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 Starcke. 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.