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Fashion pioneer Liz Claiborne dead

The veteran fashion designer, whose styles became a cornerstone of career women's wardrobes in the '70s-'80s died of cancer.

fashion and trends Updated: Jun 28, 2007 18:27 IST

Fashion designer Liz Claiborne, whose styles became a cornerstone of career women's wardrobes in the 1970s and 1980s, has died. She was 78.

Claiborne died Tuesday at the New York Presbyterian Hospital after suffering from cancer for a number of years, her personal assistant Gwen Satterfield said Wednesday.

The Belgian-born designer revolutionised the way working women put together their wardrobes because she was one of them.

She made it easy for them as they pioneered up corporate ladders, offering coordinated outfits at once serious and stylish, but also affordable.

With husband Art Ortenberg and partners Leonard Boxer and Jerome Chazen, Claiborne launched her label in 1976 after working for years as a relatively unknown dress designer.

The brand emphasised ensemble sportswear, quality and keeping the price tag below that of other designers.

Liz Claiborne and her husband retired from the day-to-day operations in 1989. The new approach to dressing revolutionized the department store industry, which had focused on stocking pants in one department and skirts in another.

"It's what the working woman needed," said Joanne Arbuckle, chairwoman of the art and design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

"Her coordinated pieces you went from the turtleneck to sweater to pants to the socks. It's like what Gap did for kids, and she did it beautifully."

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.

As the company grew, the designer expanded her offerings to include more casual clothes and also popular licensed accessories. Her handbags with the triangular Liz Claiborne logo and taupe trim were fixtures on the arms of both high school girls and their mothers in the 1980s.

"She was proof that licensing could be done well," Arbuckle said. She soon entered the bridge market with Dana Buchman, who had been a designer under Claiborne, just the beginning of her company's vast diversification: Brands like Ellen Tracy, Kate Spade, and Juicy Couture, helped to generate sales of almost $5 billion (euro3.7 billion) last year. In May, the company acquired the high-end design firm of Narcisco Rodriguez.

"The concept was to dress the American working woman because I, as a working woman with a child (from her previous marriage) didn't want to spend hours shopping. Things should be easy. You don't have to dress in that little navy blue suit with a tie," Claiborne told trade paper Women's Wear Daily in 2006.

"I wanted to dress her in sportier clothes and colors." Elisabeth Claiborne was born March 31, 1929 in Brussels, Belgium. She moved to New York in the 1940s to pursue a career in fashion. She married Ortenberg in 1957 after divorcing her first husband, Ben Schultz. She and Schultz had a son, Alexander.

Fashion designer Stan Herman, a former president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, said he felt as if he grew up with Claiborne in the fashion industry. He recalled the first time they met was at a fashion-themed lecture at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

"She wasn't `Liz Claiborne' then, she was working for a dress company, Youth Guild, and she gave everyone a hard time for letting men get the best questions. I said, `It's time you went into business by yourself."' He added: "She was tough but with soft knuckles."