The Wonderful World of Lilly Pulitzer

Fashion icon Lilly Pulitzer

Fashion icon Lilly Pulitzer

“It all started 50ish years ago with a simple shift dress in Palm Beach, Florida” (Herald Online, 2013). Well, not quite…

It actually started 80ish years ago when Lillian McKim was born in Farmington, Connecticut. And what a beginning it was! Lilly attended school with future first lady, Jacqueline Bouvier (a friendship that would last for years), and married Peter Pulitzer, grandson of newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer (Newcomb, 2013).

On the advice of doctors trying to cure Lilly of severe depression after moving with her family to Palm Beach, Florida (put more bluntly, they basically told her that she needed to find something to do), she began juicing oranges from the family’s groves and selling the juice at a roadside stand. Finding she was always covered in juice at the end of the day, Pulitzer designed herself a shift dress to match the juice stains. After receiving many compliments on her creation, she began selling a few dresses at her juice stand, and a fashion empire was born. The year was 1959.

Jackie Kennedy, photographed for Life magazine wearing The Lilly, on a family vacation.

Jackie Kennedy, photographed for Life magazine wearing The Lilly, on a family vacation.

So with no business sense or fashion design experience whatsoever, Lilly Pulitzer entered the fashion business full time. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she had come from and married money. Or that Jackie Kennedy was photographed wearing one of her dresses…made from kitchen curtain material! After that, The Lilly took off and a fashion icon was born (Fashion I.Q., 2013).

Vintage 1960s Lilly Pulitzer wearing her own design in one of her early shops

Vintage 1960s Lilly Pulitzer wearing her own design in one of her early shops

Part of Pulitzer’s success can be attributed to being in the right place at the right time. The time was the rules-busting, turbulent ‘60s, a decade perfectly suited to Lilly’s rebellious bohemian nature. In fact, Lilly and her husband were pioneering an alternative lifestyle that was more casual and organic than the rest of high society. Lilly, herself, describes her success thus: “It was the time, the place and the name” (cited in Fashion I.Q., 2013).

Lilly Pulitzer shop today.

Lilly Pulitzer shop today.

The Lilly Pulitzer line is still alive and well today, although its founder shut down the company in 1984. A decade later, the line was revived when its founder sold the license to Oxford Industries, a publicly traded company, in 1993, remaining on as a consultant. The company continues to feature the bright colors and prints that Lilly loved, introducing “the wonderful world of Lilly to new markets” (Lilly Pulitzer president James Bradbeer, Jr., cited in Herald Online, 2013).

Lilly Pulitzer passed away peacefully on April 7, 2013, at her home in Palm Beach, Florida. She was 81 years old. But thanks to the continued Lilly Pulitzer revival, the free-spirited socialite’s belief that “it’s always summer somewhere” lives on (Newcomb, 2013).

lilly-prints2References:

Business Wire (2013, April 3). Lilly Pulitzer opens 20th store in The Shops at Riverside. Herald Online. Retrieved from http://www.heraldonline.com/2013/04/03/4744482/lilly-pulitzer-opens-20th-store.html

Fashion I.Q. (2013, April 4). Town & Country’s Kathryn Livingston on Lilly Pulitzer. Sarasota Magazine. Retrieved from http://sarasotamagazine.com/fashion-iq/2013/04/04/kathryn-livingston-on-lilly/

Newcomb, A (2013, April 7). Lilly Pulitzer: Fashion designer, socialite dies at 81. ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/US/lilly-pulitzer-fashion-designer-socialite-dies-81/story?id=18901439#.UWJkZknn-M8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Frank

Frank Rivera is a current graduate school student in USC's online Master of Communication program. Mr Rivera is a speaking coach, Expert Trade Compliance Officer, Course Developer and Instructor for the Office of Field Operations, U.S. Customs & Border Protection.
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20 Responses to The Wonderful World of Lilly Pulitzer

  1. milissa_douponce says:

    Hi Kerry-
    I love Lily Pulitzer textiles and dresses. It’s amazing that her design still resonate with consumers. I like to think of her as the original Kate Spade.
    Thanks! Milissa

    • Kerry says:

      Milissa,

      I also love her. What I love the most is that she always did everything on her own terms. You can definitely see that in the whimsical designs of her fabrics. She was not a slave to fashion…she BECAME fashion. And you’re right about Kate Spade, to say nothing of April Cornell and countless others. Let’s just hope her legacy doesn’t go the way of Laura Ashley’s…wouldn’t you hate to see Lilly Pulitzer at Kohl’s?

