Lilly Pulitzer, Fashion Icon, Dead At 81

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Socialite/fashion designer Lilly Pulitzer Rousseau, who popularized tropical-themed dresses in the 1960s, died Sunday at her home in Palm Beach, Fla., the Palm Beach Daily News reported. She was 81.

“Early this morning, Lilly Pulitzer Rousseau passed away peacefully in Palm Beach, surrounded by family and loved ones,” the Lilly Pulitzer brand noted on its Facebook page. “Lilly has been a true inspiration to us, and we will miss her. In the days and weeks ahead, we will celebrate all that Lilly meant to us. Lilly was a true original who has brought together generations through her bright and happy mark on the world.”

Today, the Lilly Pulitzer brand she created circa 1959 is one of four operating units of Oxford Industries Inc. (NYSE:OXM), based in Atlanta. The brand functions as a designer, distributor and marketer of upmarket collections of women's and girl's dresses, sportswear and other products.

Born Lillian Lee McKim on Nov. 10, 1931, she married Peter Pulitzer, the grandson of the newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, in 1952. They divorced in 1969. She subsequently married Enrique Rousseau, who died in 1993.

In 1959, Lilly Pulitzer opened a fruit-juice stand and began experimenting with colorful print patterns that would hide stains caused by the juice. She partnered with a local seamstress and started selling her dresses in her juice shop. It wasn’t long before her dresses began outselling her juices, so she moved into fashion full-time. 

Although Lilly Pulitzer quickly became a fashion icon and a wildly successful brand, she entered the fashion world with no knowledge of business.

“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,” she told the Associated Press in March 2009.

Pulitzer’s dresses broke into the mainstream in 1962 when then-U.S. first lady Jacqueline Kennedy was shown wearing a colorful yellow Lilly Pulitzer dress on the cover of Life magazine. Pulitzer had attended boarding school with Kennedy years earlier. 

While Pulitzer’s original line was extremely popular in the 1960s, her stock in the fashion world had gone down by the early 1980s, so her original company filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code in 1984.

In 1992, Sugartown Worldwide Inc. partnered with the designer to revive the fashion line, which has remained popular ever since. She retired from day-to-day operations in 1993, but she remained active as a consultant until her death. Oxford Industries acquired the brand in 2010.

She is survived by her children -- Liza, Minnie and Peter -- and her grandchildren, the Palm Beach Daily News reported.

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