Profile of Liz Claiborne: The fashion revolutionary who dressed the working woman

Liz Claiborne was not only an effective businesswoman (the first woman to run a Fortune 500 company), she was also a talented designer who revolutionised the wardrobe of the working woman.

Liz Claiborne, who died last month at the age of 78, was the first woman to found a Fortune 500 company and she did it in a record 11 years. But her importance goes much further than that. A fashion revolutionary, arguably as influential as Coco Chanel, she gave career women confidence in the office. "She grasped exactly what American women needed as the aproned housewife of the 1950s morphed into the professional of the 1970s," says The Economist. Asked how she had grown a 35-piece collection into a $5bn powerhouse, she replied: "I listened to the customer."

When women began entering the workplace en masse in the 1970s they faced a stark sartorial choice, says The Guardian: wear the mannish "uniform" of skirted suit and tailored shirt, which had dominated since the shirtwaist blouse was first mass-produced in Manhattan in the 1890s; or risk being labelled ditzy. But Claiborne made clothes that reflected the changes in women's lives. A working mother, she designed stylish, colourful ranges that could be plucked from hangers at speed. A measure of her success is that the genres she pioneered are now retail clichs: "mix-and-match" separates, "from work-to-evening" and so on. Claiborne had the tailoring skills and artistic eye to design couture. But she wasn't interested in that. As she told Women's Wear Daily: "The concept was to dress the American working woman." That meant paying as much attention to clothes that wouldn't rumple or stain as to creating sassier styles. The key word was "effortless".

Claiborne's "Liz Lady" was pure middle America; her own background was very different. Born into a prominent old Louisiana family an ancestor, William Claiborne, was an early 19th-century governor of the state she spent her early years in Brussels where her father, a banker, worked for Morgan Guaranty. The family retreated to America for good before the war. Claiborne later returned to Europe to study art. Her father wanted her to become a painter, says The Daily Telegraph. But having won a Harper's Bazaar design contest, she was set on fashion a decision he didn't welcome. "The story goes, she was in Manhattan with her father when she announced: I'm staying'. He stopped the car, presented her with $50 and told her: Good luck'."

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Claiborne spent most of the 1950s scratching out a living sketching in the garment trade houses of Seventh Avenue. In 1954, she married a Time-Life book designer, Ben Schultz; three years later, she left him for Arthur Ortenberg an old hand in the textile trade. The couple were keen to launch a label, "but dared not risk the family savings until the children had finished college", says The Guardian. It wasn't until 1976 that they launched Liz Claiborne Inc on $50,000 in savings and $200,000 borrowed from friends. The label tapped such a nerve that its growth was exponential. The firm went public in 1981, becoming a Fortune 500 company in 1986. Yet by now the fashion business had "ceased to enchant" and Claiborne stepped down two years later, says The Economist. Her final decades, watching from the sidelines as Liz Claiborne lost its cachet and fell into mumsy frumpiness, must have been frustrating. Claiborne, always dressed "absolutely comme il faut" complained the clothes were "cheap-looking" and began wearing DKNY the label founded by former protge Donna Karan. Stylish to the end, she had passed her baton on.

How Liz Claiborne smashed through the glass ceiling

Liz Claiborne was as effective a businesswoman as she was a designer. But although she had the common touch with customers, she often came across as aloof to the trade. "Wall Street analysts wish they could chat with her about the business, but she generally refuses," noted Fortune in 1987. This was partly because Claiborne described by one employer as "very private, very low key, not pushy, a hard worker" invariably hid behind her gregarious husband in public. But it was also because her methods of winning customers fell well below the radar of conventional analysis. "The smartest thing Liz Claiborne ever did was to design her clothes a size larger than in other lines: I immediately went from a size 10 to a size 8," remarked a correspondent to the St Petersburg Times.

True to her generation of feminists, there was "an undertow of defiance" about Claiborne, says The Economist. "Though her business was clothing women" she worked in a world "where, to her lasting fury, men still ran things and... got all the breaks". She was keen to make her own company different. "She put flowers round the offices, painted them very white, did away with doors and, to show contempt for male hierarchies, listed her employees in the handbook in alphabetical order." Her "revolutionary intent" encapsulated in the "Liz Red" frames of her oversized glasses survived her. As Newsweek noted, Liz Claiborne Inc was one of only seven firms listed by the US National Association of Female Executives as "better places for women managers".