College kids see green, and pink, in their Lillys

Family Matters

October 12, 2003|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Staff

LILLY IS BACK. And she's going to college. At the age of 71, no less.

Lilly Pulitzer, the Palm Beach, Fla., socialite who made a national sensation out of a simple shift dress in the 1960s, has returned to the fashion front page.

And it's the college kids who are putting her there.

The resurgence of the whimsical florals in watermelon pink and green is no news to the fashionistas, who gave the dowager queen of preppy-dom a standing ovation at the spring 2003 runway shows.

But the trickle-down to the masses is under way and much in evidence during a recent visit to Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va. -- a college old enough and just far enough south to be steeped in tradition.

Lilly Pulitzer dresses -- accessorized with pearls, Prada purses and kicky little sandals -- were the uniform of the day.

I guess the blue jean-Army surplus look of my college days has passed into the mists. These young ladies looked as if they cared what they looked like.

And, as always, college kids are the canaries in the fashion coal mines. Lilly Pulitzer is big all over again. At least until something else strikes the teen and 20-something fancy.

The resurgence was engineered by a couple of Harvard MBAs who remember when their mothers wore "Lillys."

The managers of Sugartown Worldwide, James Bradbeer Jr. and Scott Beaumont, began a careful revival of the franchise in the early 1990s, and there are nearly twice as many Lilly Pulitzer shops nationwide as there were when she declared bankruptcy in 1984.

Now, "academy pink" and "toad green" are the new black. It is enough to make us old-timers long for our Pappagallo flats.

The Lilly Pulitzer story is oft told, but never as well as in a Vanity Fair article this summer, which described the simple Lilly shift that made the scene in 1960 as "more than resortwear. It was short hand for WASP wealth at play."

A rebellious child of Standard Oil wealth, Lilly McKim eloped with Peter Pulitzer, grandson of Joseph, in 1952 and had three babies, one right on top of the last.

She had the classic rich woman's boredom breakdown and, after several months of hospitalization, returned to Palm Beach determined to fill her days.

She opened a fruit juice stand that used produce from her husband's vast orchards -- an act that was undoubtedly considered as crazy as anything she had done to get herself institutionalized.

To hide the juice stains, she had her seamstress whip up a cool sundress out of wildly patterned fabric.

Instantly, the Palm Beach country club set wanted to buy the dress, not the juice, and a status symbol was born.

Though the Lillys cost only about $30, they were beyond the reach of anybody but the idle rich, if for no other reason than Lilly Pulitzer let her rich friends open shops in the places where her rich friends summered: Bar Harbor, Boca Raton, Southampton and the like.

Besides, none of Lilly's friends wanted to see themselves on the rack in a department store.

Her color wheel went from hot pink to lime green and back again, but that was OK, because Lilly was all about year-round leisure.

But by the 1980s, power suits took fashion's center stage and Lilly Pulitzer faded into bankruptcy and retirement. Until Bradbeer and Beaumont took over, the only place to find a Lilly was on eBay.

Now, Lillys are what they never would have been during the 1960s and 1970s when they were the uniform of the rich at play -- they are worn by the young, and indulged, at school.

A Lilly dress goes for $160 to $200, and her fall line of sweaters, skirts and flat-front pants are just as pricey.

The original Lilly functions as a consultant to Sugartown Worldwide and she has the final say on all designs.

The fall collection, with its argyles, plaids and patchwork prints, carries the names of girls who might be modern-day boarding school roommates: Erika, Simone, Jane, Mandy, Monique and Mari.

And the twills are embroidered with tiny lobsters, whales, turtles, bees and "ankahs," as the word might be pronounced in Bar Harbor.

I am not sure why young women like Lilly Pulitzer now, but to me they have the crisp, clean appeal of peppy preppy-dom.

Like music from the 1960s and 1970s, it recalls a happier, more innocent time.

Before we adopted the clothing of the Vietnam soldier or the Indian Maharishi.

Lilly Pulitzer also recalls a time when the rich played and the rest of us read about it in Life magazine.

A time before wealth was sinister and suspect.

A time before money was something everyone was scrambling so hard to get that they forgot about having fun.

A time when rich was just something you didn't happen to be.

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