Lilly Pulitzer, which has developed a cultlike following for its floral-printed dresses and sportswear, is celebrating its 60th anniversary with a slew of initiatives.
In an interview, Michelle Kelly, the brand’s chief executive officer since 2016, outlined several developments at the King of Prussia, Pa.-based firm. Among the initiatives:
• Developing a tennis, swim and golf collection.
• Opening a Palm Beach flagship Nov. 6 at 240 Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, formerly occupied by Hermès, which moved to Royal Poinciana Plaza.
• Expanding to the West Coast with its first California store opening in Fashion Island in Newport Beach in January.
• Opening its first freestanding store in Hawaii on Maui.
The company has developed a profitable and fast-growing direct-to-consumer business with 62 stores, which are largely concentrated on the East Coast, and a digital flagship. Florida is the company’s strongest market, said Kelly. Pulitzer opened its first store in Maui this summer. “It’s been really nice, and added new customers to the brand,” said Kelly, who has spent 14 years at Pulitzer, following her Harvard MBA and McKinsey experience.
The company got its start when Lilly Pulitzer herself opened her first juice stand in Palm Beach and then designed a dress to camouflage the juice stains. The company has had a presence in Palm Beach, with a former store in the Vias off of Worth Avenue, and sells C. Orrico, a Palm Beach specialty store, as well as a boutique at The Breakers.
The Palm Beach store will span 3,000 square feet. The company is taking over Worth Avenue on Nov. 10 and will throw a street party with a deejay, Harley Viera-Newton, and fashion presentation with 25 models. A pink carpet will roll out along Worth Avenue.
The company designed two special capsule collections for resort and spring that it will presenting at the party. It chose the most recognizable Pulitzer prints and made them modern and fresh, said Kelly. “We’re always trying to do that at some level with the brand. Keep it moving forward, while respecting the past,” she said. The presentation will have a “buy-now-wear-now” element. The resort collection will be available to purchase right then, online or at their store. The spring collection will be available for preorder.
Going forward, a special feature of the Worth Avenue store is that customers can come in and design their own shifts. They can choose from a few hand-painted prints and the most popular bodies and can decide where to place the lace trim. It will be sewn for them.
According to Kelly, business is going well and the brand has been on a strong trajectory since being acquired by Oxford Industries in 2010 for $60 million in cash plus allowances. Pulitzer generated around $75 million in sales in fiscal 2011. At the close of fiscal 2017, the brand did $248.9 million in sales.
“We’re pleased with how things are going in the current moment. We’re pleased to have a great message to rally around for the coming year,” she said. At present, retail accounts for 70 percent of the business, with wholesale accounting for 30 percent. Fifteen years ago, 100 percent of the business was wholesale.
Since 2004, the company has opened more than 60 stores and created a sizable digital presence. Key accounts are Belk, saks.com and Nordstrom. Pulitzer sells more than 60 specialty accounts with meaningful brand presentations, she added. “We’re also excited about some of the newest business models in wholesale. We work with Rent the Runway and Stitch Fix, which is a new account for us,” she said. “I’d have to imagine they’re somewhat surprised when they open their boxes and there’s Lilly,” she said. In its first year with Stitch Fix, Lilly made it to all 50 states. Lilly has an above average success rate with Stitch Fix.
Asked whether she’s looking to expand the wholesale business, Kelly said, “We have a great team who’s always on the lookout for who would be a great business partner. The dynamics of the Lilly business are that it really does take a while to learn what customers appreciate about it. And what the key selling elements are and what really delights the customer about the brand. It’s not meant to be a short-term thing. We need to get to know each other. It’s a little bit of a long warm-up,” she said.
Describing who the customer is these days and how she’s changed, Kelly said, “She is someone who is not afraid of color, she’s very active in her community. She’s a social being and needs that connection with her friends and family. Always on the go, high-energy. Those attributes are really more of a psychographic cut of the market. Those things really haven’t changed over the years.”
