The Many Facets of the Lilli Diamond Vintage Dress Line
Miss Magnolia models a Lilli Diamond design sold by Sputnik's Vintage (left) and Al and Lilli Diamond share a moment in their Los Angeles warehouse
It has been more than 30 years since the last Lilli Diamond dresses rolled out of a downtown Los Angeles factory and were released into the boutique jungle. The company, which by all accounts started producing cocktail dresses and other distinctive evening wear in 1950, ceased to exist by the mid-1980s.
Today, the finely crafted, curve-capturing pieces still pop up in online auctions, estate sales and vintage shops; but they've become increasingly coveted in the past 10 years and the premiums they fetch continue to rise.
And it's not just casual wearers of vintage fashion that seek out Lilli Diamond clothing. In recent years, film productions have also been snatching up what pieces remain.
In 2014, Cindi Ryland, owner of Retropolitan Fine Antiques and Vintage in Annapolis Maryland, provided a number of period outfits to the film “The Dressmaker,” a 1950s revenge comedy starring Kate Winslet. Among the hundreds of pieces Cindi shipped to the Australian film set were items that boasted the Lilli Diamond label.
“The Lilli Diamond line seemed to be better tailored, better fit, better put together,” Ryland told Sputnik’s Vintage by phone. “I always loved the details at the neck and the hem.”
Lilli Diamond's dresses and swing coats are a perfect pinpoint of a very distinct moment in time for a very distinctive sort of woman. Form-enhancing silhouettes accentuated every curve. Strategically sewn bust darts gave cocktail dresses that iconic bullet-shaped bustline indicative of the 1950s. Rhinestones tastefully adorned décolletage to add to the shine of the wearer's radiant smile and sparkling baubles.
It's these hallmarks of mid-century bombshell and starlet style that help make Lilli Diamond dresses a no-brainer when it comes to outfitting both pinup pageants and post-war period pieces for film and television alike.
Marina Reti, assistant costume designer for the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (the hit Amazon Prime series is known in their own right for their iconic and eye-catching mid-century fashions), told Sputnik's the show's extensive vintage wardrobe collection likely includes Lilli Diamond pieces, which would be worn by background actors in club scenes where the eponymous Midge Maisel performs with Shy Baldwin.
Yet despite remaining highly collectible by casual and professional vintage hunters, little remains known about the origins of Lilli Diamond. Contemporaneous advertising and articles from the company's heyday are difficult, though not impossible, to dig up.
Who was Lilli Diamond? Where did she learn her craft? Why did she stop making dresses?
Finding Lilli Diamond
Julie Poulter (right) and Anna Go-Go posing with Lilli Diamond dresses (photo courtesy of Anna Go-Go)
In 2015, a Lilli Diamond aficionada from Australia named Julie Poulter wrote about her efforts to track down the clothing line’s namesake. For years, "Lilli Diamond" was thought to be nothing more than corporate specter dreamed up by a long-dead marketing team.
Thanks to some crack detective work, Poulter located the living breathing Lilli Diamond residing in a Los Angeles retirement home. Poulter met with Lilli, and learned the dresses were designed by Lilli’s immigrant husband Al. For Lilli, a devoted thespian at heart, dresses were a secondary fancy.
Sputnik’s Vintage spoke to Lilli’s granddaughter, Marni Diamond, and learned that Lilli unfortunately passed away in October 2017 at the age of 102 (Al passed away in 2000). Marni described her grandparents as a couple intensely devoted to one another from the day they met. It's likely this chemistry led to the company's memorable designs.
A Storybook Romance
Brooklyn-born Lillian Prusansky travelled by bus to California in 1937 when she was 17 with the dream of becoming an actress. She was walking down a Hollywood street shortly after arriving in town when a car slowly started following her. The mysterious driver who introduced himself to her that day was Al. They married three months later.
In Lilli, Al found his inspiration.
“She was his muse,” said Marni. “If she liked a design she had seen, he would make one that appealed to her.”
Just exactly how Al became so skilled at churning out classic designs may never be fully known, but it's probable that hardships experienced as a child taught him valuable lessons about hard work and seizing opportunity.
