How One Bad Decision Destroyed The Largest Women’s Apparel Brand: Liz Claiborne
Liz Claiborne was once the largest women’s brand on the market. The woman herself was not only a fashion pioneer, but a pioneering business executive.
It took the eponymous brand less than 10 years to make it into the Fortune 500, where it continued to set all kinds of firsts.
During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s the brand enjoyed immense success. There were rough times, but it always found a way to reinvent itself.
In October of 2006, it made one really poor decision, and since then the company has not turned a profit. Less than two weeks before appointing the 43 year-old William L. McComb as CEO, the brand decided to make clothes for J.C. Penney. Since then, McComb’s five-year-plus tenure has seen the stock collapse, and five consecutive years of annual net loss totaling more than $2 billion dollars. And last year Liz Claiborne Inc., the parent company, was forced to sell off many of its brands, including the eponymous Liz Claiborne label.
Leonard Boxer, Jerome Chazen, Anne “Liz” Claiborne, and her husband, Art Ortenberg founded the brand in 1976. Less than a decade later the company was doing more than $1 billion in sales and was listed on the Fortune 500.
Liz Claiborne became the first Fortune 500 company:
- Founded by a woman.
- Have a woman serve as CEO.
- Have a female chairperson.
In 1992, Spike Lee propagated a false rumor that Claiborne said she doesn’t make clothes for black people.
The rumor alleged Claiborne appeared on Oprah in 1990-1991 and told the audience she doesn’t design clothes for black women. It was a bogus urban myth, which Spike Lee falsely repeated in a 1992 interview with Esquire.
Claiborne never actually appeared on Oprah.
Sales reached $2.2 billion at the time, making it the largest women’s retailer in the country.
Claiborne and Ortenberg left the company in 1989, but the company managed to post $2.2 billion in sales, largely thanks to its new marketing. Unfortunately, the company struggled for the next few years because of a changing market and an executive talent drain. However, under the leadership Paul R. Charron, Liz Claiborne was able to move sales up to $2.41 billionin 1997.
Over the next decade, the company would go on a high-profile spending spree.
Some of the acquisitions were:
- DKNY Jeans & Activewear (1997) — Undisclosed.
- Segrets Inc (1999) — Paid $54 million for an 84.5% in the company best known for Sigrid Olsen.
- Lucky Jeans (1999) — Paid around $135 million for an 85% stake.
- Mexx (2001) — It cost around $264 million to acquire the European brand.
- Juicy Couture (2003) — For around $50 million.
- Kate Spade (2006) —And Jack Spade for $124 million.
Then Liz Claiborne made the worst decision in company history — to make clothes for J.C. Penney.
It had nothing to do with the clothes. Rather, the lines were to be offered only at J.C. Penney, the main competitor to Liz’s longtime preferred retail partner, Macy’s. During the next buying season, few expected a blowback from Macy’s. They were wrong.
Macy’s drastically reduced orders for the fall 2007 season, leading to a 65% fall in earnings in Q1 and a plummeting stock price. For the first time in the new millennium Liz Claiborne failed to make a profit, posting a loss of $372.8 million.
Less than two weeks before, the young William L. McComb succeeded Charron as CEO.
Tim Gunn was appointed chief creative officer in early 2007.
On February 1, 2007, Tim Gunn, most noted for his role on Bravo’s Project Runway, was appointed chief creative officer of Liz Claiborne Inc.
“Though this is not something I had envisioned for myself, I jumped at the chance to serve as a mentor, advisor and sounding board for the design and merchandising community within Liz Claiborne Inc.” said Gunn in a statement.
Then Claiborne lost her battle with cancer.
George De Sota / Getty Images
On June 26, 2007, Claiborne passed away at 78 after battling cancer of the abdomen for nearly a decade. While she formally stepped away from the business in the late 1980s, her death took place at the beginning of the worst period in the company’s history.
In 2008, Isaac Mizrahi was brought into reinvent the lines.
Liz Claiborne outbid Target for Mizrahi, who led a successful redesign of the latter’s portfolio. Company executives made it clear—much like Gunn, they wanted a fashion star to be the face of the designs.
In August, Credit Suisse delivered a major downgrade to Liz
The bank downgraded Liz Claiborne from “outperform” to “neutral” because of the economic downturn and the brand’s own struggles. Its statement mentioned the Mizrahi hiring, but read, “we don’t expect any real signs of life for the Liz brand until next spring…” It added, the brand might struggle for “a few seasons” after that.
Mizrahi’s 2009 collections flopped and the designer is now on QVC. By McComb’s third anniversary the stock had lost nearly 90% of its value and posted a combined net loss of more than $1.6 billion in 2007-2009.
In 2010, it closed the remaining 87 Liz Claiborne stores.
Following rumors of bankruptcy, the company began massive cutbacks, including stores, or entire chains.
The move didn’t affect other brands in the portfolio, but by the end of the year all of the remaining outlet stores were closed.
When once Liz Claiborne had an elegant flagship store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the brand now became exclusive to J.C. Penney and QVC.
McComb told investors, “Given the magnitude of change required to deliver on our vision and to restore our financial acuity—and the treacherous economy we did it in—I am pleased to say we are beginning to see it come together operationally, and we are getting closer financially.”
He was right losses — were down to $251 million annually, an over $50 million improvement compared to 2009.
In 2001, Liz Claiborne bought Mexx for over $264 million. A little more than a decade later it sold the company for $25 million in cash while shedding $60 million in debt. Liz retained around 19% of the company.
“At the close of this transaction, we will be a more capital efficient, growth-oriented company and will be able to fully turn our attention to building and growing our core portfolio of global lifestyle brands,” said McComb.
In October of 2011, Liz Claiborne sold its namesake label to J.C. Penney for $228 million. Jerome Chazen, co-founder and former chairman, described the situation, “It happened because the company was hemorrhaging cash like crazy. There was a concern they might even go bankrupt.”
The deal included a $20 million advance. It was announced alongside a deal that sold the Kensie, Kensiegirl and Mac & Jac brands to Bluestar Alliance as part of a larger $40 million sell-off, including Dana Buchman.
On paper the $171.7 million loss is the smallest loss of the last five years, but it came in a year where the company sold numerous brands. Without the $235 million surplus in non-operating income generated from the sales, the company would have likely lost more than $400 million, it’s worst year since 2008.
McComb, who celebrated his fifth year as CEO in October of 2011, told investors “We are just getting started and that’s what excites me more than anything else.”
Because Liz Claiborne Inc. no longer actually owned the Liz Claiborne brand, the company announced this January it was rebranding the parent of the remaining brands (Juicy Couture, Kate Spade, Jack Spade, and Adelington Design Group) to Fifth and Pacific Group.
The name came from New York City’s Fifth Ave. and California’s Pacific coast.
The Wall Street Journal named KKR & Co., Permira and Warburg Pincus LLC as potential suitors.
The company had to issue a statement, “Our general policy is to not respond to rumors about our company. That said, in response to media reports today, there is currently no contemplation of any strategy for the company other than executing against the operating plan we have already discussed.”