Update on Key West Hand Print Fabrics

I’ve written quite a bit about Key West Hand Print Fabrics in the past, especially concerning their relationship with Lilly Pulitzer.  For those of you who don’t know, for years Key West Hand Prints designed and made the distinctive fabrics Pulitzer used in her dresses.

Before 1961, Key West Hand Prints was a small fabric printing business in Key West, Florida, owned by Walter Starkey. The company made small printed linens, like tea towels. In 1961, Peter Pell and Jim Russell were visiting the island when they decided it was a good place to live. They bought Key West Hand Prints and hired a designer for the prints, Suzie Zuzek dePoo. 

On the other side of Florida, another entrepreneur was at work developing a line of tropical print dresses. Lilly Pulitzer had enlisted the services of a dressmaker to make dresses in loud prints that would cover juice stains she got while working in her family business, an orange grove and juice stand. So many customers at the stand asked about Pulitzer’s dresses that she saw an opportunity to make similar dresses for sale. She learned about Key West Hand Prints and visited the island to see if she could use the prints in her new line.

For the next fourteen years (or so, as I don’t have the exact dates), Key West Hand Print Fabrics designed and made the iconic Lilly Pulitzer fabrics. The little hand print business employed as many as two hundred people during this time, and they worked around the clock to keep up with demand. They were producing fabric not only for Lilly Pulitzer, but also for their own line of dresses, labeled “Vanda Fashions, Key West Hand Prints” and for yardage that could be purchased in their Key West store. Vanda was designed by Virginia Peirce. 

Artist Suzie dePoo designed the prints, but the colors were worked out by others on the staff, including co-owner Peter Pell. Lilly Pulitzer would fly into Key West to visit with Pell and Russell and to pick out the fabrics for her next collection. They would spend the day involved in  business, and then they would retire to the bar to celebrate. 

It was a system that worked well until a new business manager hired by Pulitzer in 1976 or 77 ended the relationship between Lilly Pulitzer and Key West Hand Print Fabrics. It was a decision that ultimately harmed both businesses. Key West Hand Prints lost their largest customer, and the atmosphere of the business changed, especially for Peter Pell, who lost interest in the enterprise. Lilly Pulitzer prints changed, becoming more “fashionable” and less “Florida” and in 1984, Lilly shut down her business.

A lot of the information above was given to me by Jacq Staub, whose mother Jacquolyn was the in-house model and the merchandising manager for Key West Hand Print Fabrics. He has shared with me all these stories as well as some wonderful photos.  The model in all these photos is Jacq’s mother. In the photo at the top, Jacquolyn is modeling a caftan that was ordered for Elizabeth Taylor.

Key West Hand Prints was a casual, family business, though most of the staff were not actually related. Jacq refers to Pell and Russell as Uncle Peter and Uncle Jim, though they were actually his godfathers. The photo above was taken in Vanda’s design studio, and was used for the company’s catalog.

Here’s another look at that distinctive corner in Vanda’s studio. These photos were taken in the early 1970s.

This photo wasn’t dated, but the hairstyles sure are saying mid to late 1960s. Just when we thought men were going to loosen up in their clothing choices, Dress for Success came along and swept it all away.

Here’s Uncle Jim and Jacquolyn at a fashion show in 1973.

The designer holding onto Peter Pell? Lilly Pulitzer, of course! And how about those printed jeans?

So, where is Key West Hand Prints today? The owners are long gone, but Key West Fashions continued in business until 2007. The original screens used to make the prints and the dye formulations were bought by Ed Swift, who stored the items for years. It appears that these items have now been sold, with the new owner exploring the possibility of reopening the print business.

It also appears that there is also a book, exhibition, and film about Key West Hand Prints in the works. Behind this project is the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, a division of the Smithsonian. It will be interesting to see how they tell the story, as many of the people involved with Key West Hand Print are still with us.  It’s a chance to tell the story of a unique American textile business that had a lasting influence on how we dress. 

My thanks to Jacq Staub for the photos and the stories.



Filed under Designers, Sportswear, Textiles

25 responses to “Update on Key West Hand Print Fabrics

  1. Suzanne H Williams

    Very interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. How cool, Jacq are you still in Key West? Cooper Hewitt nonetheless! Can’t wait to see it all.


  3. Ruth Winsor

    Very interesting. I would love to see the fabrics available again now that sewing has become so popular. Has the Lilly Pulitzer brand been reestablished? I’m pretty sure I have bought more current styles at thrift shops?


