Long Lost Lilly Pulitzer
A look at vintage Lilly designs and how the artistic crew behind her famous patterns fatefully linked with the Palm Beach socialite in the 1960s and helped create the blueprint for an iconic fashion brand
Maybe you think you know Lilly Pulitzer. Brightly colored florals, simple lines, 1960s country club Kennedy cool. What else is there? Turns out, lots. The story of Lilly Pulitzer isn’t just that of a society lady who made a splash with some frocks. It’s a story of reinvention and freedom and of the sultry, subtropical ’60s. It’s the deep connection that a style, defined in one time and place, somehow continues to make in South Florida and beyond. It’s a story of creating style trends while defying cultural strictures.
“There’s an emotional bond to collecting Lilly or wearing Lilly,” says Lori Durante, executive director of the Museum of Lifestyle and Fashion History in Boynton Beach. Seven years ago, the museum hosted an exhibition entitled For the Love of Lilly, and the namesake herself crossed the Intracoastal Waterway to visit. “The visitors responded to her like she was a rock star,” Durante says. “When they saw her, people were screaming, ‘Lilly, Lilly, Lilly!’”
Years before the museum show, the Lilly Pulitzer line was wiped out and then revived (that’s so South Florida). Lilly Pulitzer herself died in 2013, but her name and look live on. For younger women, she embodies the name “Pulitzer” more than her first husband’s grandfather, the publishing magnate. More than her first husband’s second wife, Roxanne of the scandalous trumpet, alleged extramarital affairs and drug abuse. In the public mind, Lilly Pulitzer is inextricably tied with Palm Beach. But she wasn’t from there (again, so South Florida). She was a society girl from New York whose mother came from Standard Oil money. She attended Miss Porter’s with Jacqueline Bouvier, who later helped make Lilly’s designs famous as First Lady Jackie Kennedy. In 1952, Lilly eloped with Peter Pulitzer, another wealthy young scion. No big society wedding for her. They told their families about the marriage after the fact.
They lived in Palm Beach year-round. Who did that? But they had little use for society, at least of the uptight variety. They threw great parties. Lilly ran around barefoot. Peter grew oranges outside of town on a large grove. The couple was soon a family, with three babies in five years. In 1957, after a breakdown led to a spell in a northern hospital, Lilly came back to Palm Beach and opened a juice stand.
She acquired an important ally early on—Laura Robbins Clark, formerly a fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, who had moved to the Palm Beach area for her husband’s job. She was friends with Lilly’s sister (named, of course, Mimsy), who told her to look up Lilly. “The doctor said she must not just sit around,” Clark told Vanity Fair in 2003. “He knew Florida and what happens is you get very logy and lazy.”
Lilly expanded her juice stand at the orange grove to a store on Via Mizner in Palm Beach, and Laura joined her there. They worked the store—and found themselves constantly covered in sticky juice. So, the two created a sort of uniform for themselves: a simple shift dress with no cinched waists or tight sleeves. They were working, and they needed to move. It was Florida, it was hot and the ’50s were ending. “They haphazardly hung those dresses in the store, and the dresses became more popular than the juice,” says Durante.
Lilly was using “dime store” cotton for the dresses, buying it retail, until someone—an artist friend or Lilly’s mother and sister, accounts differ—went to Key West and discovered Key West Hand Print Fabrics.
Key West is the essential South Florida ingredient in the Lilly ethos and empire. The island added character and freedom to the Palm Beach class, the mix of louche and glam needed to create the legend. The island at the tip of the state—of the continent—was the original blueprint for the South Florida story, that melding of cultures and classes, creativity born of desperation.
Key West Hand Print Fabrics started at about the same time as Lilly’s juice stand as its own reinvention effort. The guys behind Key West Hand Print were experts at rebranding themselves, as they were veterans of the New York theater scene who discovered Key West when it was one of those rare isolated outposts where people could be openly gay—an artists’ colony like Provincetown, Massachusetts, and a Navy town like San Francisco, all with a subtropical Gulf Coast languor. No wonder Tennessee Williams made the island his home for 40 years.
Walter Starcke started Key West Hand Print Fabrics unintentionally, with a simple act of real estate development. He’s described in contemporary newspaper stories as “a former Broadway stage actor and producer” with “large brown eyes” and a “42-year-old bachelor.” He renovated one of the old buildings near Key West Harbor. Once the building was done, “I had to find a use for it,” Starcke said.
Fortunately, he ran into “two old friends from the theater” who were visiting Key West—choreographer Jim Russell and Peter Pell, a stage manager. They came up with an enterprise. Fabrics. Designed in-house and printed with screens, the old way. Starcke, Pell and Russell knew they had something special with that Key West name and, moreover, the Key West aesthetic: Florals galore, which went beyond whimsical to wild; animals that didn’t live on this continent, much less the island, but that conjured up sultry, sunny freedom nonetheless; suns smiling down with expressions that evoked both classical carvings and the cultural liberation that was just over the horizon.
The guys had one secret asset who was already there, as if she were waiting for them to arrive and recognize her talent—Suzie dePoo, another New York woman redefining herself in South Florida.
She was not from Lilly Pulitzer’s New York. Agnes Zuzek was 11 years older than Lilly. Her parents were Yugoslavian farmers in the western part of the state. She served in World War II as a baker (the nickname “Suzie” came from her fellows in the Women’s Army Corps, who couldn’t pronounce her last name). After the war she used the G.I. Bill to attend the Pratt Institute, studying design and art. In New York, her roommate, Jeane Porter, was a member of one of Key West’s most prominent families. Porter introduced Suzie to another Key Wester of locally prominent lineage, John dePoo. They married and down to the island she came.
