Thursday, June 28, 2007

Liz Claiborne: 1929-2007

When I first heard about Liz Claiborne's death yesterday, my first thought was, "Liz Claiborne was alive until now?" That may sound terrible, but while I'm familiar with her brand and company (one of the most respected in a here-today-gone-tomorrow industry), I knew very little about the woman behind the name.

But reading the moving obituaries that have come out these past few days (this one by Eric Wilson of the New York Times, is one of the best), I'm frustrated with myself that it took her death for me to learn what a tremendous influence she had on fashion, and on the way that women work.

As young women accustomed to the concept of women working and expecting (if not always receiving) equal opportunity and treatment on the job, I think we often forget just how difficult it was for the women who had to figure out how to "make it work" as a female professional, with no model or mentor to follow. The simple fact that for years, the only appropriate office outfit was little more than a men's blue suit jacket with a shapeless skirt tacked on, over a blouse that featured a "women's tie." How demeaning it must have felt for these women to have nothing to wear but an ugly copy of a man's uniform, with no consideration for practicality, flattering a woman's body or making her feel strong, beautiful and worthy of respect.


And once designers began to reinterpret the women's suit into something more style-conscious and woman-friendly, the result was unavailable to most women due to high designer prices. Liz Claiborne came along and changed all of that, making affordable, stylish and feminine professional clothes for women who wanted to be viewed as equal to their male counterparts, without sacrificing their own personality and individuality. She also leveraged the versatility of mixing and matching separates, to maximize each piece's wearability, saving the consumer money and closet space.

Women were also drawn to the brand because Liz herself lived the lifestyle her clothes represented. Compared to the qualities we associate with most popular brands today, her mission of creating clothes for women who "weren't perfect," who wanted to express their creativity in addition to exuding confidence and professionalism, and to dramatically alter the stereotypes of working women as dowdy, unfeminine and unattractive, is very inspiring. She understood the needs of her customers because she had the same needs herself, as head of her company. Liz Claiborne, Inc. was the first company founded by a woman to join the Fortune 500 list and in 2005, annual sales revenues exceeded $4.85 billion.

People often refer to fashion as frivolous and unimportant, but I think Liz Claiborne's story is the perfect reminder of just how life-changing fashion can be. Every day when I get dressed for work and every time I'm shopping for a new skirt, blouse or suit, I'm in a position to think twice about the incredible number of options I have. The freedom I have to choose how I want to present myself to the world is one that should never be taken for granted.

4 comments:

Fabulously Broke in the City said...

Absolutely....

I think she's on par with Coco (who fabulized simplicity and the LBD - Little Black Dress)...

How wonderful for us to have items in our wardrobe that represent so much more than just being pieces of clothing.

Deja Pseu said...

I'm old enough to have been working when Liz's separates were about the only option out there for work-appropriate clothing in lower price ranges. I don't see the brand available much anymore in major department stores, though.

Elaine Taylor-Gordon said...

Not only did Liz revolutionize the way women dressed for business at a price most could afford to pay, but she was a corporate groundbreaker as well, as possibly the first woman to head a Fortune 500 company that she started herself! And through all this, she never was a grandstander. She and her husband used their great fortune (made by them) to do good throughout the world. And for the past 18 years, they devoted themselves to philanthropic activities involving people's well being, domestic violence, animal rights and the environment. A great woman by any standard. We all owe her!

Anonymous said...

I love Liz Clairborne's clothes. I didn't know how much until I started working for a congressperson this summer. I have a few pieces (a shirt, a skirt and a pair of shoes) and they are absolutely my favorite pieces in my wardrobe! I have a couple other work appropriate-style clothes, but Liz's clothes are the ones that I am not ready to throw in the dumpster out of frustration!!!