The Sunny Side of Lilly Pulitzer
You can spot a Lilly lady from what seems like a mile away.
She is wearing that rainbow of color, a cheeky print and, most likely, a smile on her face.
What Lilly Pulitzer did for fashion is more a story about what she did for women: She made them happy. She made them laugh. She gave them a mini vacation.
"Her clothes were transporting," said Adam Glassman, creative director of O, The Oprah Magazine. "You automatically think of Palm Beach, or sunny California in a Slim Aarons photograph."
Lilly Pulitzer died last Sunday at her home in Palm Beach, Fla. She was 81.
She had launched her business in the 1950s - by accident. She was socialite with time to spare and a wealthy husband who owned citrus groves, so she started a juice stand on a busy shopping street. She needed dresses in tropical prints (no dowdy aprons for Lilly!) that would hide stains. The loose, sleeveless cotton shape that came to be known as the shift was perfect for the task and local climate.
"I designed collections around whatever struck my fancy ... fruits, vegetables, politics or peacocks! I entered in with no business sense. It was a total change of life for me, but it made people happy," Pulitzer told The Associated Press in 2009.
Her clothes, and later accessories and home goods, weren’t dictated by runway trends or sweeping sociological statements: They were about lifestyle, and a lifestyle that real people had or, at least, wanted.
A Pop of Color That Brightened America
Few people wear their Lilly Pulitzer pieces on a dreary day, or to a routine dental appointment or a boring business meeting. You see them at baby showers, weddings, and garden and pool parties.
You’ll see them on little girls, their mothers and grandmothers, because no one corners the market when it comes to being cheerful.
Pulitzer and the company she sold her name to court women of different ages, body types and hometowns, Glassman noted, but what links them all together is a "life’s a party" attitude.
There’s a broader audience than one might think for pineapple-printed swimsuits and monkey-covered caftans. They’re almost a given for a Southern belle or a Nantucket prepster, but even cosmopolitan city sophisticates can’t wait to pull out their sunniest styles and head out to the Hamptons.
The brand was purposefully inclusive, said Janie Schoenborn, now the vice president of creative communications of Lilly Pulitzer’s former company. "If someone is wearing the same print, you high five them! I don’t want to use the word ’club,’ though, because that seems exclusive. Anyone who is happy and wants to have a good time can come to our party."
Schoenborn said Lilly Pulitzer occupies a unique spot in the fashion world. "It’s so not fashion-y, but it is fashion because it has such a strong point of view."
"The look is colorful, it tends to be preppy - it’s an iconic American look based on a lifestyle that’s based around these prints," Glassman said.
Pulitzer also paved the way for today’s popular lifestyle brands, including Tory Burch, Tibi and Milly, and even Ralph Lauren, Glassman added. It was a different business than the avant-garde catwalk designers showing in Europe during the ’60s. It was about loyalty and longevity instead of drastic swings of the pendulum.
Then-first lady and fashion plate Jacqueline Kennedy, a former schoolmate of Pulitzer, wore one of the shifts in a Life magazine photo spread, confirming the look’s legitimacy.
Pulitzer retired from the day-to-day business in 1993 after a rough patch in the ’80s era of power dressing. But the company and its hallmark prints have returned to profitability.
Sales of the brand were strong in the earnings period that ended Feb. 2, according to parent company Oxford Industries’ report. Revenue increased 26 percent to $29.1 million.
Pulitzer’s attitude is still pervasive at the company and in new products, said Schoenborn. "If we’ve put a twinkle in your eye, then we have honored her."