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Arts / Culture

Her Prints Made Lilly Pulitzer Famous. Now A Key West Artist Is Being Recognized For Her Work

Lilly Pulitzer1.jfif
Matt Flynn
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Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum: IRR
The exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York celebrates the work of previously little-known fabric designer Suzie Zuzek.

The wild, whimsical prints that were key to the success of Lilly Pulitzer's clothes in the 1960s and '70s were the work of an artist from Key West named Suzie Zuzek. She's finally being recognized at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York.

In the 1960s Lilly Pulitzer changed fashion with simple shift dresses in wild, whimsical prints. A lot of those prints even incorporated her name into the design.

Most of those prints were actually the work of someone else — an artist from Key West named Suzie Zuzek. Nearly a decade after her death, she is finally getting public credit for her creations.

That recognition is largely due to the work of Becky Smith, who made a one-day trip to Key West from St. Louis in 2007, in search of vintage Lilly Pulitzer fabric to reupholster a chair. She had heard you could find fabric in Key West because a company called Key West Hand Print Fabrics had produced most of the original Lilly Pulitzer fabrics in the 1960s and '70s.

Smith tracked down a woman named Martha de Poo, who headed the fabric company's art department in the 1980s.

"She said, 'Well you don't want to talk to me — you want to talk to my mom. Because my mom actually created the look,'" Smith said. "We drove over to Suzie's house and literally, a peacock I think, greeted us at the door, along with a couple of roosters. And there was Suzie, sitting underneath this huge banyan tree."

De Poo and Suzie Zuzek told Smith about how Zuzek's textile designs for the fabric company in Key West were the foundation of the Lilly Pulitzer look.

"Quite frankly I really didn't believe it, because I had worn Lilly Pulitzer my whole life and I'd really never heard of them," Smith said.

The Truth Was In The Archives — At The Library of Congress

As Smith started digging into the story, she learned thousands of Suzie Zuzek's original textile designs were still in Key West, stored under the floorboards of an old building. Her research led her to the Library of Congress, looking through the cards that recorded the copyrights on the designs.

She found cards recording Key West Hand Print Fabrics' copyright, listing Suzie Zuzek as the artist.

There were more than 1,500 of them.

That moment in the card catalog, at the Library of Congress, is when Smith decided to make saving Zuzek's work — and getting it recognized — her mission.

"When you realize that there was just really one woman who created all of these designs really of my childhood I was like, 'Wow. Why don't we know this?'" Smith said.

Smith got some investors together and bought the Key West Hand Print archive. And now the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York has a show highlighting Zuzek's work and Rizzoli has published a book, to let the world know that the Lilly Pulitzer prints that captured the imaginations of Jackie Kennedy and countless others were the work of Suzie Zuzek in Key West.

Zuzek's textile designs go far beyond the florals most associate with the Lilly Pulitzer look, said Susan Brown, the acting head of textiles at the Cooper Hewitt and curator of the exhibit. Brown also wrote an essay for the book.

"[Zuzek] created print designs from everything, from cabbages to Roman coins and scrimshaw and weather vanes and seaweed and pirate ships and then the animal prints, which were wonderful and unexpected because she would play with scale," said Brown. "So you'd have a cheetah that was completely dwarfed by a day lily or she would camouflage the animals within the pattern so that you wouldn't see them at first or wouldn't see them from a distance, but then they would kind of materialize before your eyes."

Zuzek served in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II and attended the Pratt Institute under the G.I. Bill. She worked in design in New York. Then she married a Key Wester and moved to the island in 1955. She went to work designing textiles for Key West Hand Print Fabrics in 1961.

'It's Like Dr. Seuss-world Down Here'

Leigh Hooten arrived in Key West while attending art school in Philadelphia, to intern at the fabric company in 1978, and returned to work there after graduating. She remembers how the explosion of colors and the different flowers and animals in Key West affected her when she arrived — and imagines how Zuzek must have experienced that, too.

"It's like Dr. Seuss-world when you first get down here," she said. "Everything is so different than the Northeast."

The animals, especially, were what made Zuzek's designs different. She grew up on a farm in upstate New York, and surrounded herself with animals all her life. Hooten lived with Zuzek during her internship.

"There was a goat, there were chickens, there were peacocks. There was a rooster that would sleep in a puddle," she said. "A monkey, cats, dogs. It was just a menagerie. And that menagerie and that life she created there was all translated into her work."

Martha de Poo said her mother was an introvert who didn't really take direction about what to draw. She points to a design called "Gallery" from 1973.

"I suspect that when she was designing this that she was having a fantasy," said de Poo. "Cats with hats and bows, the duck with the little hat. I think she amused herself that way. That was her interior life, I believe."

Freeing Women From Girdles And Garters

Lilly Pulitzer was a Palm Beach socialite in the early '60s. She started making simple dresses to wear while selling orange juice from a stand in Palm Beach. After she saw the Key West fabrics, she ordered some for her dresses. Her business — and Key West Handprint Fabrics — took off.

Lilly Pulitzer's shift dresses freed women from girdles and garters. And provided the perfect platform for Zuzek's wild imagination.

Wearing them was an irreverent, tongue-in-cheek statement just right for the early '60s, said Brown, the curator from the Cooper Hewitt.

"The colors were a little garish, the patterns were a little loud," she said. "The whole thing was rebellious, but in a way that was fun and happy."

Lilly Pulitzer's name was on the business, and she had the social connections. And Brown said it's not unusual for the designers of textiles to go without credit.

"Fashion designers are notoriously secretive because they want to protect their sources and particularly in a case like this where the prints were so central to the Lilly Pulitzer look. And even if fashion houses have in-house textile designers, they suppress their names in the interest of having a strong brand identity," she said. "There are so many brilliant people, especially women, who have been written out of the history of design."

De Poo says she thinks seeing someone else get credit for her work must have bothered her mother — but she mainly remembers one incident, after a fashion spread appeared in a glossy magazine. The story made no mention of Key West Hand Print Fabrics, or Zuzek.

"There was a line that said something to the effect of 'Lilly's brush still wet from the vibrant colors,'" said de Poo. "My mother — she didn't talk for about two weeks, she was so upset."

Suzie Zuzek retired in 1985, when Key West West Hand Print Fabrics closed. Lilly Pulitzer's company, which had acquired a majority control of the Key West fabric company, declared bankruptcy.

There are so many brilliant people, especially women, who have been written out of the history of design.
Susan Brown, acting head of textiles at the Cooper Hewitt Museum

Zuzek kept making art — sculpture, paintings and tile work. She died in 2012. Two exhibits, at The Studios of Key West and the Key West Art & Historical Society, have celebrated her art. But her influence on American fashion remained largely unknown until Becky Smith wanted to reupholster a chair.

"You have to ask yourself, is history important? Is the truth important?" Smith said.

She credits Pulitzer with starting and running a successful business, no mean feat for a woman in the 1960s. But Smith wants another woman to get credit for her role in the success of that business.

"Lilly was the face of the company. But it was really one woman, Suzie Zuzek, who sat on the second floor of Key West Hand Print Fabrics for a quarter of a century, cranking these designs out," Smith said. "She created all of this."

The exhibit "Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer" is on display at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City until Jan. 2, 2022.

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