09/04/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
It was a sizzling summer day in Palm Beach, Fla., but nothing could frazzle 68-year-old Lilly Pulitzer Rousseau. The sassy socialite turned preppywear doyenne had corralled her stylist to handle a hair emergency—but they couldn't find a plug for the curling iron. No problem: They promptly decamped to a nearby veterinarian's office. "We said, 'Excuse me,' got into one of those little dog waiting rooms and plugged it in," Rousseau says with a giggle.
Clearly, Lilly can no more be stopped than her namesake clothing line. The wildly printed togs, beloved by 1960s-era country clubbers nationwide, are suddenly everywhere again. Thank fashion's mania for eye-boggling prints (Seventh Avenue darling Michael Kors calls Lilly a major influence) as well as a host of celeb devotees. Lillywear has been spotted on Brooke Shields
, Jenna Elfman (who calls the duds "fresh, girly and colorful") and Chris O'Donnell ("They remind me of my childhood"). Says Ashley Judd, who recently bought a green frog-print skirt: "Nothing beats Lilly skirts for cool, retro chic that is confidently modern too."
Pretty impressive for a clothing line that got launched by accident. A Long Island-raised beauty from a wealthy family who eloped with newspaper heir Peter Pulitzer in 1952, Lilly soon grew bored with life as a socialite. So in 1960 she opened a Palm Beach shop to sell juice from the Pulitzer orange groves. The o.j. kept staining her clothes, so to camouflage the spills she had busily patterned dime-store fabrics made into simple shift dresses—"just sleeveless things with a couple of bows, a zipper down the back and piping." Customers clamored for the outfits, and a fashion business was born. "Whatever I would think of, I would do," says Lilly, who commissioned fabrics with turtles, seashells and flowers. "It always turned out just fine."
Lilly became a household word when then-First Lady Jackie Kennedy, a pal from boarding school days, began sporting Lilly togs in the early '60s. By the late 1970s, 31 Lilly shops had sprouted across the country, and the line had become the unofficial uniform for the vacationing well-to-do. "It was the Kennedys, it was Palm Beach, it was the name Pulitzer," allows Lilly cheerfully of her success. Indeed, Lilly herself became a celebrity. "Anytime we ever traveled with Mom," says daughter Liza, now 44, a Palm Beach real estate agent, "complete strangers would be coming up and saying how much they loved her."
But then came the dress-for-success '80s, and her casual fashions were swept aside by more formal apparel. "I didn't know how to cope with it," says Lilly. The company was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1984. She settled into a gracious retirement with second husband Enrique Rousseau (a wealthy hotelier who died in 1993) at their sprawling Palm Beach home, surrounded by nine grandchildren and a menagerie of pets. (Her marriage to Pulitzer, now 70 and with whom she had three children—Peter Jr., 46, a developer; Minnie, 45, an artist; and Liza—had ended in 1969.)
But in 1992 she was approached by apparel entrepreneur Jim Bradbeer and his two partners to relaunch the Lilly label. "It was love at first sight," says Lilly, who agreed to license her name and act as a consultant for the new line of clothing and housewares now carried in high-end stores across the country. The appeal of the modern Lilly styles, like the originals, is that they are "fun and preppy and positive," says Eric Wilson, an associate editor at Women's Wear Daily. Which pretty much sums up their creator. "When I go down to the club, and it's just one sea of Lilly," says the designer, "I think, 'Oh, my God, I started all this!' "
Kristin Harmel in Palm Beach