The Coastal Star

By Mary Jane Fine

They’re cool. They’re cotton. They’re colorful.

They’re addictive.

And in coastal South Florida, they’ve long been summer’s uniform: the Lilly Pulitzer classic shift.

“My grandma spent her winters in Naples and her whole wardrobe was Lillys,” said Judy Moore, browsing a rack of Lilly shifts and dresses at C. Orrico on Atlantic Avenue. “She was all Lilly.”

The appeal for Moore, 46, who estimates her own collection, “counting the hand-me-downs,” at a dozen or so, is simple: “They’re bright and classic. You can just spot ’em a mile away.”

Their spot-ability owes everything to their distinctive splashy patterns in flamingo pinks and lime greens, sunshine yellows and tangelo oranges.

The story that explains the palate is just as memorable: It features Lilly McKim, the Long Island socialite who eloped with Peter Pulitzer. The independent young wife, with surplus from her husband’s orange groves, opened a juice stand on Worth Avenue’s Via Mizner. Stains from squeezed juice prompted her to buy tropical-color print fabric from Woolworth’s and ask her seamstress to stitch up a shift that would camouflage them. The admiration of customers spawned a line of shifts that, over time, turned Lilly Pulitzer into a one-woman brand.

As Lilly aficionados know, it was Jackie Kennedy, Lilly’s classmate from the prestigious Chapin School, whose Lilly-shift-wearing photo as first lady in Life or Look magazine granted the dress its cachet. Other women of taste, and income, followed, and before long, Lilly Pulitzer had taken hometown-girl-makes-good to a whole new level.

Long after Lilly became a household word in the upper-echelon households of Vanderbilt and Whitney and Rockefeller, they continue to delight their select clientele.

“There is a Lilly customer,” says Donna Keil, owner of the Pink Hibiscus in Lantana. “The young college girl to the older woman. She’s somebody who loves vibrant colors, has an optimistic personality, who’s young at heart, young in mind. It just kind of goes with the coastal mindset.”Before her shop moved from Lake Worth, Keil carried Lilly dresses, but the corporation, no longer owned by Lilly Pulitzer, now concentrates on its signature stores — mostly East Coast, mostly resort areas — and upscale department stores.

But like other shops that no longer sell the dress line, Keil’s store carries an array of other Lilly items: tote bags and notebooks and wrapping paper and pencils and playing cards and coffee mugs and more.

And Keil, often found wearing a Lilly sundress, remains a fan. “They’re timeless,” she says of the dress line. “They don’t go out of style. You can wear a Lilly that’s 10 years old, and it’ll look just as good as it did 10 years ago.”

Fellow aficionados can see for themselves at the Museum of Lifestyle and Fashion History’s “For the Love of Lilly” show, which opened Aug. 3 for a run through May 2011 at the Boynton Beach Mall.Doing pre-show research, museum director and curator Lori J. Durante traced the Lilly’s 50-year past — largely an oral history, she said — that dates to around 1959 and ’60.

The story goes that she took her jet to Key West and hit it off with Peter Pell and James Russell, who had recently founded Key West Hand Made Fabrics and produced a line of tropical-print placemats, said Durante. Lilly Pulitzer worked with designers there to create her instantly recognizable floral- and animal-print designs.

On a recent afternoon, two museum interns retrieved a plastic bag full of samples. Early swatches bore the name “lilly” hidden, like the Nina in Al Hirschfeld’s celebrity cartoons, in the design. A designer’s name is often printed along the selvedge.

Contemporary Lillys (adult sizes are usually priced around $150) are made in China, but, as always, each season brings new designs. This year, a popular one is marine blue and white with a double row of wide cotton lace down the front.
“They flew out at the beginning of the season,” said C. Orrico manager Lisa Rodriguez before turning her attention to customer Kerry McNamara, of Red Bank, N.J., a guest at the Colony Hotel.
McNamara was buying a toddler-sized Lilly shift “for my 2-year-old niece, ‘Miss Molly.’ She just belongs in one.”

What: "For the Love of Lilly" exhibit
Where: Museum of Lifestyle & Fashion History

801 N. Congress Ave. -- Suite 483

(inside the Boynton Beach Mall, near the Sears wing)
When: Aug. 3 -- May 31, 2010
How Much: $5 adults; $1 children ages 2-11

Lilly fashions don't die, they just go to eBay and consignment shops, to sell for bargain prices. A sampling:

On eBay: Click on "Clothes and accessories," then refine your
Search by typing in Lilly dresses and you'll get more than 2,500 entries.
Refine the Search again to Lilly shifts, and the number drops to 300-plus.
Pricing runs the gamut from $6.99 for a little girl's dress to $149.50 for a
woman's dress; many shifts are priced between $40 and $80.

In consignment shops: Again, the prices vary, and Lilly's popularity
keeps the merchandise moving in and out. A few examples:

Frugal Fashionista, 825 NE 6th Ave., Delray Beach, 561-865-7857 — "They
sell immediately when I do (have them in the store)," said shop owner
Amber Ortell. "They're among my best sellers." On a recent morning,
she had only one Lilly shift, a size 10 for $24.95. Usually, she said, they
sell for between $10 and $20.

Second Time Around Women's, 10 SE 4th Ave., Delray Beach, 561-278-0493 — Lilly
dresses generally sell for between $10 and $70, sometimes higher if they bear a
"new" tag.

Razamataz, 116 NE Second St., Boca Raton, 561-394-4592 — Lillys are popular
here, too, and vary greatly in price, said store manager Wendy, who declined to
give her last name. If a dress doesn't sell quickly, it's price drops
significantly. A $120 dress will go for $60, an $85 dress to $42.50,
and she had one $55 dress that might slip to $27.50 if it isn't snatched up

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