      Thanks,
      Kerry

  2. Andrew Santelli says:

    Hi Kerry,

    I think Lilly Pulitzer is a fascinating case study when it comes to an individual’s story and how it creates a brand story. When women buy Lilly Pulitzer, they’re truly buying into a fantasy life of “wintering” in Palm Beach, marrying into a legendary publishing family, having a First Lady as a “school chum,” and laughing along with wealthy friends who use terms like “wintering” and “school chum.”

    It seems to me that fashion is the industry where this sort of association with a single person happens the most. We see it in more modern brands like Tommy Hilfiger (American preppy, but for the masses) and Tory Burch (glamourous, but accessible), but rarely do we see it outside fashion, in my opinion.

    Thanks, Kerry, for highlighting the story of Lilly Pulitzer – and the brand named for her.

    • Kerry says:

      Hi Andrew,

      Hmmm…you got me thinking with your comment about how fashion seems to be the industry that’s most closely associated with individuals, even after they’ve passed on. Wonder why that is? But there are many examples out there that evoke a more high fashion association (even though they may also be mass marketed). Chanel and Dior come immediately to mind, and there are many other big names that are still gracing the catwalk.

      Thanks for your comments.

      K

  3. Ramona Chiapa says:

    Kerry,

    I love your post, it shows the brands longevity. I think what is most amazing, is how the brand has thrived with what seems like little effort. I think this is the kind of big hit that all company’s dream of, but rarely come across. I can see why so many have referred to her as being in the right place at the right time. In looking back to the time period its hard to envision fashion of the time without the dress and to think that the design was more function than fashion.

    Ramona

    • Kerry says:

      You’re so right, Ramona. Lilly Pulitzer was definitely the exception to the rule. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that in her case fashion followed function and form…another thing that doesn’t happen very often in that industry!

      Thanks,
      Kerry

  4. jacquelinecavalier says:

    Hi Kerry!

    I have been a fan of Lilly Pulitzer for years. I was born in NewYork and raised in Connecticut, and these designs were a huge part of my upbringing. Her designs were a big part of the “Preppy” trend, which is making a comeback. I wonder how much of an impact her death will have on this trendy comeback? It will be interesting to sit back and watch! Lilly’s designs are legend in New England! Thanks for the memories!

    Jacqueline

    • Kerry says:

      You’re welcome, Jacqueline. I think it’s safe to say that the brand will survive for a long time to come. Remember, Lilly actually sold the brand (which is now owned by a publicly traded company) back in the ’80s. True, she remained on as a consultant, but I haven’t been able to find anything on exactly how much control or influence she had over business decisions. Perhaps the decision-makers are smart enough to to adopt the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy. I also think that the brand is diversified and timeless enough to carry on.

      Thanks,
      Kerry

  5. Sarah Harris says:

    This is so crazy because I’d just learned about her brand last week. A student I work with had the cutest organizer and being a paper-holic, I had to check out the website.

    I think her sentiment that “It’s always summer somewhere” is the perfect way to describe her style. It totally reminds me of my childhood summers spent in Ocean City, MD. Now that you shared additional photos, I definitely recognize her style from before I put 2+2 together.

    I was very curious about whether or not she was related to the Pulitzers but absolutely love that her fashion line came out of a fluke frock that she made.

    Thanks for this bit of summer!
    Sarah Harris

    • Kerry says:

      Hi Sarah,

      I, too, had always wondered about her relation to the Pulitzer name and didn’t learn it until I started researching this piece. I don’t know if I mentioned it or not, but she and Pulitzer divorced after she had established her business, so she kept the name, even after marrying her second husband. It reminded me of Susan Sarandon…tricky business, this taking your husband’s name!

      I did not know you were a fellow paper-holic :-). Have you ever been to Swain’s in Glendale? I’m like a kid in a candy shop in their exotic and specialty paper section!

      Thanks,
      Kerry

  6. kull says:

    Kerry,

    I really enjoyed your post, thank you! I didn’t know anything about the Lily Pulitzer behind the brand and your post is a terrific example of storytelling. What a great story behind LP and her creation of the shift to hide the orange juice stains. That’s a “sticky story” that’s easy to remember and conjures images of West Palm Beach orange groves (I doubt there are many there today!) and the idyllic fantasy life of those rich Northeastern families.

