An American Dream Fulfilled: Liz Claiborne

NOTE (20.Nov.2019): An alert MurthyDotCom reader brought to our attention some additional information about Mrs. Claiborne that indicates she may have been a U.S. citizen at the time of her birth. The law regarding citizenship status when born abroad to U.S. citizen parents has changed over the years. Because Liz Claiborne was born prior to May 24, 1934, she would have been a U.S. citizen at birth as long as her parents met certain residency requirements and were married. If she was born out of wedlock, the requirements would have been slightly different.

We had relied on numerous newspaper articles that referred to Mrs. Claiborne as an immigrant. We frankly are not familiar enough with Mrs. Claiborne’s background to make a definitive determination. In retrospect, however, there certainly is reason to suspect that she may well have been a U.S. citizen at birth.

From the time of this nation’s birth, immigrants have crossed over to America’s shores in pursuit of new lives built with hard work, determination, and ingenuity. Their immense contributions are part of the very fabric of this country. To highlight the incredible talent and diversity that immigrants have brought to our land over hundreds of years, MurthyDotCom periodically highlights the life of a notable immigrant who has left a lasting mark on history. The latest entry in our continuing series entitled, An American Dream Fulfilled is the iconic fashion designer and entrepreneur Liz Claiborne.

Born Anne Elisabeth Jane Claiborne, in 1929 Brussels, Belgium, Claiborne traveled the world from a young age with her American-born parents, becoming fluent in both French and English. When she was ten, her parents returned to the United States to escape the imminent danger of World War II. The family settled into New Orleans, Louisiana, where Claiborne remained until the end of the war. Eschewing a traditional education, she returned to Europe in 1947 to study art in Belgium and France. Despite never having earned her high school diploma, she won a design contest sponsored by fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar when she was 21. Bolstered by the award, as well as her considerable talent for sketching clothing ideas, Claiborne made her way to New York City, the fashion capital of the world, to work as a model and design intern.

After working her way up as an in-house designer for several major fashion labels over the following two decades, Claiborne developed a keen sense of style and formed strong opinions on how clothing should look, fit, and feel. She decided that the women’s fashion market was sorely lacking in comfortable, professional attire that was moderately priced for the increasingly large demographic of women entering the workforce. In 1976, she founded her own fashion brand, Liz Claiborne, Inc., with $50,000 of her own money. Her initial line consisted of sleek, well-made pants, blouses, sweaters, and skirts that were sold in department stores and designed to be mixed and matched – a daring concept in an era when women’s work apparel was limited to drab business suits. The concept was a risk that proved rewarding. Her sales the first year totaled more than $2 million, a wildly successful profit at the time.

Even as her company continued to rake in record profits throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Claiborne remained committed to creating sophisticated yet accessible clothing for the everyday working woman. She considered herself a stylist, rather than a couture designer, and would sometimes pose as a salesperson when her new line was released in department stores to gain unfiltered feedback from her customers. In 1986, sales for Liz Claiborne, Inc. reached $1.2 billion, and Claiborne became the first woman founder of a company to reach Fortune Magazine’s list of the 500 most profitable companies in the United States. A year later, she ascended from company president to chairman of the board and chief executive officer. After opening a spate of Liz Claiborne retail stores in the late ’80s and early ’90s, she gradually decreased her active management role in the company, until she retired completely in 1989. Claiborne then devoted the remainder of her life to philanthropic endeavors, including the establishment of a wilderness preservation foundation with her husband, Art Ortenberg. She remained committed to her charitable ventures until her death in 2007, at the age of 78.

By changing the way modern working women approached their clothes, Liz Claiborne paved the way for fashion to become more creative, more comfortable, and more democratic. Instead of stiff, uninspired business suits, Claiborne offered an array of styles that allowed women to piece together their own unique looks that made them feel confident and at ease in their own skin. She once remarked that she “… wanted to dress busy and active women like myself, women who dress in a rush and who weren’t perfect.” By guiding working women into feeling good about themselves as they walked into the office every day, Claiborne didn’t just make her own American dream come true – she helped millions of women achieve their own dreams as well. [See Liz Claiborne,]


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