Lilly Pulitzer’s serendipitous tumble into fashion is famous. A socialite sets up a juice stand in Palm Beach. Seeking an easy, warm-weather uniform, she decides on A-line shifts in busy prints—the better to hide the juice stains. Soon her customers are clamoring for the dresses instead of the juice. A legend is born. Behind the legend, however, is the lesser known Suzie Zuzek. The artist responsible for 85 percent of those busy prints—used by Pulitzer from 1962 to 1985—Zuzek is now the subject of an exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt.
Agnes Helen “Suzie” Zuzek dePoo, born in 1920 to Yugoslavian immigrants, had a hardscrabble girlhood on a dairy farm in upstate New York. College would not have been on her radar had not a stint in the U.S. Army allowed her to attend New York City’s Pratt Institute on the G.I. Bill. After graduating in 1949, Zuzek landed a job designing textiles for Herman Blanc Studios, married John dePoo, and then, rather reluctantly, moved in 1954 to Key West, where as a housewife and mother she continued working on her designs. Key West Hand Print Fabrics changed ownership in 1961, and she was hired in 1962, right around the time Pulitzer showed up. The firm’s owners were theater people from New York who had a side interest in architecture and design but possessed no textile background whatsoever. Neither did Lilly Pulitzer. The only one who had a clue was Zuzek.