As one drives down South County Road in Palm Beach, past Worth Avenue and its glittering boutiques, past The Colony hotel, row after row after row of expertly manicured hedges swing into view. Lining both sides of the narrow street, the soaring sharp-edged bushes are interrupted every 25 feet or so by heavy iron gates, behind which sit massive houses, a blur of creamy stucco and sputtering fountains. And then suddenly, there are no hedges, only a tangle of drooping palm and banyan trees, a sidewalk jungle split by a driveway—no gate—that leads to a bungalow with a big blue door. It is behind that door, affixed with a wooden l, where the tiny island’s most famous year-round resident, Lilly Pulitzer Rousseau, lives.
The 77-year-old designer and former grande dame of Palm Beach entertaining—in the Sixties and Seventies, her kitchen sat 26 for dinner—awaits guests perched on a chinoiserie-covered bench. She wears white slacks and a vintage Lilly shirt printed with white and yellow daisies, her feet bare but for the bright coral polish on her toes. (Rousseau has never worn shoes unless she absolutely must, which means, begrudgingly, to restaurants and public functions.) “Time means nothing to me,” she says cheerfully by way of introduction. “Ten years, 15 years—I can’t believe that 50 years have gone by. I am what age I am, and it’s scary as hell!”
Whether Rousseau can believe it or not, a half-century has indeed passed since she launched the preppy girl’s warm-weather wardrobe—simple shifts, capri pants and tennis skirts in splashy pastel patterns—out of a little juice stand on Palm Beach’s Via Mizner. The label she sold in 1993, for which she continues to serve as a consultant, is now celebrating its “Jubilee,” complete with resort collections of bejeweled silk dresses and embroidered blouses, as well as a retrospective of vintage pieces and photographs that this spring will tour major department stores and the company’s 20 boutiques (one stop will be its first Manhattan outpost, which opened on the Upper East Side in May).
“I can’t believe people are still interested in this story,” Rousseau says with a sigh. Never one to play by the rules (she considers underwear as much a nuisance as shoes and lined her Lilly shifts with muslin to encourage women to go au naturel), she would much rather talk about her three children and seven grandchildren, “pretty linens” or her overgrown landscaping and the family of raccoons lurking in it than the business that made her name iconic. Nevertheless, with a bit of coaxing, she jumps right in. “It was a total change of life for me,” Rousseau says of starting her line. “I entered it with no business sense.... It was just something that I all of a sudden took over.”