Love That Lilly

Generations of fans prize their Pultizers, reveling in their bright colors and happy prints.

June 20, 2005|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

How much perky can be squeezed into a polo shirt? Or a pair of patterned pants?

Ask a Lilly lover.

She'll tell you, in those famous pink and green and playful Lilly Pulitzer prints, women are happier, smilier, chirpier. Infinitely so.

No matter the season, Lilly Pulitzer enthusiasts are on beach getaways and summer strolls. They're sipping lemonade spritzers and nursing sorbets. They find joy and love and - cloaked in those sherbet-shades - more cheerful, more carefree reflections of themselves.

"It's an escapist reality, but a very happy escapist reality," says Tori Rappold, 26, a Lilly lover from Manhattan. "You can't go on vacation all the time. It can't be summer all the time. But it can be when you're wearing Lilly all the time."

It's just that feeling of fashion euphoria that has kept Lilly Pulitzer's single-themed fashion label alive since the 1960s, despite a 10-year period when the company - made famous for its casually elegant clothes - was completely shut down.

Women who wear Lilly love Lilly. They watched their mothers wear it. They dress their daughters in it. And when Palm Beach socialite Lilly Pulitzer closed down the successful business bearing her name in 1984, these same women combed vintage stores, flea markets and consignment shops, searching for anything Lilly they could find.

"I thought they had gone," says Robin Crawford, a self-described Lilly Pulitzer junkie from Washington. "They had just dried up with all the things that were super-preppy."

Good news, Lilly lovers. The preppy look has returned, and Lilly Pulitzer is back - in a big way.

All that secondhand-store-shopping caused light bulbs to go off for businessmen Jim Bradbeer and Scott Beaumont, who were working at the time with another clothing company in Philadelphia.

If women would dig through bins of polyester pants and Nehru jackets for palm-treed polo shirts, they wondered, what might happen if someone brought Lilly's company back, punched up the pinks and peaches, and put the label squarely back into the mix of the affluent suburban shopper?

So in 1994, they approached an aging but still-blond Lilly Pulitzer, who had shut the company's doors, retired to Palm Beach - where she began the label - and never looked back.

"We understood the brand. We understood what it could be," says company President Bradbeer, who says his mother was a Lilly cult member. "And [Pulitzer] had confidence that we could execute the vision. So we brought it back. We introduced some new prints. We made it modern, made it current. But I think the essence of it is the same. It is bright, colorful, happy, fun clothes for the best times of your life."

Fans say Bradbeer, 43, isn't exaggerating. Over the years, the Lilly Pulitzer brand has come to stand for cheerfulness, happiness - the good life in a cotton shift.

Lilly Pulitzer "is selling an identification with a combination of social class and lifestyle," says Erik Gordon, a marketing professor at the Johns Hopkins University who specializes in branding. "That's what that look is a badge of. This is not the woman who is trying to signal, `I'm an investment banker and I work 80 hours a week and don't look at me like that buddy, 'cause I'll buy your company and fire you.' This is the woman who is saying, `I spend my summer in the resorts, and I do charity work, and I attend the Rose Garden. And if the weather is nice, maybe we sail or play a little golf or something.' "

That kind of branding speaks volumes to the women who buy Lilly's clothes, shoes, jewelry and housewares, Gordon says. And it could explain why Lilly fever never really died down, even while the company was in a decade-long hiatus.

"A brand isn't powerful because it does a lot of advertising. You can advertise a lot and have no brand whatsoever," Gordon says. "It has to stand for something valuable in the mind of the customer."

For many Lilly fans, the label isn't just pretty and bright. It also evokes the warm feelings of family and good friends.

At an unadvertised, invitation-only Lilly sale in King of Prussia, Pa., last week, thousands of women showed up to scour the racks of discounted colorful clothes. Many camped out the night before, on air mattresses and lawn chairs, ostensibly to be among the first to get in. But when pressed about why they left husbands and babies behind to sleep on a convention-center floor, they confessed they were there for the Lilly-inspired camaraderie.

"It's not about saving money; it's a pilgrimage for us," says Tricia High, 33, of Durham, N.C., who arrived at the Valley Forge Convention Center with two friends to set up camp a full day before the sale doors opened.

"Our husbands are all at the U.S. Open, and we're all here," says her friend Kristin Teer, 35.

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