In her own work, she was obsessed with the fantastic—mermaids and unicorns—and with decoration in the tradition of William Morris and William DeMorgan but with the flora and fauna of the latitudes where she’d washed up. Nance Frank, who represented Suzie dePoo for 20 years at Frank’s Gallery on Greene in Key West, describes dePoo’s work as “the continual elegance of innocence.” The artist made ceramics and wild, imaginative sculptures for her own work. But for years her imagination, her eye and her hand were the secret sweetness behind the phenomenal appeal of Lilly Pulitzer.
The Hand Print Fabrics factory and store opened late in 1961. From the beginning, it was a factory, tourist attraction, design studio and retail shop. Russell and Pell proved experts at spinning its legend in the local press and beyond, especially once Lilly Pulitzer got a look at their fabrics.
The story goes that she came down from Palm Beach, ordered 500 yards—their largest purchase ever—and then called from the airport to make it a thousand. The next day, she called from Palm Beach to triple the order.
From then on, it was a partnership, even if she wasn’t yet a part owner of Key West Hand Print. They made her fabrics, she made them famous—the melding of the casual elegance of the Palm Beach country club with the wink and freedom of Key West.
By the early ’70s, the fabrics—and Lilly—were retail and media darlings. That’s when Tony Falcone started coming to Key West with his partner, Bill Conkle.
They eventually opened a store, Fast Buck Freddie’s, on Key West’s main drag, Duval Street, at a time when many other shops were closing. They tapped into the new, chic money that was just starting to discover Key West, with its fabulous old houses built in its late 19th century heyday, and supplied housewares for all those renovations. But, in the summer, all business died and, Falcone says, they would not have made it through except for local matriarch Mary Spottswood and Lilly Pulitzer. She would come in and buy everything: wine glasses, placemats and tons of housewares she didn’t need.
“She only did it to try and keep us alive,” Falcone says. “She would come in, we had a long table and a big fan chair behind it and then some stools in front of it, and she would just come in and talk to us for hours.”
When Lilly was in town, she was part of the crowd, mixing it up with the gay and straight, rich and poor—and in Key West, it’s often hard to tell them all apart. The town went all-out for Lilly because her clothing line helped make Key West Hand Print into one of the biggest employers on the island, with 150 people on the payroll. Articles in the local paper regularly gushed about the publicity in the wider world, from a write up in the Florida Development Commission newsletter to—the apogee—a photo on the AP wire that showed Rose Kennedy and her granddaughter, Kathleen, wearing matching Lilly shifts.
Like most things Floridian—especially South Floridian—it didn’t last. In the 1980s, Lilly’s playful line was out of step with the sober times. Working women wanted shoulder pads and dark colors. Dressing up meant Laura Ashley’s pale pastels and flouncy accents. In 1984, Lilly Pulitzer’s company filed for Chapter 11. At the time, she owned 51 percent of Key West Hand Print.
Key West Hand Print sold to a local tourist impresario and kept going for a couple of decades—its sign is still on the wall at its final location, an old warehouse on Simonton Street. But Key West Hand Print fabrics are not printed in Key West any more. The pattern library survives, and several former Key West Hand Print designers, including Susie dePoo’s daughter, Martha dePoo, now design prints for Thatchers’ Fine Timeless Fabric, which are available at Brunschwig & Fils stores.
Lilly’s name came back on a mass-market scale when Sugartown, a Pennsylvania-based company, acquired the line in the early ’90s. It opened shops in resort towns and malls and even launched a collaboration with Target. Not quite as exclusive as the days when you needed to be in Palm Beach or Nantucket—or Key West—to buy a Lilly, but it proves the lasting likeability of the Lilly aesthetic nonetheless.
Durante says the Lilly look and label have a unique intergenerational appeal. “It’s a brand that can be worn by an entire family in one outing—grandmother, mother, grandchild,” she notes.
Nancy Noonan, a West Palm Beach aficionado of classic Lillys, used to have retail shops for all sorts of vintage treasures. “I started collecting original Lillys in 1993, around the time the new company had taken over, and I began selling them eventually,” says Noonan, who now only markets her classic Lilly threads from the 1960s and ’70s on eBay. “I had the privilege to meet Lilly herself prior to her passing, and she was always happy to come into my shops and see her original designs,” Noonan adds.
Like many other twenty-something women, Brianna Trejo of West Palm Beach discovered the joy of mainstream Lilly thanks to the Target collaboration. The clothing’s bold colors and fancy-free styling inspired her to research Lilly’s life. That’s when she developed a much more profound affinity for Lilly’s personality and lifestyle. “She was a free spirit, wanting to do things her way,” Trejo says. The personal hook has turned into a collection of 20 vintage Lilly pieces, acquired mostly on eBay and Etsy. “They were made in Key West and West Palm Beach, and Lilly herself oversaw them and worked closely with the designs and what went into it, what colors and everything,” Trejo says. “She used to run around with no underwear on—that was the whole thing, that you could just be whatever you wanted and wear whatever you wanted.” The ultimate thrill of reinventing yourself, South Florida style—Lilly style—one technicolor dream dress at a time, is not gone.
The Sunshine State has a thriving community of collectors and sellers of vintage Lilly. Retailers say the quality of the garments is a big factor in their market value—Lillys hold up in construction and print if they’ve been cared for properly over the decades. Flamingo scoured the state to find the best Lilly stashes from the ’60s and ’70s. See five shops that carry vintage Lilly.