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The Lilly Pulitzer Rorschach Test


Who knew such bold prints could inspire such controversy? Over the weekend, Target decided to sell the niche clothing brand Lilly Pulitzer, based out of Palm Beach, Florida. Target has done this before with other designers and the clothes are often quite popular. This time, however, offering products that people wanted upset plenty of folks.

According to the story, Lilly Pulitzer the designer started her business almost by accident, literally spilling orange juice on her clothes and deeming it fashion. “Her shift dresses became the unofficial uniform of the fabulous at play, from housewives to the White House.” The story reminds me a bit of another bored socialite, Tory Burch, who after getting $2 million from her ex-husband created her brand of overpriced basic clothing and accessories whose loud branding signal to others the cost of your purchase, not the quality of your fashion sense.

Lilly Pulitzer was a brand largely unknown outside of the South and thus was unfamiliar to large swaths of the country until Sunday. While one would think promoting a brand nationwide could be seen as a positive business move, that’s where the series of problematics started.

Long-time Lilly fans felt disenfranchised by the idea that Everyday AmericansTM would have access to a small set of Lilly prints for $38 instead of $88. The scandal! Showing up at your Sunday tea in a dress that might convey you spent $50 less than your other guests! One wonders how this affront will be managed. Many fans lamented the cheapening of their brand and feared that more people might wear it.

In seriousness, every recognizable brand has a certain cache and manages a price point meant to enforce that standard. By admitting her goods could be manufactured at a lower cost and reach more people, Lilly made a strategic choice to go after more of the market. This could dampen the exclusive appeal of the product or it could simply bring positive fashion experiences to more women.

At one point, Apple was a niche brand that pushed its focus on aesthetics and ease of use to become a dominant force. Universally, this is considered positive. Many women clearly felt their need to demonstrate their individuality was at risk if more people adopted something they saw as a unique part of their persona. Others saw this backlash as proof that the South is racist and that white sorority girls were angry at the cultural appropriation of the shift dress. Dramatic? Sure. Funny, at times. Gems like this, because dresses sold in the $80-$200 range are really just a sign of institutional racism:

Meanwhile, the hunt was on all day Sunday for women who wanted a piece of Lilly at a price that perhaps fit the middling cut and quality of the clothes. Shopping carts piled with blindingly bright prints filled Twitter feeds and made many Everyday Americans question our nation’s values.

Others wrote long screeds in Tumblr about how Target owes them a dress and how they would never shop at Target again. Some of these veered quite close to a movement to declare a right to Lilly Pulitzer for Target dresses because, well, Target had made a personal commitment to provide supplies by stating this line of clothing was coming. Calls to force Target to make more product were ignored by the giant retailer, who confirmed many folk’s worst fears by reiterating that this was a onetime run and no more would be made. “But where am I supposed to get the giraffe print scarf?” others cried out.

Thankfully, no one pointed out that Target’s bullseye symbol could be a trigger for them during this great national tragedy. This trying #LillyforTarget Sunday our nation barely survived might have inadvertently made a case for more science, technology, engineering and math study for women. Some poor math and logic skills were on display in light of the potential for a “bargain.” People drove more than 1.5 hours to get to a Target to realize it sold out of the sought-after goods. Had they just considered the value of their time and gas, they could have just bought a dress at and called it a day. Or if they looked at the clothing racks right next to the Lilly Pulitzer offerings in Target, they could have seen that many other loud tropical-print rompers, jumpsuits, and summer dresses that were even cheaper and remarkably similar in style were available. Hopefully some did consider the insanity of spending more than $100 on Ebay for dresses that are $88 at the actual store.

After reading Pulitzer’s obit in The New York Times, one gets the sense that she might not have enjoyed the idea of budget versions of her prints, nor did she think everyone deserves them. When someone told her he couldn’t get a vintage print for a collection because of his budget, she remarked, “A budget, how embarrassing.”

The most cutting critique hit pretty close to home and revealed what is true about the idle rich. The emperor has no clothes; or, in this case, Lilly Pulitzer isn’t fashion, it’s clothing. It’s a product that tapped into a consumer’s idea of exclusivity by being just ugly enough that only someone with disposable cash would spend money on a flamingo-print dress that clearly can’t be worn too often without one becoming that chick who wears flamingos.

The clothes speak more to one’s view on disposable income and priorities than it does to whether a person is actually rich or poor. The clothes are for someone who needs giraffe-print pants because, well, giraffe-print pants can’t be reasoned with. Thankfully for companies like Lilly Pulitzer, there may be more of such people than anyone knew.

Either way, if Lilly Pulitzer makes clothing that can transport the wearer into a particular state of mind through print, cut, and name recognition, its promotional move on Sunday still managed to maintain the exclusivity of the brand by selling out so fast. It also made a niche brand a national discussion. More customers will be surfing over to and, if the print fits, making a purchase. Well done, Lilly and Target, for making things people want.