Tag Archives: Lilly Pulitzer

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.

 

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Does Lilly Pulitzer for Target Signal the End of the World?

Last week internet users were treated to the news that the next Target design collaboration is to be with Lilly Pulitzer.  I found the news to be a bit confusing.  As far as “designer” lines are concerned, Lilly Pulitzer is on the low end.  Their $198 shift dress seems expensive, but not so much so that a girl who really wants one can’t save up her dollars for a little pink and green splurge.

When the news broke, Mod Betty was quick to email, which led to a discussion about what wearing a brand like Lilly Pulitzer says about the wearer.  Funny, because we both admitted that we just could not bring ourselves to wear the various thrift store “Lillies” we had sourced over the years.

I’m not a big wearer of prints, so it’s not surprising that I’ve never been able to warm to the brand.  But Mod Betty loves a great print shift dress, yet she too can’t seem to love the line.  She brought up an interesting point – that wearing a brand like Lilly Pulitzer says certain things about the wearer.  There seems to be a certain code among wearers that says, “I’m rich enough to blow $200 on a shift dress.”

And it’s a code that is lost on those not in on the secret.  Someone could wear a Lilly Pulitzer shift down the street of my town and the dress might be noticed due to the bright print, but most people would be shocked to learn that the woman wearing it had spent $200 for it.

But in other places, like Charleston, SC, many preppy-leaning college towns, and certain places in Florida, the message would be transmitted loud and clear.  Most importantly, the others in on the secret would know the dress cost $200.  How long do you think it will take that tribe to detect a $50 Target Lilly?

My back and forth correspondence with Mod Betty had not ended before an interesting link came through to me by way of Twitter.  Seems like the Lilly Pulitzer fans had swiftly gone to Twitter to express their displeasure at the collaboration.  Refinery29 gathered the best of the worst and served it all up as “39 Girls Who Are Mad as Hell about Lilly Pulitzer for Target.”

It may distress you to know that Jackie (Kennedy) and Lilly herself are now rolling in their graves due to this horrendous event.  Even worse, there are predictions of the apocalypse and people’s retirement accounts being ruined.

But seriously, I was disturbed at so many of the posters referring to “basics.”  You might assume without reading the tweets that they were taking about basic wardrobe items, but it is alarming to realize that is how these women were referring to people who were not rich and “classy” enough to wear Lilly Pulitzer.  There was a real element of classism in most of the tweets.

I’m not happy about this Lilly for Target crap. Now everybody and their mother will own it and think they’re now preppy and classy.

Most ironically put, I’d say.

Actually this does not surprise me.  Several years ago while researching the resurgence of interest in “heritage” brands, I ran across several preppy style blogs.  I learned quickly that the truly preppy are different from you and me, and they want to keep it that way.  They can sniff out a faux prep at twenty paces, and they make sure the blogosphere knows it.  It would be silly if not for their sincerity.

The only non-vintage Lilly Pulitzer I have in my possession is this dress I bought for my grand-niece who lives in Florida and can hopefully wear it without getting side-eye from the other little girls.  This dress is several years old, but the level of quality is quite impressive.  The dress is made from nice poplin fabric and is fully lined in cotton.  There is signature Lilly lace hem tape.  Look carefully at the print to see “Lilly” hidden throughout.  I doubt very seriously that the Lilly for Target dresses will have the same attention to detail and finishing.

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Key West Hand Prints: When It Looks Like a Lilly, But It’s Not

When I spotted this 1970s knit shirt recently, I immediately thought it was a Lilly Pulitzer.  But then I looked at the label and found that instead it was made by  Key West Hand Prints.

That was not surprising because Key West was the company that designed and screen-printed the fabrics for the Lilly Pulitzer company.

This print is so Lilly-like that I actually looked for the trademark “Lilly” that was contained within the prints designed for Pulitzer.   In a Lilly Pulitzer print the signature can often be found in flower pistils and stamens.  Many of the Lilly Pulitzer prints were designed by artist Suzie Zuzek Depoo, and it is likely that she designed the print for this shirt.

Prints like these, especially in such a simple style, can be hard to date.  It could be that this blouse is from the early 1980s, soon after Lisa Birnbach’s Official Preppy Handbook declared that pink and green was the prep color combo of choice.

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“They Took Off Like Zingo”

Photo copyright Lilly Pulitzer, Howell Conant

I’m not sure what “zingo” is, but that is how Lilly Pulitzer described the wild success of her tropical print dresses.  As you have probably already heard, Pulitzer died yesterday at the age of 81.

In 1957, Lilly Pulitzer was a rich Palm Beach housewife.  A breakdown of sorts led her to New York, fleeing her life in Palm Beach, Florida.  Her doctor suggested she find something to do, and that she did.  She returned to Florida, and a couple of years later she and a friend started a fruit juice stand.

She and her dressmaker designed the original little cotton print shift dress to hide the stains the women acquired working in the fruit juice stand. Before long, people were asking about the dress, so Pulitzer began selling the dresses at the stand.  At first there were two designs – the basic sleeveless  shift, and the shift with short sleeves.

Pulitzer got a tremendous boost when first lady Jackie Kennedy was pictured in Life magazine wearing a Lilly Pulitzer dress.  By 1961 she had a lot more orders for her “Lilly” dresses than for juice, so she closed the stand and opened Lilly Pulitzer, Inc.  Within a few years the company was selling  15 million dollars in dresses a year.

