Liz Claiborne, Designer That Built Fashion Brand, Dies

First Female Founder of a Fortune 500 Company

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NEW YORK ( -- Liz Claiborne, the first woman executive to build a Fortune 500 company, died yesterday after years of battling cancer. Ms. Claiborne, 78, leaves behind a brand that was built around the idea of designing stylish and affordable clothes for women climbing up corporate ladders during the 1970s and '80s.
Liz Claiborne, who dies yesterday, built a company that in 2006 had sales totaling $4.99 billion.
Liz Claiborne, who dies yesterday, built a company that in 2006 had sales totaling $4.99 billion.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with Art Ortenberg and the entire Claiborne/Ortenberg family on this sad occasion," Bill McComb, CEO of Liz Claiborne Inc., said in a statement. "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. 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."

An instant hit
Born in 1929 in Belgium, she launched her label in 1976 with her husband Art Ortenberg and partners Jerome Chazen and Leonard Boxer. After being a dress designer for years, Ms. Claiborne decided to focus her brand to emphasize affordable and high-quality sportswear; the clothing was an instant hit with consumers.

The company went public in 1981. And four years later, Liz Claiborne Inc. became the first company started by a woman listed in the Fortune 500. As the brand gained in popularity, Ms. Claiborne expanded the line to include casual clothing and accessories, including handbags that carried her notable triangular logo.

The company added brands by acquiring companies featuring designers such as Ellen Tracy, Kate Spade, Juicy Couture and Dana Buchman, who had designed under Ms. Claiborne. This helped the company generate sales totaling $4.99 billion in 2006. Liz Claiborne Inc. also took on Narcisco Rodriguez's design firm in May.

The company spent 3.8% of last year's revenue on advertising, marketing and promotion, up from the 3.7% of the company's $4.85 billion revenue in 2005.

Charitable side
Ms. Claiborne founded the Liz Claiborne Foundation in 1981. The organization strives to end domestic violence and promote economic self-sufficiency for women and positive development for girls. For her efforts in philanthropy and fashion, the Council of Fashion Designers of America awarded Ms. Claiborne with a design award in 1985 and a humanitarian award in 2000.

In 1989, she and her husband retired from daily operations at Liz Claiborne Inc., and Mr. Chazen became the company's chairman that year. Paul R. Charron succeeded Mr. Chazen in the mid-1990s, who acquired various labels to diversify the company. In November 2006, Mr. McComb joined the company as CEO, succeeding Charron.

After retirement, Ms. Claiborne and Mr. Ortenberg spent much of their time at their ranch in Helena, Mont., while supporting a number of charitable causes such as the Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation, which was dedicated to wildlife conservation. She is survived by Mr. Ortenberg and her son, Alexander G. Schultz.
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