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Love That Lilly

THE BALTIMORE SUN

How much perky can be squeezed into a polo shirt? Or a pair of patterned pants?

Ask a Lilly lover.

She'll tell you, in those famous pink and green and playful Lilly Pulitzer prints, women are happier, smilier, chirpier. Infinitely so.

No matter the season, Lilly Pulitzer enthusiasts are on beach getaways and summer strolls. They're sipping lemonade spritzers and nursing sorbets. They find joy and love and - cloaked in those sherbet-shades - more cheerful, more carefree reflections of themselves.

"It's an escapist reality, but a very happy escapist reality," says Tori Rappold, 26, a Lilly lover from Manhattan. "You can't go on vacation all the time. It can't be summer all the time. But it can be when you're wearing Lilly all the time."

It's just that feeling of fashion euphoria that has kept Lilly Pulitzer's single-themed fashion label alive since the 1960s, despite a 10-year period when the company - made famous for its casually elegant clothes - was completely shut down.

Women who wear Lilly love Lilly. They watched their mothers wear it. They dress their daughters in it. And when Palm Beach socialite Lilly Pulitzer closed down the successful business bearing her name in 1984, these same women combed vintage stores, flea markets and consignment shops, searching for anything Lilly they could find.

"I thought they had gone," says Robin Crawford, a self-described Lilly Pulitzer junkie from Washington. "They had just dried up with all the things that were super-preppy."

Good news, Lilly lovers. The preppy look has returned, and Lilly Pulitzer is back - in a big way.

All that secondhand-store-shopping caused light bulbs to go off for businessmen Jim Bradbeer and Scott Beaumont, who were working at the time with another clothing company in Philadelphia.

If women would dig through bins of polyester pants and Nehru jackets for palm-treed polo shirts, they wondered, what might happen if someone brought Lilly's company back, punched up the pinks and peaches, and put the label squarely back into the mix of the affluent suburban shopper?

So in 1994, they approached an aging but still-blond Lilly Pulitzer, who had shut the company's doors, retired to Palm Beach - where she began the label - and never looked back.

"We understood the brand. We understood what it could be," says company President Bradbeer, who says his mother was a Lilly cult member. "And [Pulitzer] had confidence that we could execute the vision. So we brought it back. We introduced some new prints. We made it modern, made it current. But I think the essence of it is the same. It is bright, colorful, happy, fun clothes for the best times of your life."

Fans say Bradbeer, 43, isn't exaggerating. Over the years, the Lilly Pulitzer brand has come to stand for cheerfulness, happiness - the good life in a cotton shift.

Lilly Pulitzer "is selling an identification with a combination of social class and lifestyle," says Erik Gordon, a marketing professor at the Johns Hopkins University who specializes in branding. "That's what that look is a badge of. This is not the woman who is trying to signal, 'I'm an investment banker and I work 80 hours a week and don't look at me like that buddy, 'cause I'll buy your company and fire you.' This is the woman who is saying, 'I spend my summer in the resorts, and I do charity work, and I attend the Rose Garden. And if the weather is nice, maybe we sail or play a little golf or something.' "

That kind of branding speaks volumes to the women who buy Lilly's clothes, shoes, jewelry and housewares, Gordon says. And it could explain why Lilly fever never really died down, even while the company was in a decade-long hiatus.

"A brand isn't powerful because it does a lot of advertising. You can advertise a lot and have no brand whatsoever," Gordon says. "It has to stand for something valuable in the mind of the customer."

For many Lilly fans, the label isn't just pretty and bright. It also evokes the warm feelings of family and good friends.

At an unadvertised, invitation-only Lilly sale in King of Prussia, Pa., last week, thousands of women showed up to scour the racks of discounted colorful clothes. Many camped out the night before, on air mattresses and lawn chairs, ostensibly to be among the first to get in. But when pressed about why they left husbands and babies behind to sleep on a convention-center floor, they confessed they were there for the Lilly-inspired camaraderie.

"It's not about saving money; it's a pilgrimage for us," says Tricia High, 33, of Durham, N.C., who arrived at the Valley Forge Convention Center with two friends to set up camp a full day before the sale doors opened.

"Our husbands are all at the U.S. Open, and we're all here," says her friend Kristin Teer, 35.

Harley Carpenter of Pasadena has been a regular at the sale for 10 years. This year was like a reunion. She ran into Kathryn Reese of Wilmington, Del., whose wedding she was in years ago. Once together at the sale, it was like old times for the fellow Lilly fans - old times in familiar pink, green and yellow patterns.

"It's Lilly," says Carpenter, 39, as a way to explain her devotion to the twice-yearly sale. "We've had [Lilly] forever, ever, ever. Our mothers wore it."

Chances are the next generation of Lilly lovers will be saying the same thing.

"I buy myself a piece and then my girls matching outfits," says Amy DeGeorge, 32, of Ellicott City, as she rummaged through racks of toddler-sized shifts.

Susanne Seidman, 30, of Alexandria, Va., loves Lilly so much she named her daughter Lilly.

"When I was a little girl, my mother and my grandmother and I used to wear matching Lilly," says Seidman, standing in line to get into the sale. "I always knew I would have a Lilly."

Today, the Lilly brand is being passed on to more suburban girls than ever, in nontraditional ways.

For example, Mattel Inc. will be releasing in August a colorfully dressed Lilly Pulitzer Barbie, clutching the hand of a grade-school-aged Stacie doll dressed in a matching shift.

"They [Lilly Pulitzer] have such a strong history of mother/daughter, so that's why we made this doll into a gift set," says Elizabeth Grampps, senior marketing manager for Barbie Collector. "[In the box] we have an actual photograph of Lilly Pulitzer herself with her two daughters.

"Our brands have so much in common," Grampps continues. "Lilly began in the early '60s, right around the time that Barbie began. [Lilly has] such a unique sense of style - that fresh, Palm Beach look. It's very Barbie. It was really a perfect fit."

Lilly Pulitzer Barbie will join the A-list of fashion-forward Barbies before her: Armani Barbie, Versace Barbie, Kate Spade Barbie, Carolina Herrera Barbie.

But she's bound to be cheerier.

"There isn't that much in fashion that is fundamentally happy and upbeat. Everything is kind of dour and serious and over-analytical," says Bradbeer, the Lilly company's president. "And Lilly is happy and fun and light. We believe that part of the reason Lilly is so successful is that when women wear it, personally they feel good about it."

Which is why the company's new tagline is, "Life, Lilly and the Pursuit of Happiness."

"Even if it's sort of raining and nasty out," says Crawford of Washington, "you put her stuff on, and it's like yellows and pinks and blues and greens. They're always, always sunny."

Find Lilly Pulitzer locally at Nordstrom and the Pink Crab in Ruxton. For more Sun Staff photographs from the Lilly Pulitzer warehouse sale in Pennsylvania, visit baltimore sun.com/lilly.

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