Anne Elisabeth Jane “Liz” Claiborne (March 31, 1929 – June 26, 2007) was a Belgian-born American fashion designer and entrepreneur. Claiborne is best known for founding Liz Claiborne Inc. which in 1986 became the first company founded by a woman to make the Fortune 500. Claiborne was the first woman to become chairperson and CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
Claiborne was born in Brussels to American parents. She came from a prominent Louisiana family with an ancestor William C.C. Claiborne having been Governor of Louisiana during the War of 1812. In 1939, at the start of World War II, the family returned to New Orleans. She attended St. Timothy’s, a boarding school then in Catonsville, Maryland and currently in Stevenson, Maryland. Rather than finishing high school, she went to Europe to study art in painters’ studios. Her father did not believe that she needed an education, so she studied art informally.
In 1949, she won the Jacques Heim National Design Contest (sponsored by Harper’s Bazaar), and then moved to New York City where she worked for years in the Garment District on Seventh Avenue as a sketch artist at the sportswear house Tina Leser. She worked as a designer for Dan Keller and Youth Group Inc.
Claiborne had a short-lived marriage before marrying Art Ortenberg in 1957. She had a son from her first marriage and two stepchildren from her second.
Claiborne, frustrated at the failure of the companies that she worked for to provide clothes for working women, started her own design company, Liz Claiborne Inc., in 1976. It was an immediate success with sales of $2 million in 1976 and $23 million in 1978. By 1988 it had acquired one-third of the American women’s upscale sportswear market.
In 1980, Liz Claiborne Accessories was founded by Nina McLemore. Liz Claiborne Inc. went public in 1981 and made the Fortune 500 in 1986 with retail sales of $1.2 billion.
Claiborne listed all employees in the directory in alphabetical order to circumvent what she perceived as male hierarchies. She controlled meetings by ringing a glass bell and became famous for her love of red– “Liz Red.” She would sometimes pose as a saleswoman to see what average women thought of her clothes.