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June 27, 2007
Remembering Liz Claiborne

Associated Press file

Sad news hit the fashion world today with the announcement that legendary fashion designer Liz Claiborne died Tuesday at age 78. According to the Associated Press, she passed away at New York Presbyterian Hospital after suffering from cancer for a number of years.

She launched her company in 1976 - the same year I graduated from high school and, even though her looks weren't necessary for my days as a journalism major at the University of South Carolina, I appreciated her sense of color and style.

It was when I got my first job that I discovered her label had quickly become a staple for women entering the workplace, which is where she had the greatest influence. Her clothing made it easy for women of all ages to head out the door every morning. She had them wearing not only skirts and dresses, but pants, as well.

The Claiborne label appeared on all sizes, from petites to plus sizes, and she had the good business sense to add a casual collection - including golf attire - to women's wardrobes. She dressed men and children, too. And she completed outfits with accessories, including jewelry, shoes, handbags, even fragrance.

Her collections continue to be a fashion cornerstone in national department stores and online.

According to the AP, Claiborne retired from her day-to-day responsibilities in 1989. Earlier this year, the company was lucky enough to snag Tim Gunn, then a chair at Parsons The New School for Design in New York (and mentor on the hit show "Project Runway"), to become the chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne Inc.

Back in April, I spoke with Gunn about this, and he told me he was delighted to join the Claiborne company, where he's overseeing more than 46 brands, including Ellen Tracy, Dana Buchman and Juicy Couture. "It's absolutely thrilling to be working with such incredible designers," he said.

I caught up with local designer Richard Hallmarq today, who was saddened by Claiborne's death. Although Hallmarq's own designs are more couture than career, he said Claiborne's legacy is impressive.

"It's always sad to hear when someone who was such a big influence and a starter in the fashion business dies," he said. "Hers wasn't a couture thing like Gianni Versace, but there's probably not a businesswoman, a mother, a teacher or an aunt who didn't have something of hers in their closet, whether it was a pair of sunglasses or a dress. She was a pioneer of ready to wear."

Long before she founded her own company, Claiborne was totally immersed in the fashion world, as evidenced by the picture above. It was taken in August 1949, as Claiborne, who hailed from Covington, La., arrived all smiles at Penn Station in New York. At the time, she was headed to Paris for a 10-day trip after winning a Harper's Bazaar design contest.

Little did she know what an impact she would have on what women would be wearing more than 50 years later.

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