Booth Three in the enclosed sun room at Market House on the Square is on its way to becoming as storied as “Booth One” at the Pump Room in downtown Chicago. Perhaps we might be overstating this a bit, but for the second month in a row, Market House’s Booth Three has been the backdrop for one of our most enjoyable interviews.
With the passing of Lilly Pulitzer in April, we reached out to Lillie Milovanovic, owner of Lillie Alexander Ltd. in Lake Forest, the go-to place for Pulitzer’s extensive line for the better part of the last two decades.
Arriving in a Smythe houndstooth boucle jacket (Smythe Clothing is a British label that the Duchess of Cambridge made a household name) with a Lilly Pulitzer Murfee scarf tied effortlessly at her neck, this typically media-shy store owner opened up over iced tea and an Amadei salad and shared what Lilly Pulitzer has meant to her.
“Many years ago, I was at a meeting in Palm Beach and Lilly Pulitzer said she opened stores in places where she had friends,” says Lillie, recalling that Pulitzer’s first foray into Lake Forest was in a small store housed inside the Deer Path Inn. “Lilly [Pulitzer] had good friends here.”
When Lilly Pulitzer sold her business in the late ’80s, early ’90s, the Lillie Alexander store was establishing itself as a fashionista favorite—first with its space where the current Subway stands, then to its locale on Bank Lane (Lillie’s favorite!), to its current address, a space once owned by the Hansen Family, a longtime children’s clothier.
“I remember being down at the [Merchandise] Mart and the new owners of Lilly Pulitzer hunted me down and told me that I had to carry the line,” Lillie says with a laugh. “We were the perfect fit for them. I had the name. We were in Lake Forest—it just made sense.”
And dollars for Lillie Alexander. “In those days, it didn’t matter what it was or if we had the size they were looking for. If it had the ‘Lilly Pulitzer’ label, it flew out of the store. I couldn’t keep anything in stock. I would place orders on Monday so they would arrive in time for the weekend and I always would sell out—it was amazing,” says Lillie. Back in the days of exclusivity contracts, where stores were guaranteed that they were the only ones to sell a specific line within certain geographic areas, Lillie Alexander was one of very few apparel stores in the Midwest to carry this eponymous line.
“There are only a couple of designers who have done with prints—recognizable prints—what Lilly did,” Lillie adds. “Pucci and Missoni—where you see them and instantly know who designed them. No one else has had the same success or staying power.”
Lillie muses at how the demographics for the brand have changed since she first carried it. “The Lilly brand used to have something for everyone and for everything—you, your child, your husband, your kitchen table. Maybe it was too much,” she says. “Now, with them marketing a sorority theme [in their Lookbook], it’s pretty clear who they are going after.”
The customer for Lilly Pulitzer has changed at Lillie’s store, too. “It’s the junior high and high school girls who are really drawn to Lilly’s dresses and accessories,” Lillie says. “In fact, I let a customer borrow my Lilly palm tree for Lilly Pulitzer-themed Sweet 16 party she was throwing—how fun is that?”
But as Lillie watches her customers’ taste broaden to Kate Spade, Tory Burch, and Elie Tahari, she’s confident that there will always be a place for Lilly Pulitzer. “It’s a classic—very ladylike. It’s something you can always revisit.”
Lillie Alexander Ltd. is located at 197 E. Westminster Avenue in Lake Forest, 847-295-8686.
—Ann Marie Scheidler // Illustration by Kirsten Ulve