Perennial returns as Lilly Pulitzer gets goony again

June 09, 1994|By Jean Patteson | Jean Patteson,Orlando Sentinel

Palm Beach -- Lilly is back.

That's Lilly Pulitzer Rousseau, the socialite/bohemian designer who Time magazine once called the "barefoot tycoon." Also Lilly Pulitzer, the line of colorful, casual fashions that once were the hit of every preppy resort up and down the East Coast.

Neither the designer nor her designs have changed much in the 10 years they have been absent from the fashion scene. Both are as colorful and free-spirited as ever.

"Lilly should never have gone away. It only happened because she decided she wasn't having as much fun anymore," said Scott Beaumont. He is a partner at Sugartown Worldwide Inc., the clothing company in Pennsylvania that was founded last year to reintroduce the Lilly line -- after Lilly (as everyone calls her) was convinced that she could again have fun designing Lillys (as everyone calls her clothes).

"It was a natural to bring back. The customer demand never went away," Mr. Beaumont said. "Lilly has a certain magic. She's very bright, very self-assured. Everything about her is very distinctive -- pure Lilly."

Lilly is the company's "ideas machine," said Nancy Gary, the partner in charge of product development.

"She doesn't like reading magazines and looking at what other designers are doing. She does what's in her heart and spirit. Getting that Lilly spirit is what customers want. She's always calling us up and saying, 'Make it real goony,' " said Ms. Gary, who consults with Lilly on all phases of design.

"And if she doesn't like it, she comes right out and says so: 'Ugh! I hate it.' "

Swimsuit staff meeting

When Ms. Gary and her design assistant arrived at Lilly's Palm Beach home for a recent meeting, they were instructed to strip down to their swimsuits. "Half our work got done while the three of us were sitting in the pool," Ms. Gary said.

What better way to capture that goony Lilly spirit?

Longtime Lilly fans will understand "goony." It means jeans printed with butterflies and daisies. It means clear colors, built-in comfort -- and the predictable silliness of having the "Lilly" signature hidden somewhere in the design.

The first time Lilly walked down Palm Beach's ritzy Worth Avenue, about 40 years ago, she wore her hair in pigtails and was barefoot. She was the newlywed bride of Peter Pulitzer, scion of the celebrated newspaper family and owner of extensive citrus groves and cattle estates in South Florida. (Yes, the same Mr. Pulitzer who later married Roxanne Ulrich -- then divorced her in a seamy, made-for-the-tabloids split.)

Always the rebel, despite her Social Register background, Lilly ignored the Palm Beach charity-ball circuit. She preferred casual get-togethers with everyone cooking -- and later dancing -- in her huge, airy kitchen.

She and Peter had three children -- Peter, Minnie and Liza -- but still she needed a "project." So in 1960, she opened a little shop selling oranges and squeezing juice.

"It was hot. It was crazy. Everyone was stopping in to drink juice and learn the twist. I had this old Swiss lady make me these shifts -- pretty little things that didn't show I had no waist. The customers wanted to buy those, too."

She bought a few bolts of fabric from Woolworth's, had a dozen dresses made -- and the Lilly Pulitzer line was born. Even the late Jacqueline Kennedy, a chum from prep schools in New York and Connecticut, had a collection of Lillys.

"I really didn't know what I was doing. I can't sketch. I can't sew. I'm not an artiste. But I've always known exactly what I wanted. So here I was -- a designer. I had factories, shops. What a lark."

Lilly wilts

Then, abruptly, it was over.

Lilly's simple, casual styles, so perfect for the '60s and '70s, were a tough sell in the flashy '80s. Sales figures slumped -- and so did Lilly's enthusiasm.

"It was the business end that did me in. I hated running the bloody thing. I had had it," Lilly said.

In 1984, she sold her shops, closed her factories and liquidated the entire enterprise.

"After that, I did everything I hadn't for all those years of working on my Lillys. I became a housewife, a mother to my grandchildren. We did some travel." Then her second husband, Cuban emigre Enrique Rousseau, became ill "and that took care of my time."

But now, at age 61, Lilly is back in business.

On a recent sunny spring day, she was lounging -- barefoot -- under a striped marquee near the pool in the embracing L-shape of her sister's casually elegant home. Beyond the pool was an expanse of manicured jungle that screened out the neighboring mansions -- including Lilly's own, just down the street.

About 18 months ago -- shortly before her second husband's death -- she received the phone call that would propel her back into the design world. It was from Mr. Beaumont, Ms. Gary and their third partner, James Bradbeer. "Somehow, they found me. They said they just loved Lilly, their mothers and sisters loved Lilly, and they wanted to bring the line back," Lilly said.

'A fresh twist'

After lengthy negotiations, she agreed to a licensing deal.

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