Eric Wilson of The New York Times
Lilly Pulitzer, the Palm Beach princess of prints who created an enduring fashion uniform for wealthy socialites and jet setters almost by accident, died on Sunday at her home in Florida. She was 81.
As the story goes, in its most romanticized version, Ms. Pulitzer’s fashion empire, famous for its tropical print shift dresses and lighthearted embrace of jarring color combinations like flamingo pink and apple green, was born out of necessity.
Golfers Phil Brady and Bob Leidy wearing Lily Pulitzer jeans in 1968
In 1959, after opening a juice stand among the citrus groves of Palm Beach, Ms. Pulitzer, an heiress herself who had married young into the wealthy publishing family, needed a dress that would camouflage the stains of orange and grapefruit spills. So she had one made, creating 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. Her vividly flowered housedresses became known, in the shorthand of the rich, simply as Lillys. The beauty of Lilly Pulitzer dresses was that they were designed to be something of a disguise. Made of plain cotton, constructed so simply that they could be recreated at home, the modestly priced dresses embodied the “Puritan ethics of balance and value,”
Jackie Kennedy in Lily Pulitzer, 1962
“The line wasn’t very extensive,” Ms. Pulitzer told Vanity Fair. “The bodies, one was sleeveless and one had a sleeve. I mean everybody, they had to have them. Whether they fit or not, who cared? Just get one, I want it, I have to wear it to dinner.” They cost $22.
Lily Pulitzer and her children, 1963
At first, her dresses were seen almost exclusively in Palm Beach circles, and then globally when her wealthy friends began appearing in the designs in magazines. Jacqueline Kennedy, a classmate from Miss Porter’s, wore a Pulitzer dress while on vacation: “It was made from kitchen curtain material and people went crazy,” Ms. Pulitzer said. “They took off like Zingo.”
At its height in the 1960s and 1970s, Lilly Pulitzer, with its popular resort wear, had sales of more than $15 million, a store on Jobs Lane in Southampton, N.Y.
Ms. Pulitzer continued designing until 1984, when a series of ill-timed expansions, combined with changing tastes toward more minimal designs, led the company to seek bankruptcy protection. The label was revived in the 1990s by Sugartown Worldwide, which was acquired in 2010 by Oxford Industries in a deal valued as high as $80 million.
Revived by a licensing company two decades ago, after Ms. Pulitzer’s retirement, the label now has annual net sales of more than $100 million with modern takes on many of her original prints.
Martha Stewart and her audience all in Lily Pulitzer celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary
“I designed collections around whatever struck my fancy ... fruits, vegetables, politics or peacocks,” Ms. Pulitzer told The Associated Press in 2009. “It was a total change of life for me, but it made people happy.”
To view The New York Times slide show about Lily Pulitzer click here