As a preppy Wellesley student in the late 1960s, I would happily wear my Lilly Pulitzer sheaths without a thought about their origin. I just loved the whimsical animal patterns and luscious floral prints in vivid pastels.
Only when I went to Town & Country in the 1980s and began reporting on the mansions in Palm Beach did I learn that Lilly Pulitzer was the local society girl who created the brand beloved by millions, including Lilly’s Farmington classmate Jacqueline Kennedy, her sister Lee Radziwill, Dina Merrill and Audrey Hepburn.
Lilly’s clothes were unisex, as popular with men as women; they became Palm Beach’s snob uniforms. (Of course, today’s fashionistas know about Lilly from the popular Slim Aarons photos of her devotees frolicking at leisure.)
Imagine my surprise last week when I walked into the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and stumbled into the exhibition: Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer: The Prints that made the Fashion Brand, 1962 – 1985.
Who knew that the blue blood fashion designer Lilly Pulitzer never drew one pattern! The show is the first museum exhibition to reveal the name of the prolific artist who created the iconic Lilly Pulitzer style for its first 25 years: Agnes Helen Zuzek de Poo.
It features more than 35 of Zuzek’s original watercolor and gouache textile designs, vintage dresses, screen-printed textiles and photos of celebrities (including Jackie and Mayor John Lindsay) wearing Lilly outfits — all in Zuzek prints. A short film documents how the screen prints were meticulously created in the Key West Hand Print Fabric plant in Key West.
Last year Rizzoli published the newsbreaking Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer. The book traces Zuzek’s unlikely trajectory (1920 – 2011) from poor upstate New York dairy farm girl, daughter of Yugoslavian immigrants, to her enlistment in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs) during World War II to her studying, on the G.I. Bill, textile design and illustration at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. (She graduated at the top of her class in 1949.) She then married, had two girls and moved to Key West with her husband, John de Poo, a Florida native (who soon left her). To earn a living, now a single mother of three, Zuzek took a job as a textile designer. Her incredible success story can be traced to three serendipitous events.
The first was in Key West in 1961, when former Broadway producer Walter Starcke, former actor Peter Pell and his life partner, former dancer/choreographer Jim Russell, rescued Harbor House, a handsome 125-year-old waterfront bank building. Oddly enough, with no relevant background, the men decided to start a small screen print business there with the help of a local businessman, Bill Johnson.
They set it up properly, but the business didn’t really take off until they hired Zuzek in 1962 as full-time head fabric designer.
As the story goes, shortly thereafter, Lilly Pultizer’s mother, Lillian (Mrs. Ogden) Phipps, formidable queen of Palm Beach society, stumbled upon the plant one day while visiting Key West on a sailing outing. The plant was a popular attraction because tourists could watch the men manning the printing tables — and then buy linens made with the textiles they screened. She scooped up a bunch of patterns to bring back to her daughter Lilly.
By then, Lilly had already eloped with Peter Pulitzer, Jr., the grandson of the press magnate Joseph Pulitzer, founder of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and publisher of the New York World. She and Peter were busy raising three small children in Palm Beach. Attractive, well born and popular, they were considered a local “it” couple.
Peter was an entrepreneur who bought 400 acres in Central Florida to raise cattle and planted citrus groves.
To promote his oranges (and deal with post-partum stress after her third baby), Lilly decided to open a stand selling fresh orange juice. She had her Swiss seamstress make simple cotton shifts in vibrant patterns for her to wear as she pressed the oranges, a messy affair.
Soon her colorful dresses — she kept a rack of extras near her so she could change when they became soiled — proved to be more popular than the juice, and she started selling them. In 1962 she and her husband formed a fashion business with a partner, Laura Robbins, who had worked at Harper’s Bazaar and knew how to promote the brand.
At first Lilly made the shifts, called “Lillys,” with cheap cotton she bought at the local nickel and dime.
