Chazen writes of Claiborne’s birth: Top donor to campus art museum co-founded immensley profitable womenswear company

I Originally Published in The Badger Herald, March 15, 2012

t was 1975. A group of three met in New York City’s West 39th Street Garment District. In a relic of a bar, two men and one woman sat around a table. First, a successful business executive, Jerome Chazen. Next, Chazen’s former roommate, Art Ortenberg — back from university days they spent together in Wisconsin. The third was a woman. A designer by the name of Liz Claiborne. Together, the three hatched a plan.

Reflection in the Chazen Art Museum with Mr Jerome and Mrs Simona Chazen

No stranger to Wisconsin, Mr. Chazen, attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Here, he not only met his future business partner, but also his other partner: wife Simone Chazen. Even from their East Coast home, the two remain present in university life in the campus art museum that bears their name.

Photo courtesy of UW-Madison.

In his recently published book, “My Life At Liz Claiborne: How We Broke the Rules and Built the Largest Fashion Company in the World,” Chazen, who would later make an enormous donation and become the namesake of the University of Wisconsin’s Chazen Museum of Art, recounts these days when he, along with Ortenberg, Claiborne and Leonard Boxer (the company’s fourth progenitor), designed a new brand.

They would run a fashion company that would respond to a changing social landscape. Second-wave feminists were drawing national attention to gender — gender in the family, the bedroom and the workplace. “Things were changing,” Chazen writes. Women were changing.

“My Life at Liz Claiborne” describes a piece of this story. This book is Chazen’s first. “I was prodded into [writing] it … by my grandchildren,” he said in an interview. “They would hear stories about the company, … and they asked me ‘why not put it down?’”

Chazen acquiesced. “I want[ed] to tell the story of the growth of the company from my point of view.”

Chazen is quick to point out that his book is not about himself, but rather Claiborne, Inc. “It’s a business memoir. It’s not a biography. … I had to give my background, growing up and all the rest of it a little bit of space in order for people to understand where I was when we started the company,” he said.

Jerome Chazen, author of "My Life at Liz Claiborne"

In Jerome Chazen’s new book, titled “My Life at Liz Claiborne” he remembers the creation and success of Liz Claiborne Inc., stressing the feminist underpinnings from which the company arose.

Photo courtesy of Bohlsen Group.

Providing apparel to meet women’s changing wants quickly became the mission of the newly founded Liz Claiborne, Inc. “There was a woman out there who was turning away from dresses and looking for the opportunity to put together different outfits by mixing and matching,” Chazen writes.

This was significant for the retail industry as a whole. Designer Liz Claiborne had her collections placed in the same department store sections, which allowed buyers to combine separates from the same designer into multiple outfits. It is due to Claiborne’s vision that our current department stores are arranged in this manner.

Claiborne specialized in designing separates for women.

©2010 Taylor Trade Publishing

Claiborne’s line also provided women with the opportunity to purchase garments based on men’s apparel. Claiborne manufactured women’s suits and jackets, pieces representative of the workplace.

It was a business model that worked. In just 10 years after its 1976 founding, Forbes magazine named Liz Claiborne America’s most profitable company. Shortly thereafter, Claiborne’s annual sales would top one billion dollars.

Chazen also includes details of his working life prior to the founding of Claiborne. A great deal of Chazen’s professional growth came from exposing himself to the many sectors of the garment industry — from the factory floor, executive conference room, to every store-shelf in between.

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In recounting these experiences, Chazen provides the reader with lessons from more than 50 years working in fashion. “I wanted to give younger people an opportunity to think about the ‘real world’ out there,” Chazen said.

Women were always central to Chazen’s work. “I think that the main asset that I got out of all of that work … was an appreciation for the consumer, and how the consumer really lets you know what she thinks and what she is going to do.”

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