Lilly Pulitzer's Preppy Prints Get a Second Life Thanks to Designer Marty Karabees
For a generation of WASPs, socialite-designer Lilly Pulitzer's flower-spattered dresses and pants were as much a wardrobe staple as pearls or mallard-print belts. The bright, big-patterned colors that were her signature dotted country clubs from Bar Harbor to Bel Air, while trendsetters like Jackie Kennedy and Dina Merrill sported themselves in the shapeless shifts that became known as "Lillys."
Of all the social watering holes, Palm Beach was the most prominent venue for Lillys, and it was a dark day in that city early in 1985 when Pulitzer was forced to close her Worth Avenue shop—and its 31 nationwide boutiques. Her designs, which had once grossed more than $12 million a year, had lost their trendy appeal as her customers aged into country club matrons. But now Pulitzer, or at least her patterns are back, thanks to a young Lilly fan, 26-year-old designer Marty Karabees, and his Detroit company, Plain Geometry. Karabees, who describes the Pulitzer look as "the kind of stuff we were weaned on and used to laugh at," has created a 20-piece collection of loose-fitting shorts, skirts and shirts with Pulitzer's prints and titled it "Palm Beach Remembered: A Farewell Tribute." In so doing, he has elevated Pulitzers from preppy to modern. Says Bloomingdale's vice-president of fashion, Kal Ruttenstein, who placed two orders with Karabees: "The real Pulitzer clothes were very conservative in cut and feeling and bright in coloration. Marty has updated the shapes. They make people smile."
The inspiration struck Karabees when he read about Lilly's fashion demise in a trade paper. He dialed her Palm Beach headquarters("I had no idea where Lilly was, but I figured she had to have her headquarters in Palm Beach") and asked if he could buy her fabrics. Before Karabees could jet to Palm Beach, however, the fabrics were auctioned off. Undeterred, he went to Pulitzer's original fabric manufacturer and had the material reprinted in five Lilly colors(pink, turquoise, green, yellow and orange)and two patterns (fish and palms). "In my mind the fish were just so Lillyish and the palms just seemed hip enough," he explains. He drew new designs priced at $16 to $68 and, with partner Tom Johnson, 26, launched the collection, which 450 stores picked up in the span of a year. Featured in Vogue and Glamour, the line has grossed more than $2 million in sales.
Turning old ideas into fresh successes seems to be Karabees' forte. Raised in Detroit, where both his parents were in advertising, he took his first flier while at Michigan State University, where he produced a "beefcake" calendar featuring hunks on campus. It was an international hit, earning Karabees and his undergrad partner, Johnson, $80,000 over three years. After graduation Karabees resort hopped for two years, filed orders for a N.Y. clothing company, then moved back to Detroit and, with Johnson, founded Plain Geometry in 1984. "Tom's good at business, but he's fashion-retarded," says Karabees. "I know nothing about balance sheets and cash flow."
Karabees is already convinced that his collection is as rock-solid as Pulitzer's was. "It's absolutely what the yup market is looking for," he insists. "It's so nerdy, it's hip."
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