THE BLOG

Liz Claiborne: The Legend, The Woman, The Designer

03/21/2010 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

"Liz Claiborne is one of the all-time greats, not just in the apparel industry but in the history of the stock market." So spoke Brenda Gall, senior industry specialist at Merrill Lynch.

Ms. Gall was acclaiming a woman who had been trained as an apparel designer. But Ms. Gall was also acclaiming Liz Claiborne the organizer and leader of a powerful company. She had developed the formidable skill of organizing disparate elements to serve a rational and beautiful outcome. That was how she approached the design of apparel and the design of our company.

She participated in the design of an organization dedicated to specific objectives, many of them immaterial: pleasure in respectful interrelationships, dedication to learning and relearning skills, continued self-examination and, simply put, organizational civility.

Today's business world, vertical in its insistence on hierarchical structures both in reward and relationships, insists on revering the "bottom line." Organization by design is the last of Wall Street's qualifiers in assessing the value of a company. That decent behavior can lead to more than decent profitably is considered laughable. We never doubted that it would. That was how Liz designed her product and that's how she was instrumental in designing her company. She believed that we could bring order, discipline and planning to a highly fragmented business. We believed that if we could run a proper company with high quality products coherently presented to a defined customer, the rewards will follow. It may sound naïve, but Liz designed a virtuous, rational company.

Very few companies today, if any, consider "virtue" a virtue.

Years of preparation on her part and years of varied exposures on my part to the clothing business brought us to my consulting showroom in New York City, where we founded Liz Claiborne, Inc. Her mother had taught her how to sew, drape cloth and make patterns. Her father had escorted her to museums and through buildings considered architecturally beautiful. He had stressed the beauty of landscapes, the beauty of disparate elements arranged in "certain" ways. This was all part of her learning to "see."

She designed an apprenticeship that she felt would enable her to apply vision to paper and then to fabric. She brought that to our company to-be. And I, who had wandered through the humanities in my college courses, was as avid to design a company as I was to manage that company.

By February of 1976 we were building our first presentation: Liz, designer, Nancy Valentine, her assistant whose function was to create patterns and work with Liz as new styles were developed. There was a small drop-leaf cutting table to make room for the dress model. Three seamstresses were in place. Recalling the earliest days, Nancy says: "I had met Liz when she free-lanced a special group for White Stag. She inherited me as her patternmaker. We hit it off at once." It was a given that Liz and Nancy would work together, and "together" was precisely how they worked.

I spoke with Nancy the other day. Here is how Nancy described working with Liz: "She was always open, always fair, always able to learn from what didn't work. We lived inside one another's heads. Liz would ask 'Nancy, do you think we can do it this way? Will it work?' And if I didn't think it would work, that was that. We went from there." Nancy chuckled and added: "When the first line was finished we were given a week off with pay. That had never happened to me before, so I put myself on an airplane. I flew for the first time to California to see my mother. I knew then that for sure I was with special people."

That happened through design. We knew that every element that made up our company was in place to serve a purpose.

The story of our phenomenal growth has been told many times. First Liz hired a number of young design aspirants to sketch, to track down buttons, to check color matching, to bring us to a point where she then hired an assistant designer. She was still in control, but that control was slipping as she began to remove herself from the actual designing of clothes. Bob Abajian, her assistant in the late 80s, once described a line presentation for a company video: "There our clothes were hung on racks and special fixtures (at Macy's in Paramus, N.J.) and it looked as though the entire line was painted with one brush."

As divisions were added, designers were added. Liz designed less and supervised more. "The further one is removed from the actual touching, draping, fittings, the less of oneself is in the product," she said. "That is obvious. Things are now being "run past" me. I spend my time overseeing fourteen designers. I "edit" their work. I ride the elevators with a bowl of cantaloupe and cottage cheese in my hands, going from floor to floor to have things 'run past' me."

As divisions were added, Liz the designer lost control of her label, and I lost control of the company we had designed. We had a written credo, "priorities," pinned up on blackboards and distributed through the company newsletter, but written credo or not, scale and change were reshaping the purposeful design of our company.

We left the company in 1989. Liz Claiborne, Inc. had become a mature company, and was now to be "organized" under new management, Jerome Chazen, experienced in aggressive selling, and a board of directors that was to become increasingly traditional and supporters of the Chairman, sat in judgment of the performance and direction of the company. It constantly amazes me how a group of highly successful executives can officiate, year after year, at the demise of a once great company.

But Liz, the designer, was far from forgotten. Her most gratifying distinction took place in 1991. She received an honorary doctorate degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. Her full acceptance speech, raw in its blunt honesty, moving, is presented in full in my book. Here are her opening remarks:

"This moment in my life is my scaling of Mt. Everest, humble and exhilarating, receiving this honor bestowed by peers, colleagues and fellow designers. I have tried very hard during my working years to shape my defining career decisions as a designer, true to the demands of good design as I saw them. We founded a company built on the primacy of design and engineering, and I resigned from the board of directors of that company fifteen years later because I could no longer enforce that principle and because I felt at the time that scale and the compulsion of the world of dollars and cents, the apparent hostility of commerce and design in pursuit of ever-growing market share, made that principle unenforceable.

"After months of reflection, attempting to recapture and reevaluate the sources of my professional beliefs, I remain convinced that my resignation from the board was both proper and inevitable."

I sat in the audience, quietly weeping for times lost but forever remembered.
The design staff, starting with Nancy Valentine, who never wanted to be a designer, had grown from the original 4 to 14 to 32, and was well over 40 when we left. And with each increment, Liz had designed less, until she no longer was the designer. And the design and priorities of the company began to erode until, in the end, Liz Claiborne was like any other company, visionless, judging each step in terms of the potential material gain. And like most companies, judging poorly.

But somehow she remains iconic. Her style, her dignity, her humility: all of these fashioned the person. She remains a historically great designer - of apparel - of her company - of herself.