In 1976, when she was forty-seven, Liz Claiborne started her own company with three other partners. She already had a long career in the fashion industry behind her when she took this big step. Claiborne got her first job with sportswear designer Tina Leser, a big influence on her ideas. “[Leser] believed that clothes should be fun to wear and that bright colors were essential,” she later recalled.
At first Claiborne was the only designer for the small company, which started with personal capital from the four founders. The design philosophy behind the brand was to create separates in capsule wardrobes, hardly a new idea. But apparently few people were thinking in terms of separates designed for working women in the late 1970s. Claiborne’s strength was to create many mix-and-match pieces around a unique color story, with more blouses than any other item. Women could buy a skirt or pants and a jacket, and then choose from many different blouses to create a number of work outfits.
The idea took off like gang busters, expanding every which way. It was launched just as women were entering the work force in droves, many into jobs with greater responsibilities than previous generations had enjoyed. Liz Claiborne gave them clothes designed for a work environment, featuring good quality for a good price. Their target audience was a twenty five year old woman who had just gotten her first serious job and discovered that her previous wardrobe was not up to the task. It turned out that women of all ages liked the line. In 1983, Nancy Reagan appeared on the cover of Life magazine wearing a Liz Claiborne denim shirt.
We can credit Claiborne for making the American workplace a more casual clothing environment. In a 1986 interview in Vogue, (“Dressing America: The Success of Liz Claiborne,” August 1, 1986) she explained her approach: “Casual clothes can look OK even when they are a little messy or have obviously been worked in. Casual clothes make a woman look younger.”
Although I was in Claiborne’s target audience in 1976, having just begun my first full time job, I don’t remember wearing her clothes. My job was in a university library in California, an environment even more casual than Claiborne envisioned. However, I wonder if Claiborne entered my subconscious and became a kind of stealth style icon for me. Always in pants, she wore her hair very short and embraced glasses as part of her look. All those things certainly describe me today.
Claiborne lived her clothing philosophy, dressing in comparatively casual ensembles no matter what the occasion. Take a look at this photo showing her receiving a White House award in 1991. While everyone else wore black, she stands out in a white pant suit with a striped top. And look at her shoulders—they are broader than the men’s!