I only recently realized that my mother was giving me subtle clues about the woman she wanted me to be long before I became it. Beginning in my late teen years and continuing through early adulthood, she searched the racks at off-price stores to find career separates and suits. At Christmas there were always a few gifts under the tree that she labeled as being from Liz Claiborne or Jones New York.
My first office job came as my mother’s assistant at at seventeen. Then came a job at the local utility office (attached to a scholarship program) and a job as a bank teller that carried me through college. Finally after college I secured a job at an investment bank. All of it outfitted largely by the brands of Liz Claiborne and Jones Apparel. Was pre-ordained that I would work on the Nine West sale to Jones Apparel, take a job in finance at Liz Claiborne and eventually cover both companies as a sell-side analyst? Perhaps my mother’s hints were far more effective than she could have ever hoped.
Liz, Jones and the brands they built and acquired represented the era of working women. The brands were built around power suits that signaled women were to be taken seriously in the working world and were contenders for the top jobs – an aspirational, lifestyle approach with a social agenda for change. This was what my mother wanted for me and what I began to want for myself. My mother was the first in her family to go to college. She was a teacher for a while and eventually became a successful realtor with her own business. It made sense that as a second generation college graduate, I would take a more traditional route. I had no idea what that would be but had a vague sense in college that I would wear a grey suit in a corner office. Never mind that grey is not in my color wheel, grey was a serious working person’s color and so that is what I would (and did) wear.
What I quickly learned on Wall Street was that branded apparel businesses were very focused on growth. Growth objectives led to brand and product proliferation. Both Liz and Jones created multiple iterations of their brands while acquiring other brands that were similar to their own. Department stores bought the lines in shiny showrooms that let them ignore how overbought the selling floor had become. Discussions of markdown money to settle the current season were directly connected to increases in business planned for the future season. In other words, if brands made department stores whole for the mistakes of the prior year, they would take bigger bets the following year with similar implied end-of-season guarantees. Accessories, jewelry and fragrance business were created to drive growth and eventually even outlet stores became growth strategies.
Meanwhile the consumer was changing. Casualization of the workforce meant career woman stopped wanting suits. Premiumization was also beginning to occur as European imports came to the U.S. Career women began to feel more comfortable dressing in a way that expressed femininity and individuality instead of one of conformity that mimicked men. The businesses were built on the dream of women in the C-suite though in the late 90’s and early 2000’s there were not many there. Liz, Jones, and companies like them missed the change at the point that it actually could have mattered. It is critical that brands evolve with consumers and the best brands actually lead consumers in new directions. Liz and Jones did neither. Instead they continued to grow by launching new lines and making new acquisitions. The acquisitions did get a little better, but once the companies acquired brands like Lucky Jeans or Stuart Weitzman, they seemed ill equipped to manage them.
Liz Claiborne and Jones Apparel are all but dead now. Liz Claiborne sold all its brands, changed its name twice and is now Kate Spade. The Liz brand name is owned by JC Penney, where it sells. One of Liz’s other brands, Dana Buchman (where I was once Finance Manager) is now a Kohl’s exclusive. That brand used to sell at Bloomingdale’s and Saks. Recently Sycamore Partners announced plans to shutter the Jones Apparel brand after purchasing the company and splitting it into more manageable pieces to be sold separately. The trade name is for sale and may end up in the mass or moderate channel eventually. The brands were just too far gone. At age 40, I would not wear either. Still, two decades ago, these brands represented my American dream and played a crucial role in getting me there. Thus a thank you and proper eulogy seemed fitting.