Her dresses were brightly colored and often had whimsical prints that usually incorporated her name, Lilly, somewhere in the design.  She also began using a special hem lace, with the name Lilly  spelled out in it.  Her dresses spread far beyond Palm Beach, and proliferated nationally throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Above is an example of a mid 1960s dress.  The early to mid 1960s dresses are 100% cotton and usually have metal zippers.  Key West Hand Prints was used to produce  the fabrics.

The label above is from the 1960s dress.  The early dresses often had the second label that read 100% cotton, and gave the care instructions.    Sometime in the mid to late 1960s Lilly Pulitzer started using a 65% Poly/35% cotton blend.  These later 1960s dresses usually have nylon zippers. Also, in the late 1960s, Lilly Pulitzer started making garments besides dresses, such as shorts, casual tops and slacks.

Lilly Pulitzer did a little girl’s line, named for her daughter, Minnie, and a junior line named for daughter, Liza (seen with her in the 1963 photo above).  Accessories, such as hats made to match the garments were added.  A men’s line was established  in the early 1970s.  The company also began to use other fabrics, such as printed cotton  jersey and polyester knits.

The dress above is from the late 1960s.  It is still made from 100% cotton, but has a nylon zipper.  Note the addition of “Lilly Pulitzer Inc.” on the label.  A little later, the copyright symbol © was added, probably in the early 1970s.

These 1970s shorts are made from a  65% Poly/35% cotton blend fabric.

As a general rule, the earlier Lilly labels have orange print, and the ones after the mid 70s have  green print .  You can see examples at the Vintage Fashion Guild Label Resource.

Even a mention in the 1980 Official Preppy Handbook by Lisa Birnbach could not save the company.  Changing fashion styles forced Lilly Pulitzer, Inc. into bankruptcy in 1984.   The business closed, Lilly retired, and unfortunately, the company records and archive were thrown out.  In 1993 the label was revived under new owners, and it quickly regained the success of the label’s early years.  Lilly became a sometime consultant to the company.   Today the emphasis is still on the original bright colors and whimsical prints introduced by Ms. Pulitzer in 1959.

Label introduced in 1993.

It’s really quite amazing to think about just how influential Lilly Pulitzer’s simple tropical prints have been and how they continue to be copied today.  Maybe it is just the idea of buying into the tropical or coastal “lifestyle”.   Today the brand seems to say “Summertime Preppy” even more than it did when it first hit the fashion scene in the early 1960s.  Lilly herself lived that lifestyle – attended private school with Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, married a Pulitzer Publishing heir, and moved to south Florida.  And somewhere along the line she created a line of clothes that seemed to epitomize the lifestyle of the rich and prep school educated.

This post is adapted from a June, 2012 post.

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Clothes That Say Summer : Lilly Pulitzer

Is it possible to buy into a lifestyle?  I can’t help but ask that question when confronting a Lilly Pulitzer garment.  Today the brand seems to say “Summertime Preppy” even more than it did when it first hit the fashion scene in the early 1960s.  Lilly herself lived that lifestyle – attended private school with Jackie Bouvier, married a Pulitzer Publishing heir and moved to south Florida.  And somewhere along the line she created a line of clothes that seemed to epitomize the life style of the rich and prep school educated.

Lilly Pulitzer started making her famous dresses in 1959.   She and her dressmaker designed the original little cotton print shift dress to hide the stains she acquired working in her Palm Beach, Florida, fruit juice stand.   Before long, people were asking about the dress, so Pulitzer began selling the dresses at the stand.

By 1961 she had a lot more orders for her “Lilly” dresses than for juice, so she closed the stand and concentrated on the clothing business, Lilly Pulitzer, Inc.  She got a tremendous boost when first lady Jackie Kennedy  was pictured in Life magazine wearing a Lilly Pulitzer dress.

Her dresses were brightly colored and often had whimsical prints that usually incorporated her name, Lilly, somewhere in the design.  Key West Handprinting was used to produce the early fabrics.  She also began using a special hem lace, with the name Lilly  spelled out in it.  Her dresses spread far beyond Palm Beach, and proliferated nationally throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

The earlier dresses are 100% cotton and usually have metal zippers.   Sometime in the mid to late 1960s Lilly Pulitzer started using a 65% Poly/35% cotton blend.  These later 1960s dresses usually have nylon zippers. Also, in the late 1960s, Lilly Pulitzer started making garments besides dresses, such as shorts, casual tops and slacks.

Lilly Pulitzer did a little girl’s line, named for her daughter, Minnie, and a junior line named for daughter, Liza.  Accessories, such as hats made to match the garments were added.  A men’s line was established  in the early 1970s.  The company also began to use other fabrics, such as printed cotton and polyester knits.

As a general rule, the earlier Lilly labels are orange, and the ones after the mid 70s are green.  You can see examples at the Vintage Fashion Guild website.

Lilly Pulitzer retired in 1984 and closed her business, but the Lilly Pulitzer brand was reborn in 1993 under new ownership.  Today Lilly Pulitzer fabrics are named, and the company has branched off into stationery, accessories and shoes.  The emphasis is still on the colorful and whimsical prints introduced by Ms. Pulitzer in 1959, but today the colors are much more in line with what one thinks of as “preppy.”  I’m talking lots of bright pink and navy with splashes of bright green.  And if you are really lucky (and belong to the right sorority) there’s a Lilly print designed just for your group.

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