Liz Claiborne, one of the most prominent and accomplished fashion icons of the 20th century, died June 26th after a 10-year battle with a rare form of cancer. She was 78.

Claiborne left behind a legacy that includes the multi-billion dollar Liz Claiborne Inc., one of the most successful and recognized fashion companies in the world. Her single most celebrated accomplishment came in 1986, when Claiborne’s company was the first business headed by a woman to make the Fortune 500 list.

Anne Elisabeth Jane Claiborne was born on March 31st, 1929 in Brussels to a wealthy American family from Louisiana. Upon the outbreak of World War II, her family moved back to  their native New Orleans. Claiborne was educated at St. Timothy’s Boarding School in Catonsville, Maryland but left to study art in Europe.

Her first big break in fashion came in 1949 when she won the Jacques Heim National Design Contest, which was sponsored by Harpar’s Bazaar. Shortly thereafter, Claiborne moved to New York City, where she found work first as a sketch artist for the sportswear line Tina Leser, and then as a designer for Dan Keller and Youth Group Inc.

Believing that the role of the woman in the business world was on the rise–as well as frustrated by the lack of affordable, stylish attire for businesswomen–Claiborne broke out on her own in 1976, founding Liz Claiborne Inc. Much to the surprise of the entire fashion industry, the clothing line instantly struck success; the company had grossed $2.6 million by the end of its first year, and over $23 million by the end of 1978.

The company went public in 1981, and Liz Claiborne Inc. eventually entered the elite Fortune 500, with retail sales reaching just over $1 billion. By the time Claiborne retired from active management in 1989, her company had become one of the most recognizable in the fashion world.

Claiborne, known for her short, close-cropped hair and oversized sunglasses, was the epitome of her elegant-but-assertive businesswoman model. She headed her company with the utmost seriousness, but maintained the stylishness and grace of a leading woman; she was often known to ring a glass bell to maintain order during executive meetings.

Having experienced a short-lived marriage to photography agent Ben Shultz, Claiborne married again in 1957 to Arthur Ortenberg, to whom she was married until her death. The two had actually began a love affair while they were both still married to their previous spouses.

Claiborne is survived by her husband, a son from her first marriage, and two stepchildren from her second marriage.

About The Author

Daniel Peleschuk is one of our founding staff writers and an editor-at-large. He can be reached at [email protected]

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