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Liz Claiborne - J.C. Penney - Disaster

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The merchandise is now on J.C. Penney floors. The "disaster" I refer to in the headline is a one-word, personal description of the women's wear product. I visited the flagship store in the mall in mid-town Manhattan yesterday and was shocked at the tackiness, drabness, cheapness and unLizness of the merchandise.

Forget the positioning, forget the sardine-can like jamming of goods, forget the boring denim-like bottoms, forget the lack of space given to the putative accessories - a handbag on a ledge here and there -- forget the menswear which I did not look at. Just look at the Liz clothes for women. The "collection" was the fuel for our early skyrocket to dominance of our industry..

Liz was first and foremost known for her youthful use of color. Then followed the jaunty, spirited sense of her designs, the highly selective and rare use of prints, her insistence on quality fabrics and make. Her customer knew what to expect.

J.C. Penney has chosen to ignore what our label stood for. Or perhaps they never understood it or cared. On the contrary, what we find are shlumpy blouses, or tops, if I may, in dark, sullen prints, often in one color way - print after print - all on droopy fabrics. There are dresses, similarly dreary elongated versions of the tops.

And one leather-like tan jacket to accompany this melange of droopy blouses and dresses. A handful of rugged, jean-like bottoms, are apparently considered the completing component of an outfit. One denim-like bottom carried the following warning: " Wear carefully. The dye on this fabric tends to rub off and may soil whatever you come in contact with." Those are not the precise words, but certainly, the precise warning.

Thus, a disaster! A close friend visited the Poughkeepsie Penney store and was as shattered as I was at how Penney had misrepresented what the label had once meant. "Awful, dreary, cheesy, tacky." Another woman who had been an early Liz fan visited the Roosevelt Field Shopping Center on Long Island and wept when she saw the Liz merchandise. "It's not Liz at all," she said. "Cheap, cheap, cheap fabrics, cheap accessories. Tragedy."

Do I want the Penney tie-in to fail? It's not truly what I want that matters. It's the Liz legacy that matters most to me and what that legacy means to the fashion industry. The cynicism that encourages "branding" as an end in itself devalues designers of integrity and vision. It also caters, or wishes to cater, to the lowest taste-level consumers.

That view of the marketplace encourages journalists to cover stories for their dramatic content and encourages the "flamboyant": Isaac Mizrahi, who for some reason seems to be the lead player, and his somewhat thwarted counter-player, Bill McComb, to dominate the stage. And what do we serious readers of The Wall Street Journal come away with? What do we learn about what built and then destroyed a great company?

Thus Rachel Dodes of the Wall Street Journal calls Bill McComb, current C.E.O. of Liz Claiborne, Inc. "charismatic" and quotes the one board member, a board member of long-standing who finds McComb "an incredible motivator." Please check The Huffington Post archives for an earlier piece I wrote "Rewarding Failure."

Eric Wilson of the Times wrote Liz's obituary and described a conversation he had with her while she was alive. These are his words: "Once, flying from a fashion luncheon to a dinner show in another city, her plane was delayed. Ms. Claiborne assumed she had missed the appearance. After landing, however, she discovered the audience was still waiting for her.

" I changed in the hotel room in about two seconds flat and went out, and when I walked in that room - the applause," she told Women's Wear Daily in 2000. "It was the first time I realized it was like being a star for a short while. It was a great feeling., but it was a feeling also of responsibility, when you have women reacting that way and depending on you."