A unique feature of the brand is its multigenerational aspect. “That’s something I’d love to keep emphasizing. I know anyone of any age can come into our store and find something that will suit them. But since we are trying to design for every single age, from kids all the way to any age, I want to make sure people know we do have something for every single age,” said Kelly. “We are one of the few brands that tries to go for every age — if you’re willing to wear flamingos on your dress.”
The brand’s sizes range from 00 to 16 and XXS to XL. Pulitzer designs all the prints itself, and even creates its own colors and textures. They even developed their own custom shade of black, that’s just a little of a happier shade of black. “It’s definitely a trained eye that can spot the difference. We call it onyx.”
Pulitzer has an in-house print design team. “These are fabulously classically trained artists. We also have our fashion design team,” she said. Most of the design process takes place in King of Prussia, and there’s a print designer based in New York and they’ll have an artist in residence in Palm Beach. “She’ll be painting in the store,” said Kelly.
While most of the product is women’s, the brand has a small group of men’s swim trunks, shorts and neckties.
The company relaunched women’s swimwear in February, in a licensing deal with Amerex, and introduced tennis apparel this summer. Golf is on deck for spring. Still, dresses are the number-one category.
The company is doing a book with Assouline about its 60th anniversary, with a printed cover. A special edition comes out in December, with the primary launch in February.
Kelly said the firm plans to videotape the block party and share it on social media, where the brand has more than 839,000 followers on Instagram. It is running a campaign called #Fortheloveoflilly, celebrating Palm Beach, prints and the people who bring it to life. There has been more than 2,000 uses of the hashtag so far.
With the company’s summery profile, Kelly was asked what the brand offers for fall. She said it does cashmeres and puffer vests. “We call it resort/fall internally. We believe there’s opportunity to continue delighting customers who live in a warm climate or need to pack [for a warm climate],” she said. Three years ago it launched Luxletic, an athletic clothes category. There are leggings, tennis dresses, skorts, tote bags and sports bras. For the golf line, Kelly said it’s designed for the woman who plays golf and wants to dress more feminine and fun.
The company hasn’t ventured overseas yet. It has an account in Canada, but has no immediate plans to open stores in Europe.
“We’re really encouraged at what we’re seeing in Hawaii, on Maui,” she said. They have a shop in shop at the Grand Wailea. “We love being in hotels. We’re in The Breakers, the Ritz Carlton in Amelia Island with a little boutique, and we’re opening in the Ritz Carlton in Key Biscayne in just a few weeks.” She said they’re all different business models. The Ritz Carlton/Key Biscayne will be company operated; The Ritz Carlton on Amelia Island, the hotel operates it, and the Breakers is a wholesale account, she said.
The company has a gift and entertaining license with Lifeguard Press and also did a short-term collaboration with Pottery Barn earlier this year. “That was phenomenal. So much of it sold out within the first day,” she said. In 2015, Lilly Pulitzer did a collaboration with Target Corp.
In Oxford’s second-quarter earnings, Lilly Pulitzer’s comp stores were up about 5 percent and gross profit was up a few points as well.
When Pulitzer was acquired by Oxford in 2010, the brand had 16 stores. Today there are 62 stores. Sales per square foot have gone from $350 to $800 per square foot. Stores average 2,500 to 2,600 square feet.
Some of the best-performing stores are getting full-scale renovations. “One of our highest performing stores is in Sarasota, we wanted to be one step ahead and just completed a full-scale renovation. Now it’s one of our modern looking stores,” she added. They’re also renovating the store in Palm Beach Gardens, which will re-open right after Thanksgiving.
The company’s web site is its best performing store. “We went live in May with a brand new platform on the Salesforce commerce cloud. It’s our biggest store,” she said.
“We do find in the places where we’ve opened stores, our online sales from that geography increase as well. Our goal is to have the digital and physical work together,” she said.