The Story of Fashion Icon and Entrepreneur Lilly Pulitzer

Lilly Pullitzer print: LuluLilly Pullitzer print: Lulu. (Photo: lillypulitzer.com)

Long lines greeted shoppers who headed to Target stores on Sunday looking for Lilly Pulitzer-designed clothes and homeware. Once the doors opened, controlled chaos ensued as shoppers grabbed up the colorful products. At most stores, within a few minutes, the shelves were empty. The online items were largely gone by 7 a.m. (I stood in a long line at an Orlando Target and the frenzy for the Lilly products was astounding to see.)

Lily Pulitzer, the woman, would have appreciated the reaction to the Lilly Pulitzer and Target partnership, which featured her higher price-point prints at much lower prices. Her daughter Liza Pulitzer said of her mother: “She would have loved the fact that everybody wanted to get something, a piece of Lilly.”

Largely overlooked in the heavy media coverage was the story of Lilly Pulitzer herself. She was a fashion icon and business woman who initially created a dress line based on having fun and enjoying the Florida sunshine. She said of her clothes: “These clothes make people happy. You feel happy wearing bright colors. It makes you smile.”

She was born Lillian “Lilly” McKim in the 1930s and attended several fancy schools including Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut. In 1950, she eloped with Peter Pulitzer, Jr., the grandson of newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer and owner of several Florida orange groves. The couple soon settled in Palm Beach, Florida, and had three children.

Lilly Pulitzer eventually opened a juice stand using citrus from her husband’s grove on a street just off of the city’s famed Worth Avenue. She soon found that making the juice was staining her clothes. Her solution was to design a shift-style dress made of bright, colorful prints that would hide those stains.

Customers kept asking about the dresses and soon they were more profitable than the orange juice. By 1959, she became president of her own company, Lilly Pulitzer, Inc., with a factory in Miami. It became a favorite line for women in the prestigious Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Whitney families. (She and her husband divorced in 1969. She married Enrique Rousseau soon after the divorce. They remained married until his death in 1993.)

Her business really took off in 1962 when Jackie Kennedy was photographed in Capri with her sister, Lee Radziwell, wearing a polka-dot Lilly Pulitzer dress. (The three women had been classmates at New York’s Chapin school and Miss Porter’s.) Later that year, Mrs. Kennedy was photographed for Life Magazine with her husband and children, again wearing a Lilly dress in Hyannis Port.

Each year, Pulitzer introduced bright new colorful designs and added more than dresses. “I designed collections around whatever struck my fancy…fruits, vegetables, politics, or peacocks!” she said. She began opening stores across the country and department stores also carried the line. One of her favorite sayings was, “Anything is possible with sunshine and a little pink.” More than one book described her as the “Queen of Prep.”

By 1984, the colorful dress fad had slowed and Pulitzer retired the line. The rights to the Lilly brand were purchased by Sugartown Worldwide in 1993 when the company contacted Pulitzer in the hopes of reviving the brand and she agreed. The agreement was that Lilly would serve as a creative consultant and approve the designs. The partnership resulted in a resurgence of her brand, and today she is popular with campus sororities who compete to have Pulitzer produce their prints.

In the 2000s, she published two books about entertaining. In 2010, the Museum of Lifestyle and Fashion History ran an exhibit about Lilly Pulitzer products and her impact, and a biography about Pulitzer was published that same year. Pulitzer died in 2011.

Lilly Pulitzer should be known for more than just causing a shopping frenzy. She was an entrepreneur who launched her business twice to great success. “I didn’t set out to be unusual or different,” she said. “I just wanted to do things my way.”

About the Author

Kimberly Wilmot Voss

Kimberly Wilmot Voss, PhD, is a tenured associate professor of journalism at the University of Central Florida, where she teaches media law and journalism history and coordinates the journalism program. She is the author of The Food Section: Newspaper Women and the Culinary Community (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and a co-author of Mad Men & Working Women: Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance, and Otherness (Peter Lang, 2014). She is the winner of the 2014 Carol DeMasters Award for Service to Food Journalism given by the Association of Food Journalism.

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