Lilly Pulitzer's fashion legacy

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Palm Beach, the paradise of the privileged and the preppy, lost one of its best known personalities last week with the passing of Lilly Pulitzer Rousseau. Socialite and accidental fashion designer, the 81-year-old left the brightest impression with her legacy of tropical technicolor style.

It was stains, not social status, that was at the root of the Lilly look. After she married Peter Pulitzer of the newspaper family and had three children in quick succession, she needed something to do to keep boredom at bay and her sanity intact, so she started selling fresh squeezed juice from her husband's orchards in the early 1960s.

To colorfully camouflage the juice spills on her clothes, she had a seamstress make them out of floral print fabric and her signature look was born. The simple, sleeveless, cotton shift in playful patterns unexpectedly expanded the preppy palette from staid Ivy League linen and seersucker to lobsters and starfish. Whether it was shorts, skirts or the iconic dress, often paired with Jack Rogers sandals, the Lilly look became the go-to uniform for coast dwellers and beachgoers from Nantucket to Key West.

By the 1980s, the fickle focus of fashion had shifted to feathered hair, big shoulders and polyester everything. Popped collars and Tretorn sneakers were all that remained of '60s preppy. But the Lilly Pulitzer brand continued on, even after it was sold to Sugartown Worldwide Inc. in 1993, reminding the disco-raised mullet-dazed generation of the 1980s what style used to look like. Today, the Lilly look is a classic, inspiring brands ranging from Tory Burch and Kate Spade to J. Crew and Vineyard Vines.

The woman herself was all about embracing the joy over the toil. Even her memorial service in Palm Beach last week reflected that sensibility. "For a memorial service it almost had a party feel with all the bright colors and smiles," noted Jane Leary of Palm Beach County, who attended. She added, "It was a cultural event."

"I designed collections around whatever struck my fancy ... fruits, vegetables, politics or peacocks," she said in an interview with the Associated Press in 2009.

She told Vanity Fair in 2003: "I couldn't sew, draw -- I just knew what I liked. I mean, I don't know how to explain what it was like to run my business, the joy of every day. I got a kick every time I went into the shipping department. I had to pat [the dresses] on the box and kiss them. I loved seeing them going out the door. I loved them selling in the shop. I liked them on the body. There's no explaining the fun I had."

Known for going barefoot, even down Worth Avenue, Peter and Lilly Pulitzer liked to party the same way, splashing their tile floors with water for dancing.

"When we moved into the house down there, we were off and running," she recalled in that same Vanity Fair article. "We did dance at home -- fill up the empty champagne bottles and drench it with water and dance the night away on the kitchen floor. We didn't care about slipping and falling."

That sense of free-spirited fun found its way into her clothing line, accessories and eventually a furniture collection by HFI Brands that debuted in 2010 and went under just three years later. The furniture collection, which featured bright lacquer finishes, Lilly prints and whimsical occasional tables, is in limbo.

She loved to entertain. Somewhere in a pink-and-green palace in the clouds, the princess of preppy prints is probably hosting a heavenly soiree. Perhaps she invited Annette Funicello and Margaret Thatcher.

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Patricia Sheridan: or 412-263-2613. Follow her on Twitter at First Published April 16, 2013 4:00 AM


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