Obituary: Liz Claiborne, 78

by MR Magazine Staff

NEW YORK – Liz Claiborne, who built a business which made her the de facto outfitter of the working woman, died in New York Tuesday after a ten-year battle with cancer.

Claiborne, 78, passed away at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, according to published reports. Funeral arrangements were incomplete Wednesday.

Although she will always be remembered for putting her design stamp on workplace-appropriate women’s apparel that still conveyed a sense of style and individuality, Claiborne and her husband Arthur Ortenberg fought a separate battle after launching the company which bears her name in 1976. Their focus on outfits that allowed for easy pairing of tops and bottoms was alien in the retail marketplace when they began to champion it, and their eventual victory in the fight to bring separates to the forefront signified a turning point in the presentation of apparel in stores. The eventual success of separates and later collections in both women’s and men’s apparel can be directly traced to their efforts.

Claiborne was exactly the kind of working woman she sought to dress – determined to get ahead despite of her gender, and convinced that the marketplace had fallen far short of providing for changing needs. The company she founded with Ortenberg is today nearly a US$5bn enterprise and, while the label and company that bear her name recently have faced challenges in the marketplace they once infused with excitement, her legacy is far-reaching and undeniable.

Born Anne Elisabeth Jane Claiborne in 1929 in Brussels, she spent summers with family in the US and began her fashion career without a high school diploma before her 20th birthday. She worked at a number of dress companies on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan and landed at Jonathan Logan as designer of its Youth Guild division. She stayed there until it closed down, at which time she, Ortenberg and two other partners began Liz Claiborne with $250,000 in seed money. By 1981, it boasted sales of more than $100 million and had gone public. She and Ortenberg stepped down from their active roles in the company in 1990, by which time it had sales of more than $1 billion.

In the time since their retirement, the couple had spent much of their time at their ranch in Montana and were involved in numerous philanthropic causes, with particular emphasis on wildlife preservation.

In addition to Ortenberg, her second husband, Claiborne is survived by her son, Alexander Schultz, and Ortenberg’s two children from his previous marriage, Neil and Nancy. Claiborne’s first marriage ended in divorce.