Lilly Pulitzer may be good for retail, but it's terrible fashion

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

The debut of the Lilly Pulitzer collection for Target was a spectacular feat of retailing that had very little to do with the quality of the fashion that the mass marketer was selling.

Lilly Pulitzer is not fashion. It is clothes. The classic Lilly Pulitzer dress comes in shrill shades of yellow and pink that are vaguely infantilizing. They are clothes that can be shrunk down and worn by 7-year-old girls without changing a single design element — if there were actual design elements to change. But there are not.

Lilly Pulitzer is preppy. It is part of a preppy uniform that announces itself from 50 paces. It is not so much a declaration of wealth as it is a perceived statement about class, lineage and attitude. Anyone can work hard and save up enough cash to go out and purchase a Chanel suit or a Gucci handbag. A devoted student of Vogue can cobble together a personal style that speaks to its public identity.

But Lilly Pulitzer suggests an advantage of birth. The clothes stir up scrapbook notions of ancient family trees, summer compounds, boarding school uniforms and large, granite buildings inscribed with great-great-grandfather's name. Lilly Pulitzer represents something that money cannot buy.

The clothes are, upon close inspection, not so terribly attractive. Actually, they are rather unattractive. And that is part of their charm. They are not meant to be stylish — that's so nouveau. The clothes are clubby. Country clubby. One-percent-ish.

Target created a feeding frenzy of shoppers lured by cheap versions of A-line sheaths that are mostly distinguished by their swirling, colorful prints rather than by silhouette, fabric, craftsmanship or creativity. The massive lines, crashing websites and lust-filled Tweets under #LilyForTarget are less proof of shoppers' discerning taste than evidence that folks love a whiff of leisure-class exclusivity, a brand name and a bargain — however that might be defined.

Target has a long history of these limited-edition collections, which have included such rarefied fashion names as Jason Wu, Altuzarra, Rodarte and Missoni. These collections whipped customers into a near-fugue state of consumption because the merchandise was limited and buyers could get a smidge of the design house's distinctive sensibility for a significant discount. A Rodarte dress normally costs a customer anywhere from $3,000 on up. But most everything in the Target collection was less than $100. The Missoni collection at Target included housewares bearing the Italian brand's distinctive and colorful zigzag pattern. A high-end Missoni pillow costs about $300. Target was selling them for about one-tenth that price. Those are jaw-dropping deals. And it was good-looking merchandise, too.

But Lilly Pulitzer isn't that kind of designer collection. The brand was founded in 1959 by the label's namesake — a bored, rich housewife who had started an orange juice stand in Palm Beach. One day, she brought along several simple, chemise dresses — which had been constructed by her dressmaker from fabric Pulitzer had purchased at Woolworth. The dresses were a hit, and the easy, but constructed shape, helped define the style of a generation of women in the 1960s. The clothes were perky, chaste and bore an aristocratic name.

"There is, however, always a big difference between the uncomplicated Diane von Furstenburg wrap dress, the Halston Ultrasuede shirtwaist or other icons of style, and all the competition. Pulitzer invented nothing; she is hardly a designer," wrote the late fashion historian Richard Martin in his compendium on American fashion. Pulitzer died in 2013.

Today, a simple Lilly Pulitzer dress is about $200. A Target version is about $40. That's a bargain, for sure, but not that exceptional. One might expect to find nearly as good a deal by waiting for a sale at Neiman Marcus. Time, after all, is not of the essence. Lilly Pulitzer is classic. It is always hanging on a rack somewhere, everywhere, in all of its pineapple-print, feel-good, preppy psychedelia.

But who has time to pull out a calculator and get involved in fractions when pink dresses are flying off the racks — virtual and real — and shoppers are overwhelmed by the fear of missing out? It must be a good deal if everyone is going this bonkers, right?

Discerning eyes go blurry at the prospect of a bargain. And as much as people poo-poo the allure of designer this-and-that, shoppers continue to find validation from the name on the label inside their clothes. Sometimes that label rightfully stands for quality — a confirmation that a purse is hand-made or a dress has been stitched just so. But in the case of Lilly Pulitzer for Target, the label isn't a promise of enduring quality, unique style or specialized fit.

The chest-thumping is about having gotten something that others missed out on, something that was ephemeral. Target distinguished itself once again as a retailing dynamo. But what it was selling this time had nothing to do with fashion.