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NEW YORK — Even after 42 years in the business, Lilly Pulitzer is still full of firsts.
This story first appeared in the August 22, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
While the designer and her collection are known for bold, bright printed dresses and outfits, until now, they’ve been pretty quiet. But now Pulitzer is ready to make some noise.
Pulitzer herself will visit Manhattan from her home in Palm Beach, Fla., for the company’s first fashion show in Bryant Park on Sept. 21 at 11 a.m, and to preview the firm’s first-ever ad campaign.
“The show had to be on Saturday,” said president Jim Bradbeer. “It’s Lilly, it’s lunch. It will be just like being invited to Lilly’s house. She never did a show when she had the business, she used to tell us, ‘Don’t do it just for the sake of doing it.’ She thinks there shouldn’t be a show unless there is some sort of news to tell.”
At the show, the company plans to present its first national print ad campaign, which was just shot in Los Angeles, along with the new slogan: “Life, Lilly and the pursuit of happiness.”
“The new slogan will build a message that Lilly Pulitzer is where you go to feel better,” Bradbeer said. “We know that these clothes are not going to change the world, but if they can make a few people smile, we have done our job.”
Pulitzer has managed to build quite a business over the years. Even though she officially retired in 1984, her whimsical printed dresses and sportswear collections are still selling, and since the line was picked up by Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, the brand is no longer just at small specialty stores. No longer an owner of the company, at 70 years old, Pulitzer works as a consultant for the company she began, pretty much by accident.
In the Fifties, Pulitzer, living it up in the social scene of Palm Beach, was encouraged to develop a hobby outside of the home. So, she did just that and opened a small juice stand at Citrus Grove, owned by her husband’s family.
After pouring endless glasses of juice and staining numerous dresses of her own, she decided to hire a seamstress to create dresses for her that were made in bright colors so the juice stains would blend in. Soon, all the ladies in the community wanted the dresses for themselves. She closed her juice stand and in 1960 began her own dress business.
The bright-colored dresses became a fast hit in Palm Beach and today, they continue to be a hit all over the world. Pulitzer’s business fizzled a bit in the Eighties and from 1984 to 1994 the firm closed down. Then, Scott Beaumont, who is now the chairman and chief executive officer, and Bradbeer bought the company and started to build it back up again.
They continue to encourage Pulitzer’s contributions to the company and have reformed the line to represent Pulitzer’s social lifestyle. Today, the company provides everything a social woman needs to fit every event in her life. It produces gear for playing golf and tennis, beachwear and swimsuits, shoes, handbags, dresses, children’s wear and even bedding and men’s gift items.
“She is the heart and soul of this company,” Bradbeer said of Pulitzer. “And now, almost 10 years after the relaunch, we understand our role in this industry. We are confident enough in what we are doing to start making some noise.”
The company, which said it has an annual volume in excess of $10 million, has more than 100 employees and opened new corporate headquarters in King of Prussia, Pa. The firm also has showrooms in New York, Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Palm Beach. Also, the company runs a unique retail operation where Bradbeer said he and Beaumont can oversee the freestanding stores without owning or franchising them.
“The stores work sort of as a licensing deal,” he explained. “Those who would like to open a Lilly store apply to do so with us by proposing an entire business plan with us.”
So far, the company has approved 31 applications and there are now shops all over the country. Each store has a different name and its own specific style, depending on where it is placed. For example, in Denver, the store is called Limeade and in Rehoboth Beach, Del., the store is named Tickled Pink. The shops can carry their own names as long as the saying: “A Lilly Pulitzer Signature Shop” reads on the sign for the store.
“We also help the stores and provide them with signage and fixtures,” said Darlene Brinker, director of marketing at the firm. “We help them to create the environment in order to build a relationship with the customer. The shops should encourage the customer to come and hang out at the stores and they all have their own unique styles.”
Additionally, in order to keep on top of what the customer wants from the brand, the company has developed a series of focus groups in a variety of major cities across the country. In New York, for example, Bradbeer said they get about 20 women together to discuss what they like and dislike about the clothes. This type of market research, he said, has helped them to understand the customer better than ever. It is, however, having Pulitzer on hand that has kept them in business.
“It’s very important for us to have Lilly on board. She set up the vision and made it very easy for us to carry it on,” Bradbeer said. “She lives this lifestyle of her customer and she believes, like we do, that it’s time for all of this to happen. She loves all of this and can’t wait to come to New York in September for the show. Even more important, she loves that her grandkids think she is so cool.”