The Palm Beach social swirl that Rousseau recalls—in which counts sat next to carpenters at her dinner parties and, as she relishes telling, Kennedy spoon-fed John-John on her kitchen floor—has an almost mythic quality, one she laments no longer exists. “It was just a cozy bunch of people; it was a smaller town,” says Rousseau, who divorced Pulitzer in 1969 and later married Cuban lawyer Enrique Rousseau. Though Rousseau credits a confluence of timing and luck for her success—with the Kennedy clan vacationing in Palm Beach those days, “the light was shining in this spot”—an unflinching stubbornness clearly served her label well. Told by one retailer that she had to start making fall clothes, Rousseau replied, “Oh, but you don’t understand, it’s always summer somewhere.” Thus she introduced what just may have been one of the first resort collections, a year-round summery lineup that grew to include men’s, children’s and swimwear, with sales peaking at $15 million.
Ever mindful of her own days as an idle stay-at-home mother, Rousseau shrewdly opened Lilly Pulitzer boutiques in towns where her friends had moved, moneyed locales like Philadelphia’s Main Line and La Jolla, California: “Their husbands would be shipped out to some city or town for their jobs, and then what is the poor girl gonna do? She needs a job! She needs a Lilly shop!”
By the early Eighties, however, the working-girl wardrobe and a neutral palette had taken over fashion; sales were flagging, and Rousseau shut the whole thing down in 1984. “I just thought it would be nice to take a long snooze,” she says, shrugging. “Before, I never concentrated much on my kids—I mean, I was always very much a part of their lives, but that kind of turned around [when the business closed].” And then in 1993, the year her husband died, Rousseau was visited by Philadelphia businessmen James “Brad” Bradbeer Jr. and Scott Beaumont. There had been a generational shift, says Bradbeer, and the daughters and granddaughters of Lilly lovers were eager for those snappy prints and flatter-every-shape frocks. “I think the customer wanted it to wake up,” laughs Rousseau, who sold the Lilly Pulitzer license to the pair’s company, Sugartown Worldwide. After a slow start, the revived label found its footing, surprisingly, in the months after 9/11. “It was our best year,” claims Bradbeer, “because people wanted something happy, and the Lilly attitude is always ‘We’re pressing on.’” Bradbeer has pushed the company, which had sales of more than $75 million last year, into the 21st century: more office-friendly wrap dresses and blouses (the Lilly girl now earns a living), fragrances, stationery and eyewear.
As for the original Lilly, these days she is most happy at home, where she still hosts Thanksgiving for nearly 50 on picnic tables near the pool (exes and strangers welcome). Asked if she misses the business, Rousseau shakes her head. “No one could tell me what to do or what not to do, because it was all up here,” she says, pointing to her temple. “And I don’t know if you could do what I did today, because it’s more competitive, and obviously you need a lot more education than I had.” She smiles mischievously. “But oh, my God, I had a terrific time.”