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Chazen: UW alum and fashion mogul reviews history of iconic clothing company

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

When Jerome Chazen was studying economics at UW-Madison nearly 60 years ago, he never dreamed he’d one day lead the Liz Claiborne clothing company, write a book about the clothing industry or have his name on a campus art museum.

The tome is called “My Life at Liz Claiborne: How We Broke the Rules and Built the Largest Fashion Company in the World.”

Back in 1948, Chazen was a World War II vet just finishing his undergraduate degree in economics. A native New Yorker, he said he was attracted to UW-Madison by its progressive reputation and inexpensive cost.

“As an out-of-state student, my tuition was $100 a semester,” he said. “That wasn’t bad. And then another $48 for fees, which included basketball and football tickets and health coverage. So it was doable. And I never regretted it.”

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After Chazen left UW-Madison, he got a graduate degree in finance from Columbia University and went to work on Wall Street. But a close friend from his Wisconsin student days, Alan Glen, urged him to come to work for Rhea, his parents’ apparel manufacturing company in Milwaukee.

At first he declined, but the Glens convinced him to give the clothing business a try.

So Chazen and his wife Simona, a New Jersey native he’d met at UW-Madison, moved to Milwaukee. He stayed with the company for two years and never looked back.

“It was an interesting kind of new life for me, getting a feeling for the fashion industry,” he said. “And from that point on, I never wanted to do anything else.”

After leaving Rhea, Chazen worked on the retailing side of the clothing business for 16 years, “paying my dues.” During that time, he moved from Milwaukee to New York to Detroit and then back to New York.

In 1976, he and some partners -- including designer Liz Claiborne, a fellow Rhea alum -- started the clothing company that would bear her name. (Claiborne died four years ago of cancer.)

“We named the company after her because our modus operandi at the time was to take the ways in which designer companies operated and translate those into apparel at affordable prices.

“When we started, designer companies were named after people like Anne Klein, Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta and Perry Ellis,” he said. “And they were all making much higher-priced clothing.”

Liz Claiborne sold its clothes for less expensive prices and in the process revolutionized the industry as women began heading back into the workforce in huge numbers.

“That avalanche hadn’t taken place yet,” he said. “But when it did take place, and all these women had to get clothes to go to work, Liz Claiborne became the designer of choice.”

Chazen said one of the biggest rules his company broke was how clothes were displayed in department stores.

“In that era, they were set up by classification in women’s apparel,” he said. “There was a sweater department, skirt department, slacks, blouses and so on. Our concept, besides being a designer company, was to create a complete designer line of clothing ... dressing consumers from head to toe.”

Liz Claiborne also led the way away from dresses, which women then wore for all occasions.

“We decided that our company was going to manufacture separates, which were skirts, pants, blouses, sweaters and jackets. On the theory that women would like to have the opportunity to put their own outfits together. If you bought a skirt and two blouses, you automatically had two outfits. That is what we did and how we set up the company.”

Department stores, however, didn’t know what to do with Liz Claiborne collections. But Chazen pushed the issue and got them display pants, blouses, jackets and skirts together.

“We said you can’t separate our line and put jackets in jacket department and skirt in skirt department and so on. So breaking that rule and convincing those stores to do it the way we wanted to do it was certainly, at the beginning, the most important contributor to our success.”

Today, he said, if you walk into a department store there are no separate departments.

“Everything is by vendor,” he said. “It has gone completely in the opposite direction and we started it.”

Chazen, who will be 85 in March, retired from Liz Claiborne (now part of JC Penney) 16 years ago.

“I’m more in the giving back part of my life,” he said. “I’m spending quite a lot of time on philanthropic activities and I’m finding that very enjoyable. But I still keep in touch with the industry, subscribe to Women’s Wear Daily and serves on some board. In a sense, I have the best of all worlds.”

Nor has Chazen lost his fondness for Madison.

His daughter and a grandson are UW-Madison grads and two other grandsons are undergraduates.

His wife has served on the university's art museum board for many years and he often returned to his alma mater with her for bi-annual board meetings. Until 2005, the museum was called the Elvehjem Museum of Art but it's since been renamed the Chazen Museum of Art because of a large donation from the couple that paid for an expansion.

Chazen said former Chancellor John Wiley asked him for $20 million to pursue his vision of “building an arts campus because the Regents did not have any money for arts buildings.

“They told him: If you want to build a new science building, that we can talk about. But arts buildings, you’ll have to find the money. Even though it was a tremendous amount of money for me, we decided that we would do it.”

The couple ultimately gave $25 million to the expanded museum, which opened this year to rave reviews.

Chazen, who now serves on the UW Foundation Board, said he and his wife are pleased with the results.

“I’m glad I'm still around to see it,” he quipped. “When you get done going through both buildings, it’s a real museum. It can hold its own against most museums in this country.”

And as for his book on breaking rules, Chazen calls it a “down-to-earth" insider's view of the women's clothing trade.

“My dream is that it will become something that students all over the country will read and get themselves a true picture of what the industry is all about,” he said.

Especially at his alma mater.

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