by Nicole Wolverton
Born into a prominent Louisiana family in the late 1930s, Liz Claiborne was not meant to be a rule-breaker. She wasn’t meant to change the face of fashion or the way women shop. She was more than likely meant to be a pretty girl, painting pretty things, awaiting the attentions of a suitable husband-to-be—who would then make of her a high society wife and mother. A high school diploma, which Claiborne lacked until the day she died in 2007, meant nothing in the face of those expectations.
But everything that wasn’t supposed to happen did happen for Liz Claiborne; and it happened after Claiborne turned 40.
Unlike others featured in Other Bloomers and Shakers, Claiborne had some early success in her chosen field. She won a design competition sponsored by Harper’s Bazaar when she was 21. At the time, she was informally studying art in Europe (informally, because her parents yanked her out of boarding school in Maryland prior to graduation). After winning the competition, she moved to New York to work as a design assistant and model. She designed sportswear and dresses for other designers into the mid-’70s.
Inspiration struck Claiborne in 1976, when she was 47. Perhaps it was less inspiration and more irritation: Claiborne credits her frustration with the fashion industry—their failure to design clothes for women in the workforce—with her decision to start her own company. As women were transitioning from working within the home to working outside the home, clothing choices remained limited. Claiborne recognized an unserved consumer market and formed her clothing company accordingly: her designs focused on good tailoring, classic styling, and quality fabrics.
Liz Claiborne, Inc. immediately became a huge success, grossing $2 million in sales its first year, which jumped to $23 million by 1978. By 1998, Claiborne’s designs accounted for a significant portion of the women’s upscale sportswear market in the United States (this equates to annual sales in the billions). Aside from the longevity of the Claiborne line’s success, Claiborne insisted that her collection be displayed on its own in stores, rather than mixed in with other clothing brands. Liz Claiborne Accessories followed, and she eventually expanded into menswear, shoes, and furnishings. And who can forget Claiborne’s perfume line? I certainly owned a bottle of her flowery signature scent when I was a teenager. It was practically de rigueur to wear it and have at least one item of Liz Claiborne clothing in your closet, even in my rural hometown of Berwick, Pennsylvania (arguably, one of the least fashionable places in the country).
Liz Claiborne retired from her role at the company in 1989 (she was 60) and dedicated the rest of her life to philanthropic work. She was elected to the National Sales Hall of Fame and received an honorary doctorate from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1991, and was honored at the American Fashion Awards in 2000 for her environmental work. She died in 2007 from complications relating to peritoneal cancer.