Tickled pink, green and yellow
VENERABLE LILLY PULITZER’S NEW OWNERS ARE ENTHRALLING A FRESH GENERATION
They may well be the cheeriest cult ever, these well-heeled women with a preppy streak, many of whom live in affluent coastal towns. One cannot miss them for the bright pinks and greens, the floral patterns and sundresses they favor. They are schoolgirls and seniors; they are mothers who dress their daughters in Lilly frocks. They are Lilly Pulitzer customers.
The brand itself is 50 this year, and still looking perky. “They’re very fresh and easy clothes,”
said Kathie Orrico, who co-owns five boutiques in Florida that sell the lines. “There’s nothing pretentious about them.”
Classic Lilly shifts are fit for anything, from a day at the beach to dressing for dinner, says Patricia Stensrud, founder and managing partner of Hudson River Partners, a New York City–based business development firm with no business relationship to the retailer. Lillies — as these patrons call the garments — are comfortable, never skintight and meet any country-club dress code, she says.
Loyalty to Lilly Pulitzer gets passed down like DNA, it seems. Orrico says she knows families who deck out in Lilly clothing for portraits. Southern women whose mothers wore Lilly shifts now dress their own daughters in the same, says Rebecca Byrd, who co-owns five boutiques in the Carolinas and Savannah, Ga., called Palm Avenue Lilly Pulitzer. Most of her customers are 30-something mothers, though some are college-age women.
Lilly Pulitzer, the brand (as opposed to Lilly Pulitzer, the woman) got its start in Palm Beach, Fla., quite by accident. Lilly Pulitzer, the woman, who was married at the time to Peter Pulitzer, of the famous newspaper family, ran a juice stand, squeezing citrus fruits from her husband’s orchard. Frustrated by the inevitable stains on her clothing, she bought colorfully patterned, stain-hiding fabric and hired a seamstress to create simple dresses. Her customers loved them so much that she began selling the shifts. When Jackie Kennedy appeared in Life magazine wearing one, an iconic clothing company was born.
Pulitzer sold the business in 1993 to James Bradbeer and Scott Beaumont, today the company’s president and CEO, respectively. Parent company Sugartown Worldwide, based in King of Prussia, Pa., operates 21 corporate-owned Lilly Pulitzer stores. The company also sells through a network of about 75 independent boutiques, 90 percent of whose inventory is Lilly Pulitzer merchandise. (These shops operate under their own names, many of which include the word “pink” or “palm.”) Lilly Pulitzer has a commercial Web site and sells by catalog and in upscale department stores.
Lilly Pulitzer Rousseau (her name today), now 78, is “spiritual adviser” to the company, Orrico says, and though she does not run the business, she does monitor the product. “She’s so sharp,” Orrico said. “She zeroes in on what works, what won’t work. She has such definitive taste.” In any case, the founder remains vitally important to the brand, sources say. “It’s a very quirky brand,” Stensrud said. (Indeed, who else uses prints with green scuba-diving monkeys?) “And that’s part of its charm. … It could only have been created by a real person, with a real personality.”
The company declined requests for an interview with this publication, but Women’s Wear Daily reported in December that the wholesale annual revenues are about $75 million. Beaumont told that paper that the company-run stores pull in over $1 million annually. And Byrd says her four established shops post over $1 million per year, so the fifth, which opened in February, stands a chance of doing equally as well.
It is unclear what toll, if any, the recession will take on Lilly Pulitzer. Retail consultant Jeff Green, who heads Mill Valley, Calif.–based Jeff Green Partners, says its niche is too narrow for the times. The essence of easy coastal living, the brand is best suited to such places as Nantucket, Mass., and Carlsbad, Calif. To be sure, the customer base is affluent: Women’s dresses sell for $168 to $348 online, girls’ shifts for $68 to $118 and men’s button-down shirts for $145 and over. Beyond these coastal communities, though, Lilly is a harder sell, says Green. Couple geographic limitations with cutbacks to travel and wardrobe budgets, and Lilly may see some struggle, he insists.
Others see it differently. “Lilly is very much a psychographic brand — it has more to do with someone’s attitude and values than it has to do with price or age,” said Stensrud.
That may be an asset, not a liability. Bradbeer told Women’s Wear Daily that the company’s strongest period, surprisingly, was immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. “For some people, to buy something colorful and happy reflects a point in time when things were better,” said Stensrud. “It’s a motivator for purchase.”
Bradbeer says the company is aiming for a 20 percent revenue increase, over an unspecified time frame, and Beaumont told Women’s Wear Daily that he expects retail sales to grow 9 percent this year.
“I don’t think anyone is recession-proof,” Orrico said, though she notes that her shop locations near resorts is a help. “We’re a little protected by the areas we’re in.” Her best period is March, she says, thanks to spring weather and Easter. The day before that holiday is her busiest.
Lilly Pulitzer may try to offset any drop in apparel sales with new categories added in recent years: eyewear, sleepwear, stationery, fragrances, and bed and bath items. The company introduced a men’s line in 2007, though it still caters overwhelmingly to women. And the company is now heavily promoting its 50-year history. It found some unlikely partners to sell limited-edition products bedecked in signature Lilly patterns: world-renowned piano maker Steinway and toy maker Hasbro among them.
For now, though, the company will not be opening a rash of stores. Jeff Mason, a principal of Baltimore-based Mason Retail Group, which handles Lilly Pulitzer’s real estate, said in March that the company was preparing a 3,900-square-foot shop at The Gardens at Palm Beach (Fla.), with an expected opening date this month, but that is the only new store planned through 2010.
Claire Kunzman, an account executive at Y Partnership, an Orlando, Fla.–based public relations firm, is a self-described Lilly fanatic. She has about 40 Lilly items in her wardrobe, plus Lilly shoes, bedding, towels, a bath mat and more. “I love going in,” she said. “I love the product. Even the winter clothes are lightweight, colorful. They’re like caffeine — they boost your day.”