly, it's one of the areas that now for the industry, it's not - it's a little bit of a dirty word to start talking about affordability and even for - to talk about the commercial appeal of a collection. Somehow that sort of seen as, you know, beneath a true designer. But for Liz Claiborne, it really was about this combination of practicality, commercial clothes and not forgetting that you could still have all that and still have clothes that look great.
CONAN: And Val…
Ms. GIVHAN: And it sounds so, you know, mundane now, but at the time, it was really something that was quite unique.
CONAN: And Val, I wanted to ask you - in her piece in the Washington Post today, Robin Givhan was writing about how Liz Claiborne also insisted that, you know, different pieces of her outfits could be mixed and matched and swapped out and - do you do that, and, of course, they made them even more affordable?
VAL: Oh, she was the first one. I mean, you have to remember, I'm 64 and those of us who achieved executive status started - we didn't start with MBA, we started to be secretaries and became too invaluable for them to keep a secretary. I mean, that's how a lot of us, who are in my age group, came up. So, we weren't making big bucks. And the fact that everything, and from one season to the other, it would also, you could interchange them.
VAL: Another very important point.
CONAN: Val, thanks very much for the call.
VAL: Yes. Thank you. Bye-bye.
CONAN: And a big - we're talking about her clothes. What about the woman herself? What was she like, Robin Givhan?
Ms. GIVHAN: Well, you know, I've never really had a chance to sit down with her, because by the time I started really covering the fashion industry, you know, she had retired. But she had a reputation, certainly, for being really quite hands on and quite a powerhouse. And what people still talk about is the fact that she was not this sort of distant designer who delegate it but who really kept her hand in every detail, whether it was the Liz Claiborne line itself or it was, you know, an accessory or something like that.
And so a lot of people, I think, now sort of look at Liz Claiborne and think that it's just, sort of - it was this sort of mass company that was designed by a committee, when in fact it really was truly the vision of this woman, you know, who have the signature glasses. And later on, when she retired, committed a great deal of her time to environmental issues.
CONAN: Just in that regard, we had this e-mail from Cindy(ph) in McMinnville, Oregon. Please don't forget to mention the efforts by Liz Claiborne to end domestic violence. The Web site Love is Not Abuse can be found at www.loveisnotabuse.com. So, she had other issues as well.
Ms. GIVHAN: Oh, yeah. I mean, it was - it's definitely been a company that has not only sort of made its profits from working women and from women in general, but has also been very much focused on women's issues. So, I mean, it was, you know, she was someone who is very much aware of the fact that she was a trailblazer. And, you know, was very much aware of the fact that much of what she was doing was, in many ways, historical.
CONAN: We're talking about the designer Liz Claiborne, who died earlier this week, with Robin Givhan, the fashion editor for The Washington Post. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get another caller on the line. This is Carol(ph). Carol with us from Oklahoma City.
CAROL (Caller): Yes.
CONAN: Go ahead, Carol.
CAROL: Hello. I will really miss Liz Claiborne. I started wearing her clothing in the '80s. When I was in my early 20s, I was a blue-collar part-time college student. And up through the years, Liz has always been able to fit in a woman's body, regardless of sizing. She's the type of designer you could always go back to and say, thank God, there's still somebody who really makes clothes for women out here still.
CONAN: So they not only look good, but they're comfortable.
CAROL: They're comfortable and, you know, back when I first started wearing my designers, I lost weight.
CAROL: A hundred and twenty-five pounds. And now, I'm like 195 pounds, but they're still comfortable and look great.
CONAN: All right. Carol, thanks very much.
CAROL: Thank you.
CONAN: And just like a prize, Robin Givhan, comfort can't be overlooked either.
Ms. GIVHAN: No, not at all. And, you know, one of the things that, sort of, intriguing about Liz is that was the breath of her work. I mean, a lot of companies now tend to focus on a very specific audience. You know they - you often ask designers who's your customer. And they'll, sort of describe every woman in the world. But then, you look at the collection and you realize, no, your customer really is someone who's, you know, 25-35, and a size six, and is incredible wealthy.
But with Liz Claiborne, there really was wide range of sizes. I mean, she did petite. She did plus sizes. And those - you know, the pricing always stayed very much in the middle, so that it was very affordable. But the idea that a woman who was a size zero, as well as a woman who was a size 16, could both wear that label, is something that also is quite rare in the fashion industry.
CONAN: You wrote in your story this morning that the company, after she retired - well, she had that vision. The company could not maintain the focus.
Ms. GIVHAN: Yeah. You know, it happens quite often with fashion companies when the founder, either retires or passes away, that they are so reliant on that person's unique vision that there's not really a structure set-up to rely on when that person is gone. And in many ways, it happened with Liz. Instead of a single person, it was designed by a team. And in general, teams tend to design by committee, things get diluted, and it's not as strong as it once was. And I also think that, in addition to just a lot of missteps that the company itself made in terms of esthetics, a lot changed in the way that women thought about their work clothes. You know, there was much less of a distinction between work clothes and play clothes.
Ms. GIVHAIN: And women didn't really need a suit to wear to the office. They could, you know, they could wear casual clothes.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller. And this is Derek(ph). Derek(ph) is with us from Canton, Ohio.
DEREK (Caller): Hi, there.
CONAN: Hi, there.
DEREK: On what your guest was just speaking about, my memory from the 1980s when the suits first came out was being jealous of having to stay for life in suit and tie and not having some of the same options available.
CONAN: So you would look at the - your female co-workers in their Liz Claiborne's and be envious?
DEREK: Absolutely. Absolutely. It's like - the best I could do is change tie color.
CONAN: I think those times have also changed, Robin Givhan.
Ms. GIVHAN: I think so, too. Although, Liz did - they did have a men's collection as well. But - and I - you know, in a lot of ways, it seem like culture changed so much in terms of what was necessary for women. And Liz Claiborne, the company didn't really change quickly enough to keep abreast to that.
Ms. GIVHAN: And a lot of women began to complain that a collection, at one point, felt so modern and in some ways, ahead of its time was starting to look a little dowdy and a little matronly. The cut was not as sleek as - the way that it shifted in a lot of other areas in fashion. And it really truly began to struggle.
CONAN: And a lot of her success, as you pointed out. Derek(ph) thanks for the call, by the way.
DEREK: Thank you.
CONAN: A lot of her success was based on that department store marketing. And department store is not doing so well lately.
Ms. GIVHAN: Absolutely. You know, Liz had put a lot of its eggs in the department store basket, and when department stores had problems financially, there was a trickle down effect. And Liz Claiborne had trouble as well. So, you know in the last couple of years, they've really been trying to write that the company has a new a creative director. The first time it's really had one since Liz Claiborne. So it now does have a single person driving the point of view.
And I think as one of the other callers had mentioned about how, you know, great the fit used to be and how comfortable the clothes were, they've recommitted to focusing on fit and trying to give women, you know, a place where they can loyally turn back to and say, I know every season, they're going to be great pants in that one.
CONAN: But we'll be going through many generations of Hollywood designers, fashion designers going back to Liz Claiborne stuff to recreate the 1980s. Robin Givhan, thanks very much for your time today.
Ms. GIVHAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Robin Givhan, fashion editor for The Washington Post, joined us from her office in New York.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.