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Start Your Business Success Stories

Liz Claiborne Founder's 'Reality Check' on Fashion Biz

Liz Claiborne founder

With New York's Fashion Week kicking off this week, a fashion industry veteran has some advice for anyone interested in getting into the fashion business: Get real.

That's the advice of Jerome Chazen, one of the founders of Liz Claiborne. Chazen said he hopes would-be fashion entrepreneurs will read his new book, "My Life at Liz Claiborne" (Authorhouse, 2011) and come away with a "reality check." Being in the fashion business, he said, is not like an episode of "Project Runway."

Chazen, who has since left the company, said that being in the fashion business is just like being an entrepreneur in any other industry. You have to follow a business plan, know your customer and find a way to differentiate yourself from the competition.

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Chazen outlined some key business advice that can be adapted for your fashion business or for any business you hope to build and grow.

Know your customers

Before Liz Claiborne started in 1976, the company's founders created a vision of who its customer was. Chazen calls her "the Liz Lady." She was 25-to-45-years old and very busy. Many of these women were entering the workforce for the first time.

"The women we were focusing on were busy ladies in one way or the other," Chazen said. The company aimed to create a line of apparel that made it easy for women to put together a coordinated outfit that worked well within their entire wardrobe. The problem was that, up until that time, women's clothing wasn't sold that way – as a collection of items that fit together. Liz Claiborne aimed to change that by inventing a new approach to designing and marketing its products.

Be different

That new plan required reinventing the way women's apparel was sold.

"We were ahead of our time," Chazen said. His company, he said, essentially invented the "separates" market. Until Liz Claiborne came along, women's clothing was sold in different departments. If you wanted to buy an entire outfit, you had to shop in different departments in the same store: the pants, sweater or blouse departments.

"We wanted the whole collection to be housed together," Chazen said. Department stores resisted. But Claiborne convinced one store to give it a try. When it was a success, other stores quickly got onboard.

Build relationships

The company didn't just change the way products were merchandised, Chazen said. It also changed the way retailers and their suppliers worked together.

"We said to stores: If you want to develop to greatest potential, we should have our own buyer who should do nothing but concentrate on growing the Liz Claiborne business," Claiborne said.

The idea worked, and eventually Liz Claiborne got so involved with its retail customers' businesses that it began helping to design stores before they were even built. Forging those kinds of relationships, with both their retail customers and with their suppliers, became a cornerstone of a successful business, according to Chazen.

Have a marketing plan

Chazen said Liz Claiborne didn't do any advertising while he worked at the company. Instead, it instituted a multipronged marketing approach, beginning with the merchandising demands it made on its retail customers.

Eventually, it got retailers to create a Liz Claiborne "store within a store" which has become standard practice for retailers today.

Its innovative approach to marketing also got it lots of free editorial coverage from fashion and women's magazines. Eventually, the brand became so powerful that the company was able to dictate to retailers where it wanted its Liz Claiborne departments located.

"We told them we wanted the department at the top of the escalator, on right-hand side," Chazen said. "It was marketing coup for us."

The company also told the stores' salespeople how to display its products and even trained them to help customers.  "We made salespeople our partners there," he said.

Jeanette Mulvey

Jeanette has been writing about business for more than 20 years. She has written about every kind of entrepreneur from hardware store owners to fashion designers. Previously she was a manager of internal communications for Home Depot. Her journalism career began in local newspapers. She has a degree in American Studies from Rutgers University. Follow her on Twitter @jeanettebnd.

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