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Tides of Prints

Fashion icon Lilly Pulitzer, 70, stages first show in city to display her retro-look line


NEW YORK--If she were a rock star, Lilly Pulitzer would by now have starred in a VH-1 "Behind the Music." Her life story follows the biography show's template of fame, fortune and misfortune, complete with the redemptive ending. She was born to wealth, married a millionaire, created her own fortune with a colorful namesake clothing line and then lived through the multiple indignities of bankruptcy, scandal and--worse--the scourge of being declared out of style.

At 70, Pulitzer is riding the retro revival wave that has her clothes selling for the same reasons that make the middle-aged pay to see rock stars who qualify for membership in AARP. Her clothes, like classic songs, stand for a simpler, happier time. They're also visual shorthand for WASP success and pink-and-green-clad preppies.

Pulitzer, for those unfamiliar with the status symbols of the rich at play, is the unlikely creator of the simply-cut but wildly patterned dresses, skirts, pants and more that, beginning in the early '60s, dominated Palm Beach, Fla., parties and other resorts of privilege for nearly 25 years. Pulitzer's schoolmate Jacqueline Kennedy and her daughter, Caroline, were often seen in matching Lilly Pulitzer outfits.

The allure of "Lillys," as the short-shift dresses came to be known in the '60s and '70s, spread along the jet routes of wealthy fans, helping to build a chain of 32 Lilly Pulitzer stores.

For all of her storied career, however, Pulitzer never bothered with staging a New York fashion show. Finally, late last week, her new business partners, Pennsylvania entrepreneur and president James Bradbeer Jr., and chief executive officer Scott Beaumont, both Harvard Business School graduates, convinced Pulitzer it was time to take a bow. Crews filled the Celeste Bartos Forum in the New York Public Library with palm trees, her signature sunny prints and passed lemonade garnished with mint sprigs.

So many men, women and children showed up wearing the label's distinctive pink, green, floral and palm-frond prints that the entire audience could have passed for wallpaper at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Although it is customary at designer shows for guests to wear their support, the level of enthusiasm for Pulitzer's brand of casual clothing bordered on the cultish. South Carolina retailer David Shaw strolled an after-show cocktail party in vintage 1970s print, patchwork pants, of the hand-worked sort that no longer are made. His wife, Shirley, said Southern sorority houses are staging Lilly trunk shows and the line is gaining popularity with 12- to 14-year-olds.

Perhaps it's no wonder that the rarely seen Pulitzer was showered with the week's most appreciative and genuine standing ovation. Much to her great embarrassment, the tough, blunt and unsentimental grandmother cried as she walked slowly down the catwalk wearing one of her signature print shirts, white trousers and a blond bob.

"Did I look like an idiot up there?" she said minutes later, surrounded by her family. Quickly recovering, Pulitzer scolded her friends and family for being 20 minutes late for a dinner the previous evening. "I was there for one hour sitting at a table for 10 alone," she said. "I would rather be on the 'Today' show every single day than sit there at a table for 10--alone!" She appeared on the popular morning program last week to discuss her New York show and stage a mini-preview.

It was hard to resist the charms of the spring 2003 line, especially when the first looks down the runway included a mother and three barefoot little girls in matching Lillys. They immediately recalled so much history.

As a daughter in the Ogden Phipps family, one of the oldest and wealthiest in Palm Beach, and as the wife of Peter Pulitzer, heir of the publishing empire, Lilly lived the life of leisure, until she became so bored and exhausted from having three children, she had to spend several months recovering in a mental hospital. For therapy--and something to do--in 1959 she opened a juice stand on Via Mizner, off Palm Beach's Worth Avenue, using the produce from her husband's orchards.

The juice making was messy, so Pulitzer had her seamstress stitch up wildly patterned dresses that would hide the stains. Soon customers were more interested in her clothes than in juice, and her fashion career was launched. After her marriage ended in 1969, she married Cuban rancher and lawyer Enrique Rousseau. Her family became embroiled in the scandalous divorce trial of her ex-husband Peter and his second wife, Roxanne. All the while, Pulitzer's business grew into a multimillion-dollar enterprise that included everything from bedsheets to nightshirts, which she named "Sneaky Petes," after her first husband.

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