Huffpost Homepage

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Art Ortenberg Headshot

Liz Claiborne - J.C. Penney

Posted: Updated:

''J.C. PENNEY UNVEILS EXCLUSIVE LIZ CLAIBORNE LINE'' - Headline in Women's Wear Daily, July 22, 2010

"With high expectations for market share and margin growth, J.C. Penney unveiled its exclusive Liz Claiborne collection on Wednesday. It's an expanded version of its Liz & Co. line, which has been discontinued, but with comparable prices. Penney's Claiborne collection launches next month in more than 1,100 stores and on with 30 categories across men's, women's accessories and home, which joins the assortment in January."

The articles goes on to describe the elements in the collection, an ambitious assortment of items and fabrics "steeped in color," Liz's trademark, but then goes on to state that the collection will include "Claiborne's iconics such as long cardigans in novelty jacquards and toppers." Mystifying comment, and I should know. The continuing coverage indicates a well-thought out plan, a professionally selected number of additional categories: bags, jewelry, watches, men's shirts, and more to come. The photographed items look reasonably updated.

Despite the Liz clothing failure at Macy's, despite the mish-mash of tasteless merchandise that the label has endured over many years, despite all of that, Penney's said "a recent brand awareness study indicated customers still wanted to shop Claiborne."

That's what "iconic" means in this context: admirable, enduring, worthy of high, sustainable regard. So how do I feel about the marriage of Liz's name with J.C. Penney?

That Mike Ullman, chairman of Penney is in charge I regard very favorably. I had met him only a few times during my last years at the company and during his time at Macy's but he always struck me as thoughtful, intelligent and straightforward. His industry experiences after Macy's have been broadening. The Claiborne tie-in thus seems in good hands. I am put off by the opening lines of WWD's article - "With high expectations of market share and margin growth," etc. Market share and margin growth are dependent, as I'm sure Mr. Ullman is aware, on a number of factors other than the brand. Sell through, for one, deliveries in an orderly and controlled time frame, and, most pressingly, fit and quality.

The WWD piece states that sourcing will be the responsibility of Penney. I'm not sure that's accurate. Check out the arrangement that Claiborne made with Li and Fung, and it would seem that the sourcing will be in that company's hands. If so, Penney's presence in the orient to check merchandise in process, plant allocation, means of shipping during difficult transit times will be vital. That Liz Claiborne, Inc. will be responsible for the designing of the merchandise is not a comforting allocation of responsibility, given that track record of the company.

I walked Macy's Liz Claiborne floor when the label had been in Macy's hands and Isaac Mizrahi was responsible for design. The merchandise was poorly made, the sales force (two young women) didn't have the foggiest notion of who Liz was, and Mizrahi had been quoted as wanting to be the cheapest T-shirt designer in the game. Further to that, the company's performance over the last number of years has been disastrous. Thus I am greatly concerned about the ability of the company to design a product, probably be involved in the fit and quality while the product is in process, to bring Mr. Ullman the higher margins he seeks.

Now as to branding and just how much authority a label has. Crain's Business Weekly recently designated New York Company's and individual's ranking in a number of categories. Under "brands," three names were listed: Martha Stewart, George Steinbrenner and Liz Claiborne. Somehow, Liz herself had been forgiven the many years of the company's decline after she left. I've often wondered how the rest of the country knew Liz even though she had left the game about two decades ago. I, who had worked so closely with her at the company, who understood and experienced her humility and directness, am not surprised that she remains "iconic." I would hate to see the Penney experience dilute the relationship Liz had quietly built with her consumers.

Mr. Ullman selected wisely. How many enduring names has this industry produced? Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, I would say, and none other. Among the departed are Anne Klein, Perry Ellis and now entering the field, Halston. There are other names that are being "packaged" to blanket the country and the world with impressive images, Tommy Hilfiger for one. But the intimate relationship that Liz and the "Liz lady" had was always based in trust. That trust was formed by Liz's insistence on fit and quality. A Liz customer knew what to expect when she bought Liz's label. Liz resigned from our company when she knew she could no longer earn that trust.

How would Liz feel about the headline of this piece? Probably saddened, and would tell me again for the hundredth time, "I should never have given my name away," and I would tell her for the hundredth time that there was no other way we could have raised the money to go into our own business.

And then I would say, "Let's wait. Let's see what the product looks like, how it's made, how it fits. Let's hope it's what it should be so that Mike Ullman would have done something as important as earning higher margins. He would have kept you and what you stood for alive."