    • Norah

      Yes, the brand was revived in the 1990s and continues to this day. They have stores, and also sell in a lot of stores. They’ve even done collections with Target.


  4. Fascinating story & photos—thank you both!!! Adore that first photo of Taylor’s caftan. Hope you will keep us updated, Lizzie & Jacq❣️


  5. You are collecting the stories and the sources!


  6. “Do these flowers make my butt look big?” You need to be svelte to carry these off!


  7. Margery Berringer-Schuran

    Fabulous and Jacquee never lost her looks! Kudos to you Jacq!
    XOX Margery


  8. ingrid nilsen

    Excellent and facinating reading. I was director public relations for a while in 1974 and worked with a model Chera Lutz then in all our fashionshows in town, up the keys and in ther plances in south Florida. Also on cruiseships . I still wear my Vanda caftan here in Norway. I seem to remember a Bill Johnson in my days as a partner to Pell and Russell. Great memories from a great company !


  9. Sandy Goldberg

    I worked there in the early 90’s for Ed Swift. The store was divided with fabric, towels etc on one side and a mix and match clothing group on the other (both men and women’s) Tom Pollock was printing fabric and used the old silk screens from Lily Pulitzer. All of her logos had to be removed though. I loved my time there. We still had the seamstresses in back and wonderful staff, Miss June, Susie and Bob Grimmett were just a few. Martha DePuy painted beach cover-ups. What great times we had!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Sue Puskedra

    Susie’s Key West Estate Sales has a very limited amount of Suzie DePoo and Key West Handprint fabric that we are selling this week. It came from the Two Sisters Alterations shop, who worked with Suzie at Key West Handprint. When it is gone, it is gone! If you would like to purchase some of the fabric, please call for an appointment at (708)557-9180. Thank you!!! Susie

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Margaret Leon

    My husband, Albert Leon helped make the tables they used to print the fabric on.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. CMLerner

    My Mom used to work at Key West Hand Print Fashions in the early 70’s for Mr Russell. She has lots of fun stories about all of them!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Melissa

    I have about 8 different prints of various yardage that I treasure. My brother worked at the factory out of high school and my mom sewed, so I grew up with kwhp fabric all of my life. I wish they would print again.


  14. Krystina

    Wow! I actually stumbled on a collection of these fabrics years ago and bought several yards of different prints. I went back to check the selvage edge of the fabrics and found they were in fact labeled Key West Hand Print by Zuzek. I am so excited to use these now!! Thank you for this amazing article!


  15. Pingback: Linda Morand and Key West Hand Print Fabrics | The Vintage Traveler

  16. I’m becoming to intrigued with the hunt for the history of a piece I have.

    I’m doing a lot of research on a “Mens Stuff” blazer/jacket from the 70’s or 80’s or earlier. I’m trying to discover, production date, pattern name, possible value.

    I’ve asked Lilly Pulitzer and many Facebook groups, but no one can identify my print. It’s periwinkle blue and cream with “lilly”, butterflies, goats, and other horned animals in its pattern.

    Lilly Pulitzer said they don’t have any records before the 2000s of their pattern history. This is around the time they changed hands. They have lost over 40 years of their history! They told me that their “white Label” in this jacket was used early in their history.

    I found this similar jacket on eBay, but it seems to be a different colorway. The inner pockets have different edges.

    Any help you could provide would be appreciated.


  17. Amanda

    Thank you for sharing this story. I was going through my grandmothers things and found a remnant bought in the store on 3-4-72. She never used it and was in the original bag with the tag and receipt.


  18. I vividly remember visiting the factory when I was 5 or 6 – 1967 or 1968, which meant my parents were with me. We lived in Miami and traveled often in small four-seater planes. My father does not specifically remember touring the factory but he’s seeing if he can come up with something that will jog his memory. I remember there being a very large room (i.e. a factory) and the very long tables where they did the screen printing, and watching them do that and being absolutely fascinated. Definitely turned me into a future fabric and fashion junkie. My mother and I both had many Key West Prints dresses, and recently I found a pair of elastic waist trousers (in an antique mall in Galesburg, IL where my daughter goes to college, of all places) with a Key West Prints label that must be from the 60s. Can anyone tell me the address/location of the factory?


  19. Leeann Fitzell Coleman

    Our family toured the Key West Fabrics factory in the early 1970s. It was fascinating watching the whole screening process, and everyone answered our questions. You could tell that the group loved what they did, and I remember how happy and positive everyone was. I swear my mother bought 50 lbs. of fabric! Such lively prints and beautiful tropical colors. I wish someone would start the business up again.


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