February 10, 2007

Liz Claiborne

And the woman behind the brand is...
Liz Claiborne

In retrospect the concept seems so logical: design attractive clothes the average woman could wear and free working women from the standard office uniform of navy blue suits. But it took until 1976 and Liz Claiborne to execute the idea.
The result was one of the fastest growing companies in United States business history, reaching the Fortune magazine list of 500 largest companies within ten years.

Liz Claiborne was a shy women who always followed her own path. As a young girl she lived so many places following her banking father that she never finished high school. She wanted a career in fashion but her father was against it so she went to Paris and Brussels, her birthplace, to study painting. In 1949, at the age of 20, Claiborne won a Harper's Bazaar design contest and a year later she returned to the United States. Against her parent's wishes she cut her long hair and got married. She took jobs as a sketch artist and New York model.

In her mid-twenties Arthur Ortenberg hired Claiborne as a designer. They shed their respective mates and married in 1957. Claiborne became chief designer at Jonathan Logan where she spent years lobbying for a new line of clothes for the emerging class of highly paid working women of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
When their son reached 21 in 1976 Claiborne and Ortenberg struck out on their own with $50,000. Two other partners brought in another $200,000. Claiborne designed well-made fashionable sportswear for the office, weaning women away from formless suits.

Within two years Claiborne's designs were generating $23,000,000 in revenue.
She had dreamed of a small company where she would make clothes for professional women. She was clearly onto something bigger. The four partners retreated to the Pocono Mountains for three days to chart their future. There were two votes to stay small - but they weren't Claiborne and Ortenberg.

Ortenberg was the genius behind the organization. They created "Claiboards" which showed department stores how to mix and match Claiborne fashions to maximize visual appeal. They hired no sales force, making buyers visit their offices to see new designs. Claiborne created six seasons rather than four so there was a constant flow of material for the department stores, the exclusive outlet for Claiborne fashions.

By 1981 Ortenberg took the company public with one of the most popular stock issues in history. Claiborne, as Chief Executive Officer, retained 4.3% of the stock in the two billion dollar company. Her designs clothed 60% of the 12,000,000 women who went to work every day in the 1980s.

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