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Fashion Designer Lilly Pulitzer Dies at 81

The "Queen of Prep" was known for iconic shift dresses worn by Jackie O and creating the Palm Beach "look."

Lilly Pulitzer in 2004.
Getty Images

Fashion designer Lilly Pulitzer died at the age of 81 at her home in Palm Beach, Florida on Saturday, her company said. 

"Early this morning, Lilly Pulitzer Rousseau passed away peacefully in Palm Beach, surrounded by family and loved ones," read a statement posted on the Lilly Pulitzer brand Facebook page. "Lilly has been a true inspiration to us and we will miss her. In the days and weeks ahead we will celebrate all that Lilly meant to us. Lilly was a true original who has brought together generations through her bright and happy mark on the world."

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The socialite-turned-designer is best known for whimsical prints in the largely green-and-pink color scheme that now serves as an icon of American Palm Beach prep. 

But as some of the most successful fashion stories start, Pulitzer never planned on being a designer. 

While married to orange grove owner and Pulitzer publishing heir Peter Pulitzer in 1959, the stay-at-home Palm Beach mother and house wife was nearing a nervous breakdown and needed something to occupy her time. So she started selling her husband's oranges and grapefruits from the back of a station wagon, and later, a small stand. With former Harper's Bazaar editor Laura Clark as her business partner, the duo commissioned a seamstress to create a printed work uniform that would hide any juice stains and, according to a 2003 story in Vanity Fair, Pulitzer's "thickish waist."

The vivid shift dresses proved more popular than the juice, and soon Pulitzer was president of her very own namesake fashion company. 

In Key West-made fabrics festooned with dancing monkeys, palm trees and bold floral buds, Pulitzer's prim yet playful silhouettes quickly appealed to blue blooded friends with last names including Rockefeller and Vanderbilt. But it was one-time boarding school classmate Jacqueline Kennedy who in 1961 wore one of Pulitzer's dresses in a LIFE Magazine spread and catapulted the business. 

The short, sleeveless dresses became so popular that they were known simply as "Lillys."  

Growing up a true blue-blooded American socialite (her mother was the heiress to the Standard Oil fortune) helped shape Pulitzer's grasp of a privileged lifestyle that so many wanted, but few were privy to. Still today, putting on a zippy resort-friendly Pulitzer frock makes one feel as if they should be sipping gin at the country club, mother's pearls and all.

While her privilege procured a sartorial gracefulness, the conversational whimsy of Pulitzer's designs came from a decidedly free-spirited personality that found her owning a pet monkey, forgoing college to "find a career" and frequently traipsing Palm Beach's tony Worth Avenue sans shoes. She was also known for throwing legendary dance parties in her kitchen at home. 

"Style isn't just about what you wear, it's about how you live," Pulitzer told the Associated Press in 2004. 

Indeed, Pulitzer was the pioneer of the modern fashion lifestyle brand, with swimsuits, children's clothing and home goods eventually comprising her namesake collection.  While that business model is now de rigour, Pulitzer paved the way for the likes of Tory Burch, Kate Spade and even J. Crew to eventually follow in her WASPy, well-heeled footsteps.  

A chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in 1984 caused Pulitzer to retire, though she was involved in print development after the company was purchased and revived by Sugartown Inc. in 1993.

Today the designer's namesake brand has 75 stores and, in addition to apparel for men, women and children, includes a home collection, fragrance, footwear and even a line of sorority merchandise. In a full circle moment, the brand tapped the daughters of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to star in its 2009 ad campaign. 

And though it wasn't the career she planned, the spirited clothier sure seemed to enjoy the ride. 

As Pulitzer told the Palm Beach Post in 2004, "It's all been one blur of fun." 

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