In Memoriam: Lilly Pulitzer

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Author: Noel Hemphill

Lillian “Lilly” Pulitzer Rousseau, queen of preppy prints and bright colors, died Sunday, April 7 of natural causes at 81-years-old at her home in Palm Beach. A fashion icon and socialite, Pulitzer is remembered for the splashy impact she left on the fashion world as well as her position as a role model for industrious women everywhere.

Lillian Lee McKim, as she was born, began her life in Roslyn, N.Y. and was raised by her socialite mother and father. She was educated at the all-girls selective private institution Miss Porter’s School alongside other ladies born and raised to be social butterflies. By 1950, after a semester at Finch College and volunteer efforts at the Bronx’s Veteran’s Hospital, 21-year-old McKim shocked her family when she eloped with newspaper empire heir Peter Pulitzer and moved to Palm Beach, Fla. to start a family and escape the public life she led in New York.

Simple life in Palm Beach allowed the newly married Pulitzer to tend to the family-owned orange groves. Pulitzer made her first attempt at entrepreneurialism by setting up a juice stand. Irritated with the juice stains that would inevitably end up on her dress, Pulitzer designed a simple, sleeveless shift dress made from a kitchen curtains colorful pattern that would hide juice stains. Pulitzer soon found more customers inquired about her dress than her juice and began to create more of these “Lillys.”

Though Pulitzer once admitted to having no business sense, she was a natural at producing and selling the dresses that became a Palm Beach wardrobe staple. With three children, celebrity clientele and a quickly expanding line, Pulitzer emerged as a force separate from famous marriage. By 1959, Pulitzer was president of her eponymous company. When old schoolmate and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was photographed in 1962 wearing one of the brightly printed dresses on the cover of “LIFE” magazine, the brand’s prominence skyrocketed.

In the midst of all this success, Pulitzer’s marriage fell apart. In 1969, Pulitzer divorced Peter and remarried lawyer Enrique Rousseau shortly thereafter. In 1984, slumping sales forced Pulitzer to close down her line. At the time, the clothing line still had yearly revenues in the millions – Pulitzer had simply lost the will to sustain production and revitalize sales.

In 1993, Sugartown Worldwide, a subsidiary of Oxford Industries, expressed interest in reviving the brand. Pulitzer sold the license to the company but stepped away from the business side, staying on only as a consultant. The brand became successful once again as a mainstay to jet-setters and wealthy, resort-hopping families.

Today, Pulitzer’s iconic prints are still very much alive under her eponymous label, with revenue in the last fiscal quarter increasing 26 percent to $29.1 million, according to the Associated Press. Each print is still created to be durable and spill proof with bright colors and original designs a mainstay to carrying on Pulitzer’s legacy. Special prints have been created for national sororities, further cementing the company as a prep style icon.

Pulitzer left the world with a lasting impression as a carefree socialite. Her bright, bold dresses were stylish and well-tailored while also hiding life’s little messes. She published two guides to home entertaining, all under her personal belief that “it’s always summer somewhere.” She was known for walking everywhere barefoot, embracing the beach community with which she has become synonymous. On the Lilly Pulitzer Facebook page, her company celebrated her memory as rule-breaker and an original who left a happy mark on the world. Lori Durante, director of the Museum of Lifestyle and Fashion History in Florida, spoke of Pulitzer’s lasting impact. “Pulitzer fashion is relative to the American experience…it is relevant to Palm Beach County, to Florida,” Durante said. With her cultural identity as a free spirited fashionista as colorful as the dresses that were a landmark contribution to the fashion world, it is certain Pulitzer will not be forgotten.

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