“Be Careful What You Wish For” might be a good motto for the Liz Claiborne company, at least from the designer’s point of view. In a few years, it went from a self-funded enterprise focusing on a few collections to a publicly traded company with billions in sales. Liz Claiborne herself went from designer to behind the scenes coordinator, in the process becoming a millionaire many times over. Yet just a little over a decade after she started the business Claiborne quit, tired of producing what she called “tonnage.” How did this happen?
One of the founding partners in the business, Jerry Chazen, gives his version of the company’s history in My Life at Liz Claiborne: How We Broke the Rules and Built the Largest Fashion Company in the World. According to him, the company launched many innovations. They were the first to start manufacturing almost entirely in Asia; the first to insist that store buyers choose an entire collection from the company, not just individual items that appealed to them; the first to insist on mini “stores” within department stores so that all of their clothes could be seen together. They were innovators in the outlet mall business and free standing stores. All of this fueled a meteoric growth in sales.
Choosing to expand quickly, the company launched three different sportswear lines, a higher end line (Dana Buchman), a plus line, and a men’s line. It expanded into hosiery, leather goods, shoes, linens, eyeglasses, and perfume. In a speech reflecting on her experience with this expansion, Claiborne said: “I saw my name moved from clothes to shoes to scarves to fragrance to belts and hats and bracelets and more. And with each added factor of growth and of product, the job of identity maintenance grew that much more difficult.” When Liz Claiborne quit her own brand in the late eighties, she and her husband went on to found an environmental foundation, something she surely wouldn’t have been able to do without the company’s phenomenal success. But in later interviews, she spoke about her brand with regret.
Now this once lucrative company has fallen on hard times. It went on a buying spree, acquiring such diverse lines as DKNY sportswear, Kate Spade and Juicy Couture, all in an effort to stay afloat. In the meantime, The Liz Claiborne brand no longer had the same appeal; the company sold the name to J.C. Penney’s in 2011. All of the free standing stores have closed and the parent company, no longer making Liz Claiborne products, has now renamed itself Fifth & Pacific.
Liz Claiborne died of cancer in 2007. I wonder if she is resting easier knowing that no more sheets and perfumes are being made that bear her name. On the other hand, the clothes that lay claim to her design ideas no longer have anything to do with the company she helped to found.