    I love Andrew’s comment about the use of words and phrases like “wintering” and “school chum.” We definitely don’t use those words out here in Northern California, or at least I never heard them in my circles. 🙂

    Thanks for a fun post and conversation.
    Amy

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks, Amy. It was a fun one to write. What cracked me up was that someone with that kind of money squeezed her own oranges and sold the juice at a roadside stand, not to mention making clothes out of kitchen curtains for the First Lady!

      K

  7. waterwor says:

    Hi Kerry! Great blog! As a woman that is obsessed with fashion I really enjoyed your blog on Lilly Pulitzer! I am with Melissa on the fact that she was the original Kate Spade. Her style is classic and elegant but still has a “fun”side! The fashion world is extremely cut throat and very subjective in terms of what is in good taste but I think Pulitzer did a great job of appealing to a wide variety of consumers…I can only think of a few other designers that have accomplished that feat.

    • Kerry says:

      Hi Alex,

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! You’re so right about the fun side. If you look at the textiles she designed, some of them are so whimsical, you just have to smile when you see them. In particular, I love the pink flamingo and peacock designs.

      I think one of the reasons she survived for so long in the business is because she had the luxury of being able to remain true to herself and do only what she loved. That may be the key to longevity in the fashion world…don’t lose your point-of-view if it’s one you are truly passionate about.

      Thanks,
      Kerry

  8. Nikolos Gurney says:

    As it turns out I would have never known who Lilly is, or known where that dress design came from had I not read this article. To be honest that likely wouldn’t have been to much of a disruption in my existence either, however having read it I love the story behind it. There is a lot to be said about Americana in it and what is important to us. There is something oddly romantic about the dress coming from a solution to a problem and then capturing attention because of celebrity. It is a mash up of good ol’ ‘merican ingenuity and our obsession with image. I suspect that if I had a museum of Americana one of her dresses would definitely find its way into the installation. Thanks for sharing!

  9. alina.hardy says:

    Hi Kerry,
    Great post about Lilly Pulitzer!
    In-line with what some said above, I think the brand’s success was definitely in selling a story, and a lifestyle.
    I likewise learned of the brand in undergrad, and I think they did a great job of targeting me and my demographic at a key time. Lilly Pulitzer custom designed prints for sororities, and marketed them well – they have a great Facebook presence you should check out: https://www.facebook.com/lillypulitzer.
    I think it is a great example of a brand that found their target market and hooked them in with something simple and fun, while they still have many years of buying power ahead of them. I’d never been exposed to the brand before and I’m definitely a fan now.
    Thanks for the post!
    Alina

  10. guia says:

    Hi Kerry,

    I really enjoyed this post. I didn’t know the history behind the Lilly Pulitzer brand and the story you shared is really inspiring.

    It’s pretty amazing to know that such a unique and well respected brand was born out of simply “finding something to do.” I think part of the success of the line is not only that it is inspired by summer but it is well marketed. Each piece compliments another in some way – urging the consumer to complete their collection. It really was a world of its own and I think there are many sales/marketing lessons that one can come away with.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Rachael

  11. dayney says:

    Hi Kerry,

    Like you and Milissa, I love Lilly Pulitzer too! I think it’s fascinating that while her brand has evolved and modernized over the years, but her basic design style has remained the same and ever so popular. Also, I’m glad you pointed out that she had the funding to launch her line — “It takes money, to make money.”

  12. aflores says:

    Hi Kerry,
    Although I had never heard about Lilly Pulitzer (not sure how), I really love the prints. I really enjoyed reading your post and to learn about a past era and the strength of the brand. The creation of the brand uses some of the same strategies that are currently used today through celebrity endorsement and product placement.

    Thanks for sharing the great story behind a long-lasting brand.
    Adriana

  13. jack.gaines says:

    Kerry,
    Great story, I had a lot of fun reading about Lilly Pulitzer. I love how she got creative, and had the natural insight to try something fun. Too many times, people hold themselves back.

    One point you made, was that she had a lot of good opportunities and resources, but still went for the simple things, like opening a juice shop at the side of the road, almost to see what would come of it.

    I’m inspired, the drapes are coming down, and I am making a new tie.

    Thanks

    -Jack