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Socialite, dress designer Lilly Pulitzer dies at 81

MIAMI — 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 off the island's main shopping street. Mrs. 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.

Mrs. Pulitzer died at her home Sunday, according to Quattlebaum Funeral and Cremation Services. She was 81.

Her tropical print dresses became a sensation in the 1960s when then-first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who attended boarding school with Mrs. 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 Mrs. Pulitzer's stuff was almost the housewife version of the mod look that was migrating from London.

To this day, the Lilly Pulitzer dress remains a popular 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," Mrs. Pulitzer, who married into the famous newspaper family, said in March 2009.

Her dresses hung behind her juice stand and soon outsold her drinks. A boutique featuring the company's dresses 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.

Mrs. 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.; Mrs. Pulitzer was only marginally involved in the new business but continued reviewing prints from Florida.

Mrs. Pulitzer 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. The Lilly Pulitzer brand's revenue increased 26 percent to $29.1 million for the earnings period that ended Feb. 2, according to Oxford Industries' report. The company said last week it planned to add four to six new stores each year for its Lilly Pulitzer brand.

Mrs. 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.

The Pulitzers divorced in 1969. Mrs. Pulitzer's second husband, Enrique Rousseau, died in 1993.

Socialite, dress designer Lilly Pulitzer dies at 81 04/07/13 [Last modified: Monday, April 8, 2013 12:06am]
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