After 25 years as a New York designer, Liz Claiborne co-founded her own firm in 1976, first designing stylish, moderately priced sportswear that freed working women from plain, dark suits, then expanding into menswear, accessories and perfume. Liz Claiborne Inc. broke into the Fortune 500 list of “America’s largest corporations”—becoming the first company founded by a woman to be so honored.
Born Anne Elisabeth Jane Claiborne in Brussels, Belgium, on March 31, 1929, Liz Claiborne is best known for revolutionizing the women’s apparel industry in the United States. She served as head designer and co-founder of the company that bears her name, Liz Claiborne Inc., for more than 20 years.
The daughter of a banker,she spent many of her early years abroad, and became fluent in both French and English. Liz and her family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1939. After WW II ended, she moved to Europe, where she studied art. Liz never earned a high school degree. At the age of 19, she won a design contest held by Harper’s Bazaar magazine, and soon moved to New York City to pursue a career in the fashion industry.
Liz’s first job was as a sketcher for sportswear designer Tina Leser, also working from time to time as a size model. She worked for several other designers over the next few years, and, in 1950, married book designer Ben Schultz. The couple had one son, Alexander, before splitting. In 1957, Liz married Arthur Ortenberg.
To have lived a joyful life and to have departed that life a victim of a vicious cancer is, in brief, the story of Liz Claiborne’s life. But the story is much more than that. Born in Brussels in 1929, the third and last child of a highborn American banker and his delicate, beautiful wife, she was born privileged and taught that privilege incurs responsibilities. She lived out her early years untouched by life and death during the ominous 1930s, until the ominous became the real and the family fled to America. Inheriting her father’s love of paintings and museums and her mother’s love of costumes and clothing, Liz early on discovered “the beauty of everyday things,” and at the age of twenty won the Grand Award in the Harper’s Junior Bazaar Design Contest, which earned her a trip to Paris to work for ten days with famed couturier Jacques Heim. For the next twenty-five years she worked as a designer and sketch artist before starting her own company with her husband Art Ortenberg. Liz Claiborne, Inc. was an immediate success, and was by 1981 a Fortune 500 company with $1.2 billion in sales. In this book Art Ortenberg does not so much celebrate Liz Claiborne the designer and entrepreneur, but rather Liz the woman. “Liz left us more than her work,” he concludes, “perhaps more than the consequences of her work; she left us herself. The making of that self, and the good she did for others, is the story I tell.”