Then her mother gave her the Zuzek samples. Lilly was captivated by the jazzy florals and virtual Noah’s Ark of lions, giraffes, rhinos, monkeys, sea horses and butterflies. She flew to Key West, met Peter Pell, ordered hundreds of yards of fabric and hired seamstresses to make Lillys for women and girls.
In the 1961-1962 winter resort season, Time reported 1600 Lillys sold in Palm Beach. President John F. Kennedy reportedly nearly bought out the store on Christmas Eve in 1962. Lilly added a men’s line of trousers, swimming trunks, ties and nightshirts, all in the same Zuzek patterns. In February 1963, Life magazine ran an eight-page photo essay about Lilly Pulitzer titled “A Barefoot Tycoon Makes Lillies Bloom All Over,” and the brand took off nationally. Lilly boutiques opened in Boca Raton and Naples, Florida; Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts; Watch Hill, Rhode Island; La Jolla, California and Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
She may have been nicknamed the Queen of the Jungle, but, as Lilly Pulitzer admitted, “I can’t cut. I can’t sew. I don’t draw.” However, no one seems to have ever asked who created the 2,109 designs copyrighted by Key West Hand Print Fabrics between 1962 and 1985 — the exuberant fish wearing crowns, monkeys sipping martinis and polar bears picking daisies. Who cared?
In 1969 Lilly divorced Peter Pulitzer and remarried.
By the 1970s there were more than 30 Lilly boutiques in the U.S.
In 1980, Lilly Pulitzer bought 51 percent of Key West Hand Print Fabrics.
But times changed in the 1980s and fashion turned against bright colors and vibrant prints. Women wore somber suits with padded shoulders.
In 1984, Lilly Pulitzer, Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was forced to sell Key West Hand Print Fabrics, the company’s largest asset, retaining only the trademark name. A group of Key West businessmen came together to buy the Key West printing company with all its designs and copyrights, but they never fully utilized the old patterns. Suzie Zuzek retired to do art fulltime.
In 1993 Lilly Pulitzer licensed and sold her trademark to Sugartown Worldwide, a company that resuscitated the Lilly brand, added bedding, sunglasses and scents. Sugartown in turn sold Lilly Pulitzer to Oxford Industries of Atlanta in 2010 for $60 million. Oddly enough, neither owner ever bought back the first thirty years of their design heritage. Instead they commissioned new (and blander) patterns.
This is when the third serendipitous — and most important — event happened.
In 2007, Becky Smith, a St. Louis lawyer with four children, visited Key West while researching vintage textiles for a personal upholstery project at home. She met Suzie Zuzek, then 86, and became friends with her and her daughter Martha. She was so impressed she decided to champion her lost legacy.
“Suzie was seriously like an angel here on earth,” Smith recalls. “She was an artist who thought differently. She went above and beyond florals and animals. Her works had an incredible impact on American culture for a quarter of a century. One woman created a look that millions enjoyed — but they never knew her name.”
Smith kept inquiring about the whereabouts of Zuzek’s 30-year archive: more than 2,500 original design drawings (including watercolor designs and pen-and-ink drawings), acetate color separations for printing and swatch books. No one seemed to know where they were. In 2011 Suzie Zuzek died. Lilly Pulitzer died in 2013.
Intrepid, Smith eventually discovered the archives safely in storage in Key West. In 2016 she, with the help of a group of St. Louis investors, was able to purchase most of the assets of Key West Hand Print Fabrics. Their new company, The Original I.P. LLC, owns the archive and copyrights for all the Zuzek designs for the next 60 years.
Since then, another herculean task has been achieved: A group of archivists has meticulously catalogued, conserved and properly stored the archive in a fine art storage facility. Zuzek’s work was introduced to Susan Brown, associate curator of textiles at Cooper Hewitt, who organized the fine Rizzoli catalog and the exhibition, which will close on January 2.
We all know Tom Ford designed for Gucci. Maybe the world will now learn what Suzie Zuzek did for Lilly Pulitzer. “We are bringing the work out for future generations,” Becky Smith says. “Many of her designs were never put into production, so they have never been seen.”