2007_06_arts_lc.jpgHer name known worldwide, Liz Claiborne has died at the age of 78. The designer had a rare form of cancer affecting the abdominal lining, complications of which put her in the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where she died Tuesday.

Born in Brussels, she ended up in New York as her family was driving through Manhattan (after Claiborne had already gotten a taste for design by winning a contest) when she told them she was staying. Her father handed her $50 and wished her luck. The NY Times reports that "before she became the most successful women’s apparel designer in America, Ms. Claiborne had worked for 20 years in the backrooms of Seventh Avenue sportswear houses like Youth Guild and Juniorite, making peppy dresses." It was when more and more women left the kitchen for the cubicle in the 70s, that Claiborne herself stepped in to the male-dominated fashion industry and started her own design company. Liz Claiborne, Inc was founded in 1976 with Art Ortenberg, her husband...who also served as the office secretary for a time.

She filled a gap in the market by creating affordable, professional clothes for women. Helping them succeed in the office place, as much as she eventually would. The Times reports that "as a measure of her success, when Ms. Claiborne retired from active management of Liz Claiborne Inc. in 1990, it was the largest women’s apparel maker in the country, with $1.4 billion in sales." By 2005 that number rose to $4.85 billion. Claiborne and her husband all but left the fashion world upon her retirement, however, The Times focuses on her post-runway life:

Ms. Claiborne was a vocal critic of the fashion industry and spoke out about a lack of opportunities for women to achieve equality in other fields. But after retiring, she and Mr. Ortenberg separated themselves from fashion almost entirely, setting off on travels to remote corners of the world in what could have been described as storybook adventures.

They shared a second career by founding a charitable foundation for environmental conservancy projects, among them a wildlife preserve in northeastern Tibet, rain forest education programs in Brazil, education and health projects in Kenya and efforts to rescue elephants in Myanmar, fish and eagles in Madagascar and European brown bears in the Carpathian mountains of Romania.

Her two passions converged at the 2000 American Fashion Awards, as she was presented by the Council of Fashion Designers of America with a humanitarian award for her environmental work and helping to fight the ivory trade in Africa. Her personal assistant, Gwen Satterfield, says no memorial service has been planned as of yet.