Last week, while we were busy mourning the death of Margaret Thatcher, another woman who changed the course of history passed away quietly. Lilly Pulitzer – one of my all-time favorite designers – breathed her last at the age of 81-years. Synonymous with pretty prints and bright hues, Lilly did not just create clothes… she crafted an entire lifestyle that I have been in love with for years and years. As have millions of other women across the world (are you one of us?).
From wanting a printed dress to mask the stains and splashes of her juice stand to becoming a favorite of Jackie Kennedy’s, Lilly not only defined the whole “Palm Beach” lifestyle, she also showed what is possibly the first “resort collection” of all times. Her story is an integral part of fashion history and her legacy lives on in chic and cheerful prints that still make us wonder why we never learnt how to play cricket and where the white gloved butler has put our martinis. Here’s the story of this iconic designer in 10 points.
1. Born into a prominent family of New York, Lilly McKim attended all the right schools before eloping in 1952, at age 21, with newspaper scion Peter Pulitzer. The couple moved to Palm Beach, where Peter operated a successful citrus grove business.
2. Lilly soon became the epicenter of Palm Beach entertaining and was renown for “not giving a whit”. For her, comfort always trumped trends and playing by the rules was “boring”. In fact, she considered both shoes and underwear to be a nuisance and would go on to line her Lilly shifts with muslin to encourage women to go au naturel.
3. But by 1958, the sunniness had begun to fade. “I had terrible anxiety attacks,” Lilly told W Magazine, “so I went to the nuthouse.” The nuthouse was a psychiatric hospital in Westchester County, New York. She returned home armed with one piece of medical advice: get a hobby.
4. Peter suggested that she start selling his oranges. And Lilly promptly set up a juice stand. To disguise the inevitable juice stains on her clothing she had sleeveless dresses made from colorful fabrics found at the five-and-dime. The dresses were “colorful and cotton and cool,” with slits up the sides for bending over – and they were also available for sale at the juice stand for $25.
5. The town went wild over the dresses and soon Lilly was flying regularly to Key West, where she created the prints along with a couple who owned a textile business. Within a year she was shipping orders to retailers from Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue. Her vividly flowered shift dresses became known, in the shorthand of the rich, simply as Lillys.
6. The unlikely designer’s fame was further cemented a year later, when first lady Jackie Kennedy appeared in Life magazine wearing the Lilly Pulitzer classic shift (while most of the dresses cost about $25, Lilly charged Kennedy $75 for hers, “because that was made out of very expensive curtain fabric.”).
7. Ms. Pulitzer’s first marriage did not last – she divorced Mr. Pulitzer, shocking their friends and married Enrique Rousseau (who had worked for her first husband) in 1969 – but the business took off. What started off as a juice stand uniform had created a look that proved to be so popular it would become a mark of membership for old-money families at play for more than five decades.
8. The signature Lilly palette featured (and continues to feature) lime green palm trees, bursting sunflowers and sky blue shells – the flavors of a Florida vacation. Told by one retailer that she had to start making Fall clothes, the designer replied, “Oh, but you don’t understand, it’s always summer somewhere.” Thus she introduced what just may have been one of the first resort collections – a year-round summery lineup that grew to include men’s, children’s and swimwear.
9. By the early ’80s, however, the working-girl wardrobe and a neutral palette had taken over fashion; sales were flagging, and Lilly shut the whole thing down in 1984.
10. Then in 1993, Lilly was visited by businessmen James Bradbeer Jr. and Scott Beaumont, who were keen to revive the label. The designer sold the Lilly Pulitzer license to the pair’s company, Sugartown Worldwide. Borne on a generational shift where young women were eager for the Lilly Pulitzer snappy prints and flatter-every-shape frocks, the revived label gradually re-found its footing, especially in the months after 9/11 – a time when people wanted something happy and optimistic. Today, the company is well entrenched in the 21st century ethos, with more office-friendly wrap dresses and blouses, fragrances, stationery and eyewear.