A Tribute to Lilly Pulitzer

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by Barbara Gonzalez

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Renowned for her eye-catching floral and intricate summery prints, socialite and fashion designer Lilly Pulitzer passed away on April 7, 2013 at her home in Palm Beach, FL. She was 81.

Born on November 10, 1931 in Roslyn, New York, Lillian Lee McKim was an heiress to the Standard Oil Fortune.

Lilly’s fashion career began almost as spontaneously as the styles of her prints. In the midst of running a fruit stand from her former husband Pete Pulitzer’s groves in Florida, she found herself frustrated with the unfortunate citrus stains she’d acquire throughout the day. As a makeshift solution, she requested that her dressmaker design a garment to cover up the unmistakable splotches.

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Customers flocked to Lilly, not only to buy her fruit, but to also compliment her on her one-of-a-kind sleeveless shift, sporting a signature, vibrant print of pinks, oranges, greens and yellows. Lilly boldly rejected the typical dress of the time, which emphasized a small waistline, and instead formed her dresses into a free flowing shift, comfortable in blisteringly hot Florida days.  After countless requests for similar styles, she began to manufacture more of the dresses to sell at the stand, which people affectionately called “Lillys.” Eventually, with the realization she was selling more clothes than fruit, Lilly recognized that it was time to expand her designs into something more.

Lilly kept her theme of vividly juicy colors, like flamingo pink, Caribbean orange and Key Lime green. Her limitless imagination found inspiration in everything she laid eyes on, be it anything from fruits and vegetables to extravagant animals. It was a sign for young women in the 60’s to do away with their drab, monotonous clothes and be free to express themselves in an explosion of kaleidoscopic color.

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When First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, an old schoolmate of Lilly, appeared in Life magazine with one of Lilly’s vibrant creations, the designer instantly became a household name for many socialites. Her business quickly grew from women’s attire to include men and children’s clothing. Soon, everyone who was anyone in high-class society was sporting Lilly’s designs.

Though the Lilly Pulitzer brand was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1984 due to changing tastes at the time, it was resurrected in the early 1990’s. The revival of the brand aimed to target the daughters and granddaughters of Lilly’s peers – the new generation of socialites.

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In her later years after retiring, Lilly was also known to entertain guests in her Palm Beach home, where she would host parties barefoot.

Lilly will always be remembered for the rejuvenating splash of tropical color she left on both her fellow debutantes and the fashion world as a whole. “Style isn’t just about what you wear, it’s how you live,” said Pulitzer in 2004. “We focus on the best, fun and happy things, and people want that. Being happy never goes out of style.”

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