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 outfits 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. Liz Claiborne executives were instrumental in working with department stores to present all the related pieces of a wardrobe in one department.
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.
“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 overhauling the business to meet the demands of the consolidated department store industry.
Claiborne owned a ranch near Helena and, along with Ortenberg, supported numerous charitable, civic and educational groups in Montana. Claiborne’s favored cause was discouraging domestic violence and Liz Claiborne Inc. continues to do fund-raising projects to increase awareness of the issue.
Claiborne and Ortenberg sponsored the Race to the Sky, a 350-mile sled-dog race, from 1991 to 1994. In 2001, Claiborne and Ortenberg loaned $250,000 to the struggling Pyramid Mountain Lumber Co. mill in Seeley Lake.
Claiborne had a minor scrap with the law in Helena in 2004, when she was fined $140 and given a 30-day deferred sentence for leaving the scene of an accident in her yellow Porsche.
Claiborne was cited after witnesses reported seeing the sports car leave after turning too sharply and scraping the bumper of an unoccupied vehicle in a grocery store parking lot. She later apologized.