When Designs Burst from Cloth


Leslie and D. D. Tillett, whose designs included chrysanthemums bursting like fireworks and the large fish dress pattern, shown below

As first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy had a favorite Tillett sundress freckled with raspberries, a design the decorator Albert Hadley later used on the walls and for the curtains and coverlets in a Palm Beach bedroom, blowing up the berries to the size of grapefruits.

As Mrs. Onassis, Jackie brought Billy Baldwin and the Tilletts to Skorpios to work on the Greek villa her husband, Aristotle, was building, and furnished the seed money for the couple’s Manhattan shop, Portmanteau. One note to D. D. from Jackie is illustrated with doodles of cushions to be made up in the Tilletts’ “Joseph’s coat of many colors stripe ... Ari loves it.”

Jacqueline Kennedy’s bedroom when she was first lady featured a Tillett print on the curtains and elsewhere.

Seth Tillett, at 57 the youngest of the Tilletts’ three children, who lives in the Bronx, still recalls what it was like as a teenager to be handed a bolt of fabric and be told to deliver it to 1040 Fifth Avenue, and have Jackie Kennedy open the door. “She wrote very affectionately to my parents, and we stayed with her in Hyannis Port,” he said. “It was hoped that I would become a friend for John, but when I was 12, he was 7, always a bit too old.”

Greta Garbo, Gary Cooper and Harry Truman also wore the Tilletts’ creations, and the American sportswear designer Claire McCardell chose for a dress a wool challis they did for Milliken, the textiles giant. Loulou de la Falaise was 21 and on her way to divorcing Desmond FitzGerald when she was photographed in 1968 for Diana Vreeland’s Vogue, picnicking wistfully with her impossibly wayward mother, Maxime. The copy described the women as being dressed in “the fresh, clean-as-a-Maine-breeze” prints the Tilletts “are famous for.”