April 3, 2014

10 Writing Lessons from Lilly Pulitzer

By Annette Cole Mastron, Communications Director for Southern Writers Magazine

Almost a year ago, Lilly Pulitzer Rousseau died. She lived a full, bold, and colorful 81-year life. Her iconic fashion legacy continues, and her life provides valuable lessons for all writers. 

Her fashions have spanned three generations. Her line was unique and affordable. Her first shifts cost $22. Wearing a Lilly Pulitzer "anything," can transform your attitude. They are "happy" clothes and remind you of a beach vacation. They remind you to dream.

Lilly made the most of her background. She was heir to the Standard Oil fortune. She attended the Chapin School with the Bouvier sisters, Jacqueline and Lee. She married Peter Pulitzer at age 21, and they moved to Palm Beach, FL, where he owned several Florida citrus orange groves. Oranges from the groves gave Lilly her first idea, open a juice stand in the heart of Palm Beach. Her next idea was born of necessity. To camouflage the juice stains, Lilly designed a sleeveless shift dress made from bold, colorful and brightly-printed cotton. These prints were unlike anything in the prim and proper fashion world of the late 1950's. She hung up extra shifts at the back of the juice stand and began selling them. She quickly discovered juice customers loved her "Lilly's." Selling more dresses than orange juice, Lilly changed her focused on selling her shifts, expanding her clothing line and developed her business.

It certainly didn't hurt that Lilly moved in America's elite society circles that often were photographed appearing in magazines. This was a time in the world prior to cable and the Internet. Print magazines were how fashion was measured. America's "royalty," First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Caroline Kennedy, and members of the Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Whitney families were all photographed in "Lilly's" at society functions and while on vacation. America wanted to be them, or at least look like them. 

The Washington Post reported in 1966 that Lilly’s dresses were “so popular that at the Southampton Lilly shop, they are proudly put in clear plastic bags tied gaily with ribbons so that all the world may see the Lilly of your choice.” Thus "preppy" was cool and became associated with Lilly attire. Even President Ronald Reagan donned a Lilly Pulitzer tie. 

Like all good things, in 1984 Lilly closed her colorful clothing operation. A twenty-five year run, not bad. However, that is not the end of Lilly's iconic brand. In 1992, Lilly's company was resurrected by investors with a new target market and continues to thrive. 

Lesson One: write and evolve so you can find your niche and appeal to readers. Lilly started out as a juice stand operator created her simple "shift" to hide the juice stains. She then embraced the shift as her new product. As Lilly said, “The Lilly girl is always full of surprises…she lives every day like it’s a celebration, never has a dull moment."

Lesson Two: write a unique story to set yourself apart from the crowd. Think of Lilly and her colorful signature prints as you write colorful descriptive scenes that jump off the page. As Lilly said, “We believe elegance can be casual. We believe gracefulness can be compatible with fits of laughter. We believe in living a colorful life”

Lesson Three: write, even without pay in order to get exposure for your name and to highlight your writing style. If you are invited to write, do it regardless of pay. Everyone starts out making nothing. Lilly started her business to sell off oranges and turned it into a brand that eventually sold for $60 million. As Lilly said, “If you haven’t any charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble.”

Lesson Four: writers need to transform their attitudes. If something isn't working in your story, spring to the next part of the story. Don't get bogged down. As Lilly said, “Despite the forecast, live like it’s spring.”

Lesson Five: take time to dream and enjoy the process of writing. One of the reasons I write with a Lilly pen when not at the computer is to remind me to dream. You may have guessed, my screen saver is my favorite Lilly print, they make me happy. As Lilly said, “It’s always summer somewhere.”

Lesson Six: writers need to be flexible, when rejected keep moving forward. If you find yourself covered in orange juice think of Lilly and move to the next step. As Lilly said, "Not always sunny, but I can always be in a sunny state of mind” 

Lesson Seven: writers need to use their individual backgrounds and contacts to move their dream forward, that of becoming a successful writer. Get connected in all phases of social media, so friends form your past and readers can find you. Maintain a website so your books can be linked to purchase methods. Be ready for success. As Lilly said, “Jackie [Kennedy] wore one of my dresses – it was made from kitchen curtain material – and people went crazy.”

Lesson Eight: writers should carefully choose their book covers. Many readers reportedly choose a book to read primarily by the book cover. It wouldn't hurt to have people pictured reading your book. Then, post the picture to your various social media sites. As Lilly said, “I didn't set out to be unusual or different. I just wanted to do things my way.”

Lesson Nine: writers need to protect their brand and be willing to expand their writing to other target markets. In other words, reimagine your books and stories. Several well-known authors known for their legal thrillers now also write young adult fiction. Expand your genre writing, stretch your imagination.  As Lilly said, “I designed collections around whatever struck my fancy… fruits, vegetables, politics, or peacocks! I entered in with no business sense. It was a total change of life for me, but it made people happy.”

Lesson Ten: enjoy the writer's journey. A good day of writing gives you sheer joy. Just like putting on Lilly Pulitzer attire gives you a jolt of happy. As Lilly said, “Being happy never goes out of style.”

What a legacy and to think it all started with a juice stand! Thank you, Lilly Pulitzer, you still inspire! 

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