MIAMI - Lilly Pulitzer, a Palm Beach socialite turned designer whose tropical print dresses became a sensation in the 1960s and later a fashion classic, died Sunday. She was 81.
Pulitzer, a Long Island native who married into the famous newspaper family, got her start in fashion by spilling orange juice on her clothes. A rich housewife with time to spare and a husband who owned orange groves, she opened a juice stand in 1959, and asked her seamstress to make dresses in colorful prints that would camouflage fruit stains.
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The dresses hung on a pipe behind her juice stand and soon outsold her drinks. The company's dresses, developed with the help of partner Laura Robbins, a former fashion editor, soon caught on.
Her death was confirmed by Gale Schiffman of Quattlebaum Funeral and Cremation Services in West Palm Beach. She did not know the cause of death.
The signature Lilly palette features tongue-in-cheek jungle and floral prints in blues, pinks, light greens, yellow and orange -- the colors of a Florida vacation.
"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," Pulitzer told The Associated Press in March 2009.
The line of dresses that bore her name was later expanded to swimsuits, country club attire, children's clothing, a home collection and a limited selection of menswear.
Pulitzer was born Lilly McKim on Nov. 10, 1931, to a wealthy family in Roslyn.
In a June 15, 1965, interview with Newsday, Pulitzer said that while she sometimes missed the friends she grew up with on Long Island, she enjoyed Florida's relaxing lifestyle.
"It's made me lazy," Pulitzer said. "I can't even stand putting on shoes and stockings."
In 1966, The Washington Post reported that Pulitzer's dresses were "so popular that at the Southampton Lilly shop on Jobs Lane they are proudly put in clear plastic bags tied gaily with ribbons so that all the world may see the Lilly of your choice."
But changing tastes brought trouble. Pulitzer closed her original company in the mid-1980s after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The label was revived about a decade later after being acquired by Pennsylvania-based Sugartown Worldwide Inc.; Pulitzer was only marginally involved in the new business, but continued reviewing new prints from Florida.
Pulitzer retired from daily operations in 1993, but remained a consultant for the brand.
In 1952, she married Pete Pulitzer, the grandson of newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, whose bequest to Columbia University established the Pulitzer Prize. They divorced in 1969. Her second husband, Enrique Rousseau, died in 1993.
Pulitzer, known for hosting parties barefoot at her Palm Beach home, also published two guides to entertaining.
"That's what life is all about: Let's have a party. Let's have it tonight," she said.