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Liz Claiborne CEO Bill McComb Talks the JC Penney Launch

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Earlier this month, under the leadership of CEO Bill McComb, Liz Claiborne Inc. debuted its flagship brand's latest collection. Stylewise, the line hews to the traditional, polished-casual Liz look, but in business terms, the three-decade old label is taking a major risk. After a few seasons of disappointing sales in traditional department stores, McComb chose JC Penney as the exclusive Liz retailer for the U.S. and Puerto Rico. (Isaac Mizrahi, who had helmed Liz's Macy's line, is still on board as the designer for the higher-priced QVC line called Liz Claiborne New York.) With some retail analysts questioning McComb's strategy, I asked him what it says about the brand, the industry, and the newest generation of Liz Claiborne customers.

Liz Claiborne is a brand that originally grew by riding the wave of boomer women heading into the workplace: Who is Liz Claiborne for now?

She's 25, she's 35, she's 45 or 55--but it's more about her lifestyle, her attitude, her way of spending and managing her household and her life, than it is about her age. She's in charge, she's the decision maker, she has a casual lifestyle and a career lifestyle and they're blended together. Her wardrobe skews traditional, not contemporary, but she likes some items with flair. And value is really, really important; she cares a lot about getting a good deal.

There's a woman who feels "left behind" by some of the labels that still brand themselves classic but are skewing more contemporary--a shopper who is essentially uninterested in fashion and wants traditional looks she can count on. Is that what she'll get from Liz?

There are bottoms and tops with proven and named silhouettes that are classic, some that go back to heritage Liz, that we are going to do all day and all night every season. That woman will know that she can get the right mix of either solid or print and pattern, in this known fit that she counts on, that doesn't put her out there taking fashion risks and that makes polished everyday dressing really easy--that is a really important part of what the Liz Claiborne brand is about and that's what this shopper wants.

Why is JC Penney the right place for women to shop for Liz Claiborne now?

The consumer is the one that led us to this decision. It would have been a risky decision three years ago, but from 2007 to fall 2009, with Penney's exclusively selling the Liz & Co. line, we had the greatest test market of a national Liz brand strategy that you could possibly have. All of our research said that at JC Penney, the shopper who really wanted Liz Claiborne was finding the clothes she wanted and getting the value she needed. And the experience of shopping for Liz at Penney's was improving that woman's brand association with the Liz Claiborne name and with JC Penney.

Liz & Co. was consistently beating its forecasts, and the shopper was buying up every category at Penney's, paying full price and telling us that she liked the brand more and more.

There's a brand-aware Liz customer already there who's willing to spend more money for the quality of the brand, and who's even willing to go back into a Penney's store that she hasn't been to in a year because she wants Liz Claiborne. Liz Claiborne will be a destination within JC Penney's.

You spent 15 years at Johnson & Johnson before joining Liz Claiborne in 2006. What have you learned about managing creatives?

It's my job to create a lot of space for them. It's my job to extract their brilliance and to make sure that the environment is conducive to that. At Johnson & Johnson I ran a huge R&D organization, and they're scientists. Scientists and creatives aren't necessarily alike, but they're both a different breed from executive management, and they have separate needs. The key for both is that they're working in an environment where they can produce at their best level.

People who work with you talk about your ebullient management style--was this always your way or did it change with the move from pharmaceuticals to fashion?

I'm deeply passionate about work. I love leading people and I love solving problems, and I'm not at all afraid of tough environments. Last week a study came out that kids' personalities were fully formed by first grade, and I think I had this personality in first grade. But it may be true that I use it even more as a tool here--to keep people motivated, and challenged, and engaged. When things are really tough and you're taking on inherited problems and you know it's going to take three years to fix them, you know what? You gotta make people laugh, you gotta make people smile--you've got to make people connect with the future because the present isn't there yet.

Disclosure: This article originally appeared on The High Low, which is an editorially independent site presented by Liz Claiborne Inc.