Even if you’ve never been to Palm Beach, you surely know Lilly Pulitzer, who started an exuberantly patterned fashion line in 1959 that has come to define resort dressing. It is less likely that you are familiar with Suzie Zuzek, the Pratt-educated textile designer who is responsible for many of the prints Pulitzer used in her creations in the 1960s and ’70s. A Buffalo, New York, native, Zuzek moved to Key West with her husband in the 1950s. She was one of the early employees of Key West Hand Print Fabrics, whose textiles Pulitzer regularly ordered for her clothing line. Next spring, Zuzek will be the subject of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum exhibition “Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer: The Prints that Made the Fashion Brand.” Here, Susan Brown, the associate curator of textiles at the Cooper Hewitt—and the organizer of the show—discusses Zuzek’s talent and creative contribution to Pulitzer’s iconic brand.
ED: Tell me how you discovered Suzie Zuzek and her work.
Susan Brown: Becky Smith and Meg Shinkle, who have purchased the Key West Hand Print Fabrics archive, ed us and brought some of the original drawings here to show them to our curators. We ended up acquiring ten of the drawings for the museum’s permanent collection; it was while researching those drawings that I got started on the whole endeavor.
ED: So how did you come to learn more about her involvement in the Lilly Pulitzer brand?
SB: At first I just thought it would be a fun project. I went to the archive in St. Louis and looked at hundreds of drawings, which were all impressive. Then I went to Key West and interviewed a number of former Key West Hand Print Fabrics employees who are still living—some of them are in their 80s. It was a fantastic trip. Everybody I met said it was the best job they’d ever had. Everyone was so heartfelt in their love of that company, and for Suzie, and in their feeling that she has not gotten the recognition she deserves. That the whole thing was really built on her imagination and she didn’t get any credit for it.
ED: Is that common? For a fashion designer to use prints created by someone else without necessarily crediting the textile designer?
SB: It is, of course, very common for a brand that carries one person’s name—whether it’s Lilly Pulitzer or anyone else—to have many designers working underneath them. And most of those people remain anonymous. I would say it’s very unusual that a company would be so very closely associated with certain prints—most designers today, they use a lot of different fabrics that are sourced from many places. But Lilly Pulitzer really got all of her fabrics from one place. And Suzie Zuzek designed not every single one of them, but by far the vast majority.
ED: Do you have a sense of how Suzie might have felt about this?
SB: She was also an artist, and on one level she was preoccupied with her own work as a painter and sculptor. And she enjoyed her job. She loved designing textiles, but her heart was also in the art she was creating. She was represented by galleries. She had some shows. She was “Florida famous.” According to her daughters, she tried on many occasions to request some royalties—even a few pennies per yard—but at some point they were producing 5,000 yards a week of her designs, and she was getting nothing other than her base wage on that. She had not a lot of money and died without much money. She was cash poor certainly for her whole life.
ED: Where did her interest in design and art come from?
SB: She grew up near Buffalo on a farm—she was one of five children—and apparently took up drawing in her very early childhood. Her sisters would save pieces of paper for her. Her parents were immigrants from Yugoslavia; her father died when she was 12. So then the whole family was working the farm. But she did enlist in the army during World War II and went to Pratt on a GI Bill. Initially she was interested in studying commercial illustration, but they encouraged her to try textile design and she loved that, too, graduating at or near the top of her class.
ED: And then she moved to Florida?
SB: She worked in New York as a textile designer for about three years. She married John dePoo, who was a Key West native, and had two daughters. Then they moved to Key West, where they had a third daughter. But she lived there more or less as a housewife and worked only on her personal artwork. And then Key West Hand Print Fabrics started. They hired her in February 1962 and, around the same time, Lilly Pulitzer turned up. The people who founded the firm were theater people from New York—they had no textile background at all. They were winging it. Of course, Lilly Pulitzer had no fashion background either. Suzie was the only one who knew what she was doing.
ED: It’s funny that someone who grew up in Buffalo ended up creating a signature look of warm-weather dressing. Where did that aesthetic come from?
SB: I saw a home movie where someone interviewed her about her career. And she reminisced about picking wildflowers with her sister when she was young, and how much her mother loved flowers. Even after living in Key West for many years, she continued to do floral patterns that were based on the northern flowers that she still loved the best. I guess she had a fresh eye for Florida, being a newcomer there. She had probably never seen the ocean before. So she did some very quirky seaside patterns, but she was also a great animal lover. She had in her backyard nine peacocks and a goat and a bunch of cats.
ED: Why do you think her designs resonated so well with the public?
SB: She was enormously talented. The designs are imaginative, and yet she draws beautifully. She has a relaxed hand—very well suited to screen-printing. I’m particularly fascinated by the animal prints, because you don’t see a lot of animals in adult clothing. Her animals are very engaging and empathetic—they’re all characters. You feel like they have a story to tell. The designs are very skillful in the sense that they’re well balanced and they fill the space completely and well.
ED: Do you know what kind of interactions Suzie had with Lilly Pulitzer? Were there creative discussions?
SB: Not really. By everyone’s description, Lilly would come down from Palm Beach to Key West about once a month, and Peter Pell and Jim Russell, who owned the company, would show her a stack of designs. And she would pick the ones she liked—she got first choice among them, although Key West Hand Print Fabrics had its own shop and also produced its own clothing line and its own interiors fabric line. So there was some competition between them. But they were financially dependent on Lilly Pulitzer as their biggest wholesale client, so she got first pick. She showed a strong preference for Suzie Zuzek’s designs, but there wasn’t a relationship between them particularly, other than to say hello.
ED: You mentioned that you started doing research on Zuzek because you found her designs so charming and fun. At what point did you realize the redemptive story built into this narrative?
SB: Fairly early on. I knew that Suzie Zuzek was not a household name. And the Smithsonian [which owns the Cooper Hewitt] has a five-year initiative on American women’s history. But obviously I don’t want to build up one female designer by tearing down another. Lilly Pulitzer achieved something impressive as well. In talking to other textile designers, they said, again, that it’s very common for them to remain anonymous. But it’s very nice when someone gets some credit.