MIAMI (AP) — Lilly Pulitzer hosted parties in her bare feet and wasn’t afraid to get a little messy — just as long as she looked good and had fun, too.
In the late 1950s, the Palm Beach socialite had time to spare and a wealthy husband who owned citrus groves, so she opened an orange juice stand just off the island’s main shopping street. Pulitzer needed to hide all the juice stains on her clothes, though. Instead of just putting on an apron, she asked her seamstress to make some sleeveless dresses in colorful fruit prints, and a fashion staple was born.
Pulitzer died at her home Sunday, according to Quattlebaum Funeral and Cremation Services. She was 81.
Pulitzer’s tropical print dresses became a sensation in the 1960s when then-first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who attended boarding school with Pulitzer, wore one of the sleeveless shifts in a Life magazine photo spread.
The colorful revolution came as fashion shed its reliance on neutrals, and Pulitzer’s stuff was almost the housewife version of the more youthful mod look that was migrating from London.
To this day, the Lilly Pulitzer dress remains a popular, if not a necessary, addition to any woman’s closet.
“I designed collections around whatever struck my fancy … fruits, vegetables, politics, or peacocks! I entered in with no business sense. It was a total change of life for me, but it made people happy,” Pulitzer, who married into the famous newspaper family, told The Associated Press in March 2009.
Pulitzer’s dresses hung behind her juice stand and soon outsold her drinks. A boutique featuring the company’s dresses — developed with the help of partner Laura Robbins, a former fashion editor — soon replaced the juice stand.
“Today we celebrate all that Lilly meant to us and come together as Lilly lovers to honor a true original who has brought together generations through her bright and happy mark on the world,” James B. Bradbeer Jr. and Scott A. Beaumont, who bought the Lilly Pulitzer brand in 1992, said in a statement.
The signature Lilly palette features tongue-in-cheek jungle and floral prints in blues, pinks, light greens, yellow and orange — the colors of a Florida vacation.
The line of dresses that bore her name was later expanded to swimsuits, country club attire, children’s clothing, a home collection and a limited selection of menswear.
“Style isn’t just about what you wear, it’s about how you live,” Pulitzer said in 2004.
“We focus on the best, fun and happy things, and people want that. Being happy never goes out of style,” she said.
In 1966, The Washington Post reported that the dresses were “so popular that at the Southampton Lilly shop on Job’s Lane they are proudly put in clear plastic bags tied gaily with ribbons so that all the world may see the Lilly of your choice. It’s like carrying your own racing colors or flying a yacht flag for identification.”
But changing taste brought trouble. Pulitzer closed her original company in the mid-1980s after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The label was revived about a decade later after being acquired by Pennsylvania-based Sugartown Worldwide Inc.; Pulitzer was only marginally involved in the new business but continued reviewing new prints from Florida.
“When Lilly started the business back in the ’60s, she targeted a young customer because she was young,” Bradbeer told the AP in 2003. “What we have done is target the daughter and granddaughter of that original customer.”
Pulitzer herself retired from day-to-day operations in 1993, although she remained a consultant and a muse for the brand.
Sugartown Worldwide was bought by Atlanta-based Oxford Industries in 2010. Sales of the Lilly Pulitzer brand were strong in the earnings period that ended Feb. 2. The brand’s revenue increased 26 percent to $29.1 million, according to Oxford Industries’ earnings report. The company said last week it planned to add four to six new stores each year for its Lily Pulitzer brand.
Pulitzer was born Lilly McKim on Nov. 10, 1931, to a wealthy family in Roslyn, N.Y.
In 1952, she married Pete Pulitzer, the grandson of newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, whose bequest to Columbia University established the Pulitzer Prize.
Pulitzer had three children in quick succession. After the third was born, she had a nervous breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital that catered to upscale clientele in New York. A doctor there told her that she needed to find a job.
“The doctor there said, ‘You’re not happy because you’re not doing anything,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know how to do anything.’ I’d always had everything done for me, always had my nanny and my mummy making up my mind. The doctor said, ‘You’ve got to go out and find something to do,’” Pulitzer told The New Yorker in 2000.
Pulitzer gave the same prescription to her friends. If one of them needed something to do, Pulitzer would open a store in her town.
The Pulitzers divorced in 1969. Pulitzer’s second husband, Enrique Rousseau, died in 1993.
“I don’t know how to explain what it was like to run my business, the joy of every day,” she told Vanity Fair magazine in a story in 2003. “I got a kick every time I went into the shipping department. … I loved seeing (the dresses) going out the door. I loved them selling in the shop. I liked them on the body. Everything. There’s no explaining the fun I had.”