Half Drop Hero: Suzie Zuzek

Suzie Zuzek, "Half Drop Hero" Blog by Lea Rutledge

Welcome to "Half Drop Heroes", a series that aims to highlight textile designers who I find deeply influential, both from a professional and personal standpoint.

Each post in the series will include answers to the following 4 questions –

  1. Why should we care about them?
  2. How did they influence design?
  3. What can we learn from their process? And lastly…
  4. What makes them human? I.e., a favorite personal anecdote. 

I am beginning this series with Suzie Zuzek because her story personifies the separation between artist and brand that can lead to the anonymity of textile artists in the world of design.

 

Suzie Zuzek in her studio (Rizzoli) 

Much of this blog post references the Rizzoli book that was published in May 2020 titled, “Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer: The Artist Behind an Iconic American Fashion Brand (1962-1985)”

Background: 

Born Agnes Helen Zuzek, the youngest of 5 children of Yugoslavian immigrant parents, Suzie was raised on a dairy farm near Buffalo, New York. As a child, Suzie drew in a warm spot behind the stove, her sisters passing along pieces of paper. At 12, Suzie began working the farm with her siblings, when her father passed away.

When World War II began, Suzie enlisted to serve in the Women’s Army Auxiliary and was eligible for tuition benefits under the GI bill. It was then that Suzie enrolled in the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, where she studied textile design and illustration…and graduated at the top of her class.

Years later, Lilly and Suzie met by chance at Key West Hand Print Fabrics, where Lilly had begun buying the textiles for her shift dresses. An epic partnership was born.

Why Should We Care?  

The fact that Zuzek’s brilliant patterns went unattributed during her lifetime, even though they “cemented the success and appeal of the original Lilly Pulitzer Brand”, illuminates the need to recognize past and present textile artists who are integral to the design industry.

According to Rizzoli’s recent publication,

“That Zuzek’s work for Lilly Pulitzer was anonymous reflects a standard that has been historically customary throughout the fashion world, where unsung artisans abound.” 

In a world where “unsung artisans abound”, Suzie’s story allows us to study the talented individuals behind the prints that became iconic to American style.

Perhaps Zuzek’s story will encourage more of us to ask the names of the artists behind the brands and images that captivate us.

How did Zuzek influence design?

Suzie’s influence on design was lasting and impactful. According to Rizzoli,

“Customers collected her works, attracted to the “verve, wit, palette, and technique evident in throughout her work.”

Words like “wild, colorful, joyful, free, happy, whimsical, and vivacious” abound when reading about her work. “You look at them and you can’t help but smile.”

Caroline Reynolds Milbank, a fashion historian who contributed to the Rizzoli book, states that there was “probably a snobbery that such a cheerful work can’t be serious, but it was radical and traditional at the same time.”

 Women Modeling Zuzek's Prints for Lilly Pulitzer (Rizzoli)

Zuzek did not confirm to the seasonal color palettes that the fashion industry as a whole followed, and this alone influenced American style to embrace a casual, colorful, and playful aesthetic.

Furthermore, the shapes of Pulitzer’s shifts, in addition to the patterns, dramatically changed the fashion of the day.

According to Milbank, When Jackie Kennedy wore a casual, knee-baring Lilly Pulitzer shift in an early Zuzek floral to greet President John F. Kennedy at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts in 1962, the fact that “it didn’t require traditional underpinnings like girdles or stockings, helped propel fashion forward.”

What can we learn from her process?

It is clear from looking at Zuzek’s work that she understood pattern design.

According to the Rizzoli book, she created her patterns in such a way that they were visually appealing both when viewed from a distance and also when “enjoyed up close in their idiosyncratic detail.”

Some of this was due to the depth of her work, which often included patterns layered within patterns.

Interestingly, Suzie also worked within strict design parameters, using the smallest number of screens to keep costs down.

 Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer (Rizzoli)

 She worked countless animals into her designs – many local to Florida – and was an avid lover of animals herself.

My favorite quote of Suzie’s is,

“There’s nothing different in this world, it’s just the different twist you give a thing.”

To me, this speaks volumes about her process – she took common motifs of animals and flowers and made them entirely her own. It requires both artistic confidence and autonomy for a designer to do this, and Suzie clearly had both.

What makes her human? 

Personal memories of Suzie are of someone kind, who acted as a mentor to many young artists, loved animals, and had a gentle disposition.

 Suzie Zuzek and Tennessee Williams (Rizzoli)

“She was quiet, most often seen in a chambray shirt and white keds, yet she produced designs of incredible vitality.”

The juxtaposition of her personal style with the wild vivaciousness of her artwork is refreshing in its selflessness. It also fits with the greater arc of her full and unsung story.

Not for the first time, Suzie was content to let her art alone take center stage.

 

  

References: 

  • White, Andrea. W Magazine. “Suzie Zuzek Was a 1960s Icon Who Never Got Her Due.” May 8, 2020. https://www.wmagazine.com/story/suzie-zuzek-lilly-pulitzer-cooper-hewitt-rizzoli-book/
  • Brown, Susan and Caroline Rennolds Milbank. Suzie Zuzek for Lily Pultizer: The Artist Behind An Iconic American Brand. Rizzoli Electa. 2020

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7 comments

  • Susan Faiola: February 24, 2021

    Great blog! Love this story. I have a dim memory of being in the Keys as a teen and stopping in at Key West Hand Print Fabrics. Now I want to read the book.

  • Lea: January 10, 2021

    Dear Ellie, I love that part of Lilly’ story too – such a practical solution with which to have started an empire! It makes me feel like anything is possible! :) xox

  • Lea: January 10, 2021

    Dear Ellie, I love that part of Lilly’ story too – such a practical solution with which to have started an empire! It makes me feel like anything is possible! :) xox

  • Lea : January 10, 2021

    Thank you Sonia! How lucky you are to have known her, she sounds like such a warm soul. Such a combination of talent and humility. Xx

  • Sonia Robinson: January 10, 2021

    A lovely tribute to an unsung hero- I lived in Key West most of my life & have never known such a gifted artist that was so down to earth- she was also an amazing ceramic artist excelling at angels❤️

  • Ellie Bryant: January 09, 2021

    Thank you for introducing ne to this iconic designer. I read the W magazine article and love that Lilly Pulitzer wanted a pattern that would hide orange juice splatters. Just goes to show that all it takes is one significant believer in your work to rocket you to the stars. Your believer is looking for you, Lea! And I know she’ll find you.

  • Kali Reynolds: January 08, 2021

    Wait! Lily Pullitzer didn’t make all those Lily designs? Who knew?? This is so interesting! I wonder how Suzie felt about this set-up. Maybe she was grateful to have the work, or maybe she felt it was being stolen from her. I will have to read the books to find out.
    The print with the pink flower and blue background actually has birds embedded in the background design. I see what you mean- it is stunning from afar and also when you look closely.

    Sefy liked to make “zany” paintings and drawings and loved these designs- we always thought Lily Pullitzer created them!

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