Obituary: Lilly Pulitzer, fashion designer

Lilly Pulitzer (right). Picture: Getty
Lilly Pulitzer (right). Picture: Getty
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Born: 10 November, 1931 in New York. Died: 7 April, 2013, aged 81

Lilly Pulitzer, was a Palm Beach socialite turned fashion designer whose tropical print dresses became a sensation in the 1960s.

Pulitzer, pictured left with one of her models, who married into the famous newspaper family, got her start in fashion by spilling orange juice on her clothes. A rich housewife with time to spare and a husband who owned orange groves, she opened a juice stand in 1959, and asked her seamstress to make dresses in colourful prints that would camouflage fruit stains.

The dresses hung on a pipe behind her juice stand and soon outsold her drinks. The company’s dresses, developed with the help of partner Laura Robbins, a former fashion editor, soon caught on.

Former American First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who ­attended boarding school with Pulitzer, even wore one of the sleeveless shifts in a Life magazine photo spread, and matriarch Rose Kennedy and one of her teenage grand-daughters were once reported to have bought nearly identical versions together.

The signature Lilly palette featured tongue-in-cheek jungle and floral prints in blues, pinks, light greens, yellow and orange.

“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 said.

The line of dresses that bore her name was later expanded to swimsuits, country club attire, children’s clothing, a home collection and a limited selection of menswear. “Style isn’t just about what you wear, it’s about how you live,” she claimed.

“We focus on the best, fun and happy things, and people want that. Being happy never goes out of style.”

Changing tastes brought trouble. Pulitzer closed her original company in the mid-1980s after filing for bankruptcy protection. The label was revived about a decade later after being acquired by Pennsylvania-based Sugartown Worldwide. Pulitzer was only marginally involved in the new business but continued ­reviewing new prints.

“When Lilly started the business back in the 1960s, she targeted a young customer because she was young,” the company’s president, Jim Bradbeer, said in 2003. “What we have done is target the daughter and grand-daughter of that original ­customer.”

Pulitzer herself retired from day-to-day operations in 1993, ­although she remained a consultant for the brand.

Pulitzer was born Lilly McKim on 10 November, 1931, to a wealthy family in Roslyn, New York.

In 1952, she married Pete Pulitzer, the grandson of newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, whose bequest to Columbia University established the ­Pulitzer Prize. They divorced in 1969. Her second husband, ­Enrique Rousseau, died in 1993. “I don’t know how to explain what it was like to run my business, the joy of every day,” she told Vanity Fair magazine in a story in 2003. “I got a kick every time I went into the shipping department.

“I loved seeing [the dresses] going out the door. I loved them selling in the shop. I liked them on the body. Everything. There’s no explaining the fun I had.”

Pulitzer, who was known for hosting parties barefoot at her Palm Beach home, also published two guides to entertaining.

“That’s what life is all about: Let’s have a party. Let’s have it ­tonight,” she said.