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Move over, Martha. Get out of the way, Ralph. There’s a new girl in town (assuming that the term “girl” can refer to a 71 year-old girl-at-heart and “town” can refer to Palm Beach, Florida, one of the richest towns in the country), and her name is Lilly Pulitzer, creator of the brightly colored, Palm Beach clothing and lifestyle brand bearing her name. Lilly began her business in the late 60s, but today enjoys more buzz than ever as she whimsically prances barefoot into American popular culture, one wild flower shift dress at a time.
On one’s calendar of newly invented holidays, for example, April features something bigger and better than Administrative Professional’s Day, Earth Day, Gaypril and National Poetry Month combined. Last week was Lilly Week, a seven-day celebration of everything pink and green, Lilly’s signature colors. For Lilly followers, such an occasion is almost reason enough to charter a private jet to Florida for some Lilly-inspired Key Lime Mojitos and Mango coconut coladas with ginger.
These cocktails, along with their complimentary appetizers of goat cheese toasts with fresh figs and honey, and chilled hearts of palm soup with pomegranate seeds, are featured in Lilly’s latest business venture Essentially Lilly, an illustrated guide to entertaining as told by Lilly to her friend Jay Mulvaney, who can now add Palm Beach Princess Pulitzer’s tale to his short list of princess story authorship (his other subjects include Diana and Jackie). Mulvaney, who referred to Pulitzer in a recent interview as “a very chic mother earth,” is also quite the statistician: “In Palm Beach,” he estimates, “four out of five people are wearing Lilly.”
One dress in Lilly’s 2004 collection is described as: “Nassau Blue Macadamia Nut House.” This seemingly odd concoction of descriptors is strangely appropriate for the Lilly look, for the “nut house” is essentially where Lilly Pulitzer as a brand all started. Born into New York society, marrying money and lacking a livelihood, Lilly, then wife of Peter Pulitzer who was grandson of the Pulitzer-Prize-Pulitzer, had a breakdown, spent the requisite New York woman’s time in a mental institution (her friends called it Bloomingdale’s), and upon release was told that her cure would be to find a hobby, start a business—anything. The million-dollar advice for Lilly was to simply do something.
So she opened up a store selling oranges and other citrus fruit. Legend has it that she needed a dress with a colorful pattern that would obscure the juice that got on her clothing (an occupational hazard if I’ve ever heard of one). Rising to the challenge, Pulitzer sewed herself a handful of dresses in bright colors that were new, cute and popular, and requests for them quickly began pouring in from all over Palm Beach. Once Jackie Kennedy, a friend and classmate of Lilly’s at Chapin girls’ school in New York, wore a Lilly on her Palm Beach vacation, the shift dresses became elite mega-hits.
Yet the question remains of how one propels a 50 year-old niche-market brand into a post-modern pop-culture-style-fashion-celebrity world. For Pulitzer, it took the marketing prowess of a husband-and-wife Harvard MBA pair to take Lilly out of retirement and reinvigorate her brand. The new Pulitzer slogan “Life. Lilly. And the Pursuit of Happiness” has pushed forward the All-American positioning of venerable designers like Ralph Lauren by adding a new dimension that is fun, light-hearted and, most importantly, accessible. Lilly’s vapid elitism is obscured by the colorfulness of her patterns and apparent happiness of the tanned trophy wives who buy her designs in matching mother-daughter sets. The innovative open-door lifestyle policy goes for her entertaining too, as Lilly says that everyone is welcome at her house. It is a place where the hoity-toity enter without knocking and get their manicured hands dirty assembling the cream cheese and dill toasts.
In fashion industry shop talk, writers have said that Pucci’s mod geometry is to Italy what Burberry’s plaid is to England, and what Lilly Pulitzer’s pink and green is to the good old U-S-A. In addition to being sold at Saks, Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom department stores, Lilly’s collections are sold in retail venues bearing storefront names such as Tickled Pink, Color Me Pink, The Pink Pineapple, Pink on the Green, The Pink Petunia and Pinkalicious. Perhaps troubleshooting a possible East Coast/West Coast elite divide in Lilly’s popularity, this season Pulitzer is marketing a California “surf diva” look. Boston’s Lilly fans can check out In the Pink, Pulitzer’s shop on Newbury Street.
Though All-Americanness to me (have pity on my land-locked, suburban Ohio soul) still invokes images of boys clad in Abercrombie polo shirts who conceal Natty Light six-packs at home football games on Friday nights, it is still fun, if not unrealistic, to enter the fantastical worlds of a “sunrise sail” on a boat called “Serendripity” and envision Pulitzer’s fond memories at the Kentucky Derby—Pulitzer says that “mother always had racehorses and her Louis Vuitton luggage was trimmed in her racing colors of old rose and yellow.” To celebrate the annual Churchill Downs event, Pulitzer recommends reading Seabiscuit, drinking mint juleps (sugar, water, mint leaves, and Kentucky Bourbon) and eating baked brie with fresh mango chutney.
Though I don’t see myself jet-setting to Palm Beach, restyling my gastro-intestinal patterns to the taste of jalapeno bloody marys or “counting myself among the horsey set,” I might just invest in a Lilly Pulitzer accessory one of these days. After all, if a 71 year-old fashion and society maven like Lilly says it’s fun to bring out one’s inner pinkalicious-flowery-surfer-diva, who am I to disagree.
—Columnist Lisa M. Puskarcik can be reached at email@example.com
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