We recently noted the death of iconic American designer Lilly Pulitzer on our blog. She can be credited with popularizing the pink and green combination, and the New York Times called her “a major force in prep resort wear”. Others have called her a "designer by accident." Lilly was a socialite who was just as famous for her fashions as she was for entertaining. How did she get there?
Capitalizing on her bright idea, Lilly closed the stand and started her clothing business a year after she sold her first dress. When an old classmate of hers by the name of Jackie Kennedy was photographed by LIFE magazine wearing one of her dresses (or the “Lillies”) her company took off. Soon she was also designing clothing for men and children and dressing the entire horsey set for their warm weather vacations.
Eventually Lilly employed her own design studio to produce her signature fabrics. They were literally signature designs, as she would creatively hide her name among the motifs. Most of her textiles were produced by Key West Hand Print Fabrics. The three artists mainly responsible for the Lilly Pulitzer look are Susie Zuzek dePoo, her daughter Martha, and Leigh Martin Hooten. Susie and Leigh were trained textile designers. “We focus on the best, fun and happy things, and people want that. Being happy never goes out of style,” Lilly said.
Lilly Pulitzer fashions are now available through specialty shops, select department stores and through their website. The new products retain all the fun, whimsy and sunny disposition of the original designs, because as Lilly famously said, “It’s always summer somewhere!”
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Lillian McKim was born in New York to a wealthy family in 1931. In 1952, she eloped with Herbert “Peter” Pulitzer of the Pulitzer Prize family. They moved to Palm Beach, Florida where she embraced the tropical lifestyle, typically spurning shoes and underwear.
But even carefree, wealthy socialites among waving palms can suffer from depression. Lilly ended up undergoing inpatient treatment while in her twenties. When she emerged in 1959, she was looking for a new hobby and decided to open a juice stand in Palm Beach using the fruits of her husband’s citrus groves.
It turned out to be a messy business and Lilly's clothes were often stained with juice. She recruited her friend, Laura Robbins (a former editor at Harper’s Bazaar), to help design a simple shift dress and, using bold, tropical prints, Lilly fashioned a wardrobe that effectively hid the stains. Her dresses ended up drawing more interest from her customers than her juices!
When the 1980s arrived, interest in her kitschy designs waned so Lilly filed for bankruptcy and retired. Then in 1993, her brand was sold and revived to introduce her bright, optimistic fashions to the children and grandchildren of her original customers. The tropical preppy wardrobe was back. Lilly returned to work as a consultant for the new company which has thrived ever since.
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