Lilly Pulitzer shaped upscale casual style

Pulitzer on the runway in 2002. She died Sunday; her colorful company is headquartered in King of Prussia.
Pulitzer on the runway in 2002. She died Sunday; her colorful company is headquartered in King of Prussia. (BEBETO MATTHEWS / AP)
Posted: April 10, 2013

Lilly Pulitzer's King of Prussia-based brand is more than a celebration of bubble-gum pink and palm trees.

Back in her day, Pulitzer, who died Sunday at 81, was a style pioneer. Her bold, printed shift dresses became a symbol of upscale casual living. And thanks to Pulitzer, resort wear doesn't just belong on vacation.

"She mixed colors people never ever would have put together," said Clara Henry, director of Philadelphia University's fashion program. That meant greens and pinks, blues and oranges, yellows and purples.

"She was the Pucci of American sportswear," said Clare Sauro, curator of Drexel University's historic costume collection. The swirl of colorful designs was Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci's signature, but the look became authentically Pulitzer. "A wide range of people could adapt her look . . . . [Her fashions] tie into the whole rise of casual sportswear and youthful fashions of the 1950s into the 1960s."

With her first husband, Herbert "Pete" Pulitzer Jr., she had three children back-to-back-to-back, which resulted in a nervous breakdown. Her doctor told her to find a hobby, so she opened an orange-juice stand near her husband's orange groves in Palm Beach.

When she found her clothes getting stained with juice, she worked with a local seamstress to create simple shifts in bodacious colors - a stylish camouflage. That was in 1959, and when her friends loved the dresses, she started selling them from her stand.

The tropical-print sheaths soon became more popular than the juice, and in 1962 when her schoolmate, Jacqueline Kennedy, wore one of her dresses in a photo spread in Life magazine, her style was on its way to becoming iconic. She and partner Laura Robbins, a former fashion editor, designed all of the prints, and Pulitzer was inspired by everything from flowers to politics.

The classic American sportswear was popular among generations of women who wanted to evoke a life of leisure, fantasy, and fun - perfect "Mommy and Me" outfits. The products' bright colors made women feel good, and everyone could recognize an authentic Lilly Pulitzer because the name "Lilly" was hidden within each print.

"I just bought a blue-and-white Lilly jumpsuit that I took to Hawaii," said Kathy Bajus of Villanova, who Monday afternoon was finally able to pull out her Lilly sweaters because it was finally warm enough. "I love the sunglasses, the little bags, the jewelry pouches, and I buy the little dresses for my granddaughters. They are so cute."

Pulitzer found an unlikely set of loyal fans in Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. Pink and green have been the African American sorority's colors since its founding at Howard University in 1908.

"I love her stationery and her scarves," said Marsha DeShields, a Marlton AKA who describes herself as the "queen of pink and green."

Yet changing tastes in fashion led Pulitzer to close the brand and seek bankruptcy protection in 1984. Nearly a decade later - when she realized she would soon lose her trademark protection - she sold the brand in 1993 to Philadelphia-based businessmen Scott Beaumont and Jim Bradbeer, who formed Sugartown Worldwide. The two were former executives at Eagle's Eye, an apparel company once owned by Chris Burch, Tory Burch's ex-husband.

"As long as we didn't bring the company to New York, she was OK with where we headquartered it," Bradbeer said, laughing.

The company relaunched Lilly Pulitzer in King of Prussia with a fashion show in Palm Beach, Fla. Philadelphia University's Henry was one of the consultants.

"When I met her, she was wearing one of her dresses and making cucumber sandwiches in her kitchen," recalled Henry. (Pulitzer was known for hosting parties in her bare feet back in the 1960s.) "She was so down-to-earth. She was a hell of a woman."

When the brand used to hold biannual sample sales at its Palm Beach-style headquarters, thousands of women would line up to buy the colorful Lilly gear for three consecutive days.

In 2010, Bradbeer and Beaumont sold the company to Atlanta-based Oxford Industries, which has maintained its headquarters here. Annual sales reached $122 million in the year ended in February.

Pulitzer was born Lillian Lee McKim in Roslyn, N.Y. Her mother, Lillian Bostick, was an heiress to the Standard Oil fortune. She met and married in 1952 the grandson of Joseph Pulitzer, for whom the Pulitzer Prize is named. They divorced in 1969. Her second husband, Enrique Rousseau, died in 1993.


Contact Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704. Follow her on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.

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