When Liz Clairborne Ruled the World: History of Budget Fashion

Back in the day (like 1988) Liz Claiborne was “dabomb.com”. The brand, founded in 1976, was one of the most successful women’s sportswear brands of the past 40 years. According to the site Name Wire:

Claiborne was arguably the first mainstream designer to provide working women with sensible, good-looking apparel for the office. She founded the company in 1976 and by 1988 it had a whopping one third of the American women’s upscale sportswear market.

Every mall-trolling, wanna-be fashionista either had the $45, “pleather” Liz Claiborne cross-body bag (in very 80s colors like taupe and mauve) or was trying to figure out a way to raise enough funds to get one (I fell very much in the former category). For those of you not old enough to remember the 80s, you could only purchase Liz Claiborne at major department stores (in my case Minnesota’s version of Bloomingdales, Dayton’s).

Vintage Liz Claiborne Handbag.. Don’t Judge..

liz claiborne handbag

Liz Claiborne ruled during a time when women were starting to gain real traction in the corporate world and, while it may be hard to believe in this era of singular, tech-driven, entrepreneurship, young women wanted to be Melanie Griffith’s character from “Working Girl”- a rising corporate titan armed with “a mind for business and a body for sin”.

The rise of the tech world, with its flat corporate structure, fluid compensation boundaries and very casual approach to work attire, changed the equation, for everyone, but in very significant ways, for women. I won’t go into into details, cause really it’s a topic worthy of its own very long post that is totally outside the scope of TBF, but I will say that women like myself, who came of age in the millennium, have a much more fluid view of personal style. While our mothers had to wear the corporate armor, we have more flexibility and options in terms of our personal style (today I’m wearing a big purple turban and a blue/green silk dress at the office). And it’s precisely these options that made it difficult for tech babies like myself to get extra geeked up about Liz Claiborne.

Understanding this, Liz Claiborne made an effort in late 2008 to revive the brand by poaching Isaac Mizrahi from Target.

Isaac Mizrahi Chats about His (Short-Lived) Role with Liz Claiborne in 2009

What should have been an solid partnership, Mizrahi’s design sensibilities (affordable- J.Crew) matched Liz Claiborne’s potential customer (Michelle Obamas of the world), failed due to lack of distribution (remember how hard it was to find the line?) and conflict between the brand’s two stars- Mizrahi and creative director, Tim Gunn.

Isaac Mizrahi for Liz Claiborne Commercial. Couldn’t you see folks wearing these looks now?

So news that the 40+ year old was selling most of it’s brand to JCPenney, which is on the come up, but still is slightly below Macy’s on the fashion totem pole, is a real interesting turn of events. Merchandising isn’t JCP’s strong suit (go into the fashion department of your local JCP and you’ll understand what I’m saying), but Liz Claiborne’s turn from the brand of power women to the brand of pastel comfort may fit in with the JCP customer.

Just don’t expect the new generation of “Working Girls” to wear the brand.

What do you think about Liz Claiborne?

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    Catherine Brock

    As a Southern California transplant now living in the Midwest, Catherine has turned layering into an art form and accepted that UGGs actually do have a place in the stylish lady's wardrobe. She's been featured in Woman's World Magazine, DrLaura.com, Refinery29, Wellness.com and has made appearances on ABC7 Chicago, FOX2News St. Louis, KCAL9 Los Angeles, Fox19 Cincinnati, WGN TV Chicago and WCPO TV Cincinnati.

    Blog Comments

    I’m old enough to remember Liz Claiborne in the 80’s, when I worked in the fashion industry. Her brand was THE hot commodity. I remember that bag, everyone had it, except me, I just had a Liz Claiborne wallet. She also had a women’s plus size brand, Elisabeth, which I used to wear. When the company had Isaac Mizrahi at the creative helm, I got interested in them again. I bought a bracelet from them, but I think that was it. I loved the clothes, though, they looked like a lot of fun, but the pricepoint was too high for me. I could kind of tell they weren’t doing so well when they started having to give deep price cuts on the website store, which was the only place I could find the merchandise. I thought it was unfortunate that Mizrahi left the company; I thought his designs were wonderful. They had a classy, but carefree vibe to them.

    When I was in high school (graduated ’86), Liz Claiborne was even stylin’ in our young eyes! I had one of her bags in purple (ok to insert cringe here). We considered her line somewhat upper-level and knew the parents of girls who had LC had spent some $$. There was Gap & the more-coveted The Limited (Forenza, anyone?), Esprit or Benetton but not the in-your-face mass-appeal American Eagles-Hollisters-Abercrombies, no $160 Citizens jeans, no Juicy. LC paved the way for a lot of the “what name is on that label?” success those “cult” stores have, & that of moderately high-end but far from “designer” labels like Juicy, Coach, or Splendid. Sad to see the empire has now dumbed down to frumpy, cheaply-made Garanimals for Grandmas.

    Since I Became a “professional”in 1985, Lix Claiborne was definitely a part of the shopping mix. Unfortunately, I always found the label a bit fussy and midwestern in its sensibilities. Some of my favorite suits were under the Liz Claiborne label. And the jeans line always was a good fit. But all in all, I was never a huge fan coming from the NY metro area. Ironically, I knew people who worked for the company and went to several huge sample clearance sales. I always thought that the Liz label tried to meet too many sensibilities but never quite hit the mark for me personally.

    Love the little handbag

    anyone remember the Liz Claiborne perfume?! That was first ‘signature’ (grown up) scent!

    I have a Liz Claiborne purse it black got 2 outside pockets one that snap other pocket has a turn closer to open & close the outside pocket it has king of some long straps it’s easy to put it on shoulders for carrying . It has a small zip pocket in the middle, a zip pocket on back side, has 2 little pockets inside on back of purse & 2 little slots like to put a.tube of lipstick. And then it has a strap that closes the to with a snap. I think it’s leather , I have bee looking for on exactly like the for over a year. I purchased that 5-6 years ago I think it was at jcp, & pd a little over $100 I love it it has everthing U need, & it’s well made & u have room to put lots of stuff. & when u need something in this purse it’s easy to find because its design great. Please help me find on. Please help me find one. I would be very greatful. Thank u Ms.donna Arnouville

    Has anyone seen this bag? Let us know!

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