Suzie Zuzek — The Artist Behind Lilly Pulitzer

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Pulitzer Fashions 1964, The young matrons of Palm Beach wearing designs by Lilly Pulitzer. Wendy Vanderbilt (sitting) is wearing a yellow dress and pink headscarf, Palm Beach. Photo by Slim Aarons/Getty Images
The Late President John F. Kennedy with daughter Caroline, who is wearing Lilly Pulitzer circa 1961. Photo courtesy of the authors.

Last week, the Social Register hosted an exclusive presentation on Suzie Zuzek (1920–2011) the brilliant artist who created the famous prints used for Lilly Pulitzer’s iconic designs. For those who may not be aware, the Social Register is becoming ‘en fuego’ and has gone far beyond “the book”.

Prior to the pandemic, they hosted more than 20 member-only cocktail receptions and dinners and continue to announce reciprocal agreements with physical clubs around the world, such as the prestigious River Club in New York. When the socially isolating pandemic hit, they initiated a celebration of the tight-knit SR community matching more than 150 members based on geographic locations and interests.

During this time, the SR also initiated an engaging program of virtual events — all of the highest caliber and enthusiastically received by its members, such as John Singer Sargent and the Scandal of Madame X, lead by fellow SR member, Jim Caldwell, an artist, art historian, teacher and architect.

Lilly Pulitzer is, of course, an internationally renowned fashion brand and icon of Palm Beach. Her designs were the epitome of simple, wearable, classically casual resort wear, embraced by prominent women from Jacqueline Kennedy to Dina Merrill. But few know how essential to the Pulitzer look was Zuzek, who created the signature colorful, whimsical prints so loved by so many.

According to Lilly herself, “The fabulous success of the ‘Lilly Look’ would not have been possible without Suzie’s whimsical and magical creations. She consistently amused me, not only by the genius of her art but also by the sheer numbers of designs she created. I couldn’t wait to see what came next.”


Dina Merrill and daughter Nina Rumbough at her mother Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. Merrill is wearing a Lilly Pulitzer shift in Zuzek’s Carnation (1963). Photographed by Harold Kreiger for the July issue of McCall’s.
Jacqueline Kennedy wore a Lilly Pulitzer shift in an early Zuzek floral to greet husband President John F. Kennedy on Squaw Island at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, July 20, 1962.
Wendy Vanderbilt (right) and friend wearing Lilly Pulitzer dresses in Palm Beach. Photographed by Slim Aarons in January 1964.

The presentation was given by fashion historian and fellow SR member Caroline Rennolds Milbank, and the co-founder of the Suzie Zuzek Project, SR member Becky Smith. Caroline is the co-author of the book Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer, The Artist Behind an Iconic Fashion Brand.


Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer, The Artist Behind an Iconic Fashion Brand, 1962-1985. Text by Susan Brown, the associate curator of textiles at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York; and Caroline Rennolds Milbank, a fashion historian, author, curator, and appraiser.  The black and white photo on the book cover was taken by photographer Helmut Newton for Conde Nast’s Vogue in 1975. Photo © Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer by Susan Brown and Caroline Rennolds Milbank, Rizzoli Electa, 2020. 

The artist’s work will also be featured in an exhibit scheduled to open at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York, at a date soon to be announced. It all spells overdue recognition for the woman whose work might have been consigned to anonymity. Images from the upcoming Cooper Hewitt exhibition Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer: The Prints That Made the Fashion Brand, 1962-1985 were shown and discussed. 

Suzie Zuzek joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II. Her service enabled her to take advantage of the G.I. Bill, which she used to study textile design and illustration at The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. She then relocated to Key West, Florida, where she began working for Key West Hand Print Fabrics. When Lilly Pulitzer, who had previously been using dime store fabric to make her shift dresses, discovered Zuzek’s vividly colorful, fanciful designs, she purchased thousands of yards of them. And the signature Pulitzer look was born.


From 1962-1985 the Lilly Pulitzer brand returned again and again to the colorful, playful, bold designs of Suzie Zuzek, a prolific textile designer at Key West Hand Print Fabrics. The mostly unsung-Pratt Institute educated, talent behind the brand, Zuzek is at long last getting her due with both an upcoming exhibit of her work: Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer: The Prints That Made the Fashion Brand at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York and a companion book: Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer.
Lilly Pulizter in her Palm Beach shop on Via Mizner (off Worth Avenue) with mannequin dressed in a shift of a Zuzek design, 1962. Photo by Howell Conant.

Lilly Pulitzer was truly a fashion iconoclast, breaking free of the strictures of women’s wear of the 1950s and 1960s. Hats, gloves and binding foundation garments, with cinched-in waists, such as embodied by Dior’s “New Look”, were considered de rigueur dressing, especially for ladies in society. But Pulitzer was breaking the norm, creating resort wear that was simplified, comfortable and made for the warm weather climes of Palm Beach.

It was a stark contrast not only from a fashion point of view but from a social standpoint as well, underlining the evolving role of women. Pulitzer also designed for men and children, and her designs appealed to all generations. One photo shown by Caroline and Becky showed Mayor John Lindsay wearing a blazer in a vivid Zuzek print.


Former New York Mayor John Lindsay in a custom Lilly Pulitzer jacket in Zuzek’s Crazy Quilt, New York, 1970. Photo courtesy of the authors.

Suzie Zuzek once said, “There’s nothing different in this world, it’s just the different twist you give a thing.” As shown by Becky and Caroline, her prints, especially the animal prints, all tell a story. Each of the animals she drew have distinct personalities, they are all their own character and interact with one another in witty and amusing ways. Penguins, tigers, zebras and other fauna abound in intricate designs that surprise and delight.

Zuzek’s floral prints are similarly animated, with brilliant colors and bold designs that showcase her range. Another example of her ability to execute dense compositions is Astrolilly, which deftly interweaves astrological signs, text and vegetation.


Astrolilly design by Suzie Zuzek.

The Zuzek archive of over 2,500 drawings was nearly lost but is now being archived and lovingly restored. The upcoming Cooper Hewett Museum exhibit will feature 35 original watercolors, along with textiles and vintage Pulitzer designs. The museum has also purchased ten drawings of Zuzek’s for their private collection. It is now assured that the art of Suzie Zuzek will be exhibited and enjoyed for generations to come.

All in all, it was a fabulous presentation, highlighting the glamour, allure and mystique of the heyday of Lilly Pulitzer and Suzie Zuzek.

The book is available at The Classic Bookshop, 310 South County Road in Palm Beach, or at Amazon.com

For more information about the exhibit, visit www.cooperhewitt.org

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