Wearing Lilly Pulitzer has for a long time been about as preppy as you can get short of being Judge Smails in Caddyshack.
The brand’s smock dresses, skirts, Bermuda shorts, and ribbon belts are festooned with bright colored patterns of all things tropical and Palm Beachy—flamingos, palm trees, oranges; even the occasional embroidered motif of a lady swinging a golf club.
Lilly Pulitzer (yes, she was a real person) founded the company in 1959 in Palm Beach.
Pulitzer shut the company down in 1984 after decades of success.
Sugartown Worldwide bought the brand in 1993 and relaunched with creative input from Pulitzer until her death in 2013.
The brand became a uniform of the well-heeled WASP, the calling card of the country club set. In the brand’s mid-century heyday, women who ran in certain circles and were born of certain blood-lines—ladies of the Kennedy, Whitney, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt families—all wore Pulitzer’s unmistakable shift dresses.
Dresses that, come April 19, will be available to anyone who shops at Target.
The two brands announced a collaboration last week, and Refinery29 noticed there were a lot of people on Twitter who were horrified that their beloved brand, a bastion of prep, would make itself available to the masses. They were convinced that Lilly herself would be rolling over in her grave at the news.
But Lisa Birnbach, author of the “New York Times’’ best seller “The Preppy Handbook,’’ and “True Prep: It’s a Whole New Old World,’’ doesn’t think these angry tweeters were right.
“What surprises me—besides how emotional and snobby people are being about this—is that I don’t think Lilly Pulitzer would be disappointed at all,’’ Birnbach told Boston.com. “I think she’d probably be very keen on it. I spent time with her in Palm Beach a few years ago, and she was very pleased that her clothes had become more popular under the new ownership. She was, I think, a Democrat in the social sense of the word.’’
The Collaboration Will Still Kill It
Regardless of the reaction and regardless of what Lilly herself would have thought, Lilly Pulitzer for Target will be a huge success because it’s a designer collaboration with Target.
The mega-retailer’s collaborations take high-end brands, make more affordable and slightly different versions of the brand’s clothing, and drum up buzz for months before. Then they release a limited quantity that will never be made again.
“They do well not just in purity of sales generated, but by the incremental sales made by bringing in a key audience more frequently with excitement,’’ says Eli Portnoy, CEO of Cultureranch LLC, and a branding and marketing expert.
In the past, collection items have become cult pieces in and of themselves, even though the price was drastically lower than what the brand usually retails for.
Demand for the collaboration always exceeds supply. “I saw on eBay that I can sell a plastic Missoni for Target plate I got for $1.99 for $19,’’ says Portnoy.
When Missoni and Target joined forces in 2011, people went nuts , lining up on Black Friday to scoop up the goods before they sold out. Actress Jessica Alba even tweeted about it.
I dreamt about the Missoni 4 Target bike last night... Wonder if that was a premonition 🙂 maybe @cash_warren is going to get it 4 me?!?— Jessica Alba (@jessicaalba) September 7, 2011
The reaction was also overwhelmingly positive when Target announced the Jason Wu collaboration in 2012. People were selling items for auction the day of the launch for four times their original cost. When it came to teaming up with high-end brands, it seemed that Target could do no wrong.
Haters Gonna Hate
So when it comes to Lilly for Target, why are some people losing their cool?
While past limited edition runs with designers have sold for far cheaper than the brands retail for at full price (a Missoni dress, for example, can cost upwards of $1,500; a Missoni for Target dress cost around $40), Lilly Pulitzer isn’t haute couture.
The average college student can’t afford Alexander McQueen, but she can usually save enough money to buy a $188 Lilly dress. The brand allows people to present an image of wealth and high social class even if they aren’t extraordinarily wealthy. The gap between the prices doesn’t separate the clientele of each brand enough.
A haute couture brand collaborating with Target wouldn’t even generate the idea of cheapening the brand because it’s already so vaunted and expensive. But a Target collaboration with Lilly hits a little too close to home with brand loyalists because the brand isn’t stratospherically more expensive than the clothes regularly sold at the discount retailer.
There’s also the issue of what Lilly signifies socially.
“Lilly is the brand that defines preppiness. You can’t get around it. So much of being preppy is exclusivity,’’ says Sarah Chase, author of “Perfectly Prep’’ and Visiting Lecturer at Brown University.
So for those who bar others from entering clubs to make themselves feel more secure, who wear the clothes explicitly to convey a preppy, wealthy, exclusive image, Lilly Pulitzer’s collaboration with Target is deeply threatening.
“Obviously, the people who are confident in themselves, in their style, in what they wear, in their social acceptance—or their lack of interest in it—could care less who’s buying what,’’ says Birnbach.
It is those who need to separate themselves from others to elevate their sense of social status who in Birnbach’s words, “have to get over themselves.’’