Launched Sunday, Lilly Pulitzer for Target has already come and gone —quite quickly, as a matter of fact. It was a masterful act of marketing for Lilly’s parent company, Oxford Industries, whose stock leapt 7 percent. Target itself comes away with slightly less to brag about, with thousands of irate customers walking away with empty hands and thwarted aspirational dreams. Whether the disappointed budget-preps shell out for Lilly directly from the source is yet to be seen, but no matter how you slice it this is a huge win for the brand.
Some of you are probably shaking your heads in dismay. Lilly Pulitzer is no doubt a divisive brand among the buttondown set. Some have never been fans, some were fans of the old stuff, some love the old and new alike. I was interested in the overlap of clientele during and after the heyday, and recently asked Richard Press to expand a bit on the connection between J. Press and Lilly Pulitzer, which he’s alluded to in the past. “In 1970 Don Leas visited me,” he said. “He was the Lilly men’s rep as well as a Palm Beach and Philadelphia socialite. We agreed to carry a Lilly line of Ivy League caricatures (Princeton tigers, Yale bulldogs), and a group of Lilly pants, sport jackets, and half-sleeved men’s sport shirts, as long as he confined the items to J. Press in areas contiguous to our stores. Donald was a handsome bon vivant, and after receiving our orders we would head over to the Yale Club, where we closed the bar. We enjoyed great success with the line which lasted perhaps four or five years before it died a natural death.”
It may give some a coronary, but to me a J. Press sack jacket in a Lilly print sounds fantastic. It turns out that I actually quite like Lilly Pulitzer, despite what others have called my otherwise conservative sensibility. I have several vintage Lilly Pulitzer ties that were gifts to my father from James Bradbeer, one of the Philadelphia investors who revived the brand (with Ms. Pulitzer’s guidance and design expertise) in the 1990s.
While in Florida this winter, I wore one for dinner at Joe’s Stone Crab (with a Press blazer) and was seated immediately, while the slovenly tourists in front of us were told there was an hour wait.
During that same trip to the Sunshine State I spent some time in Palm Beach looking for Lilly “men’s stuff,” as it was once called, but to my great disappointment there was precious little to be found in vintage stores, and none whatsoever in the retail location at the Breakers. Worse still, many of the ladies on Worth Avenue were wearing pricy yoga pants instead of printed shifts, and seemed not to be heading to Ta-Boo for lunch, but rather Starbucks between training sessions. I saw one or two gents in traditional Palm Beach wear — bright pants, blazer, straw hat — but, outside of a few drinking establishments, the people I met in Palm Beach dressed basically the same as any other prosperous leisure community.
That Lilly for Target was a highly profitable maneuver can’t be argued. As for Lilly’s cachet, that remains to be seen. I’m not convinced it will hurt the prestige of the brand among dedicated followers. After all, if Ralph Lauren can appeal to both aspirational and luxury customers, Lilly Pulitzer should be able to as well. It’s my hope that perhaps in the near future Lilly Pulitzer will expand the higher end of its offerings, manufacture more in America, and maybe even partner again with a company such as J. Press or Brooks Brothers to recreate some of the more stylish offerings from the late ’60s and early ’70s.
In the meantime, I’ll wear the ties I have. I may even put one on for brunch with my lady next weekend to cheer her up. She slept until 9 AM last Sunday, when most Target stores had already been sold out of the Lilly Pulitzer collection for an hour. Then again, perhaps wearing one of the ties would just be rubbing it in. — DANIEL C. GREENWOOD