Arthur Ortenberg, the fashion industry legend best known for launching the clothing company Liz Claiborne in 1976 with his wife—Liz Claiborne—and a partner, died of pneumonia complications Monday in Manhattan, the New York Times reports. Ortenberg, who was born in 1926 and raised in Newark, N.J. by immigrant parents (his father from Russia and his mother from Poland), met Claiborne in the 1950s while working at a garment manufacturing company. He saw her sportswear line, hired her, and together they put out a new line (it failed); the rest is fashion history.
They started Liz Claiborne with a third partner, Leonard Boxer, with $250,000. The concept was to create a clothing line for working women that was both fashion-forward and affordable, and it took off almost immediately.
Ms. Claiborne, who had the title of chairman, was the chief designer and public face of the company, while Mr. Ortenberg was effectively the chief executive (though the title he took was company secretary).
In an industry that juggles suppliers, designers, wholesalers and retailers, Mr. Ortenberg was the principal juggler, setting up complicated systems for making sure fabrics arrived at factories and went out as finished garments at the right time and in the correct quantity.
“It’s a wonderful intellectual activity,” he told The New York Times in 1986. “The equivalent of three-dimensional chess.”
By the time the couple—adorably known as “Liz and Art”—retired in 1990, they had created a billion-dollar company and, in the process, helped redefine the fashion industry.
Claiborne died in 2007, and in 2010 Ortenberg published a book about her, Liz Claiborne: The Legend, the Woman, which Josh Lambert wrote about in these pages. His current partner, fashion critic Cathy Horyn, retired from the New York Times last week, citing Ortenberg’s health.
Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.