Lilly Pulitzer dies at 81; socialite became a fashion designer

Fashion designer Lilly Pulitzer receives hugs of support from her granddaughters, Lilly, left, Charlotte and Emma in 2002 after presenting her spring collection at the New York Public Library. It was her first time presenting her collection at a fashion show.
(Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times)

Lilly Pulitzer, a socialite turned fashion designer whose tropical print dresses became a sensation in the 1960s and later a fashion mainstay, died Sunday in Palm Beach, Fla. She was 81.

Her death was confirmed by Gale Schiffman of Quattlebaum Funeral and Cremation Services in West Palm Beach, Fla. The cause was unknown.

Pulitzer, who married into the famous newspaper family, got her start in fashion by spilling orange juice on her clothes. A rich housewife with time to spare and a husband who owned orange groves, she opened a Palm Beach juice stand in 1959 and asked her seamstress to make dresses in colorful prints that would camouflage fruit stains.

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The dresses peddled at her juice stand soon outsold her drinks. The company’s garments, developed with the help of partner Laura Robbins, a former fashion editor, soon caught on. Simple sleeveless shifts that were fully lined and zipped up the back, the dresses were described in 1962 by Time magazine as “somewhere between a chemise and a muumuu.”

Jacqueline Kennedy, who attended boarding school with Pulitzer, wore one of the sleeveless shifts in a Life magazine photo spread.

The signature Lilly palette features playful jungle and floral prints in blues, pinks, light greens, yellow and orange — the colors of a Florida vacation.

“I designed collections around whatever struck my fancy … fruits, vegetables, politics, or peacocks!” Pulitzer told the Associated Press in 2009.

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.”

But changing tastes brought trouble. Pulitzer closed her original company in the mid-1980s after filing for bankruptcy protection. 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 and retired from day-to-day operations in 1993, although she remained a consultant for the brand.

Sugartown Worldwide was bought by Atlanta-based Oxford Industries in 2010. Sales of the Lilly Pulitzer brand remain strong.

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. They had three children before divorcing in 1969. Her second husband, Cuban rancher and lawyer Enrique Rousseau, died in 1993.

Pulitzer, who was known for hosting parties barefoot at her Palm Beach home, also published two guides to entertaining.

“That’s what life is all about: Let’s have a party. Let’s have it tonight,” she said.