He left Chernobyl with his mother and siblings in 1917 when he was just a boy. It's unclear why the family left Russia. It's hard to imagine the war raging in Europe wasn't a contributing factor. The family travelled across Siberia by cattle car to Harbin China, then by boat to the west coast of America. Soon, the the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles would be home. The plan was for the family to meet up with Al’s father who had come to the states ahead of them. But by the time Al arrived in Los Angeles, his father had started a new family.
From a young age, Al helped to support his mom and siblings. Occupied with survival, he didn’t advance past the eighth grade.
As a boy Al sold newspapers. He got his start in the fashion industry sweeping in a clothing factory before working his way up to pattern cutter.
Lilli Diamond in the 1950s in Venice Beach, CA
A few years before her death, Lilli filled in some details about the company's early days in an interview with a blogger at LA Fashion Snob. As Lilli told it, Al had grown restless with cutting dresses. He enlisted a couple students from a design school and put some samples together. Al took the samples to a San Francisco trade show and planted himself in a hallway outside (he couldn't afford the fee to rent a space in the show). The samples generated enough interest to make Al believe he could start his own business.
“While most factories used mannequins, he used live models,” Lilli told LA Fashion Snob. “He would fit the garment to the girl, which was a big difference.”
A Diamond Shines
Newspaper advertisements from the 1950s show Lilli Diamond clothes were sold at boutiques across southern California: Henry’s in Ontario, House of Nine in Hollywood, Bobbie’s in Temple City, Hazel Taylor in San Pedro. The line was also regularly sold at Frederick’s of Hollywood, during the height of the chain's popularity.
In February 1960, fashion industry trade publication Women’s’ Wear Daily reported that San Francisco-based Lilli Ann was in talks to purchase the Lilli Diamond line, which was producing a robust $2 million in annual sales (more than $19 million in today’s dollars). A Lilli Diamond representative denied the rumor.
But there was no denying that competitors were paying attention.
An August 1962 article in the Los Angeles Times reported that publicly traded clothing company Campus Casuals had leased a 65,000 sq. ft. building at 1200 Hope St. The company was in the process of vacating its showrooms and cutting facilities at 719 S Los Angeles St.
The article noted that “affiliated firms’ Lilli Diamond and Adde Originals would be occupying the newly vacated space.
In June 1963, Campus Casuals Chairman Harry Ross gave a report to Los Angeles Society of Financial Analysts. Held at the now demolished University Club in downtown, a parade of curvaceous models outfitted in sportswear, dresses and sweaters mingled with businessmen at the “usually unglamorous meeting.”
Campus Casuals had completed its acquisition of Lilli Diamond and Ross reported to the assembled analysts that sales had climbed 10 percent above volume over the previous year.
Fitness instructor and performer Anna Go-Go (Instagram: @gogoacademy) who's been billed as the Australian Richard Simmons, has been collecting Lilli Diamond dresses since the early 2000s. She says her love of vintage style blossomed as a kid watching reruns of Elizabeth Taylor and Marylin Monroe movies.
Today, Anna's viewers get their dose of weekly cardio by sweating it out to vintage dance crazes. A recent image on her instagram account shows Anna wearing a teal Lilli Diamond dress and coat embellished with soutache and claw set rhinestones.
"One of the things I love about Lilli Diamond is they always fit," Anna told Sputnik's by phone. "The cut, the tailoring, the draping. Even with my curvy figure, they're magical."
As it turns out, Anna is friends with Julie Poulter, the author who sought out the actual Lilli Diamond. Several years ago, both women were invited to show some of their Lilli Diamond pieces at an event held at the National Gallery of Victoria. The women were asked by those in attendance about how they conserved and stored their pieces. As regular wearers of the items, the women just laughed.
"To me the beauty of a dress is how it looks when it's on...the value in collecting for me is these are dresses to wear. I'm not hoarding them in a closet," Anna explained.
End of An Era
After Campus Casuals took over Lilli Diamond, Al continued with the company for a couple more years. But by the time Marni was born in 1967, her grandfather had left the company. He never designed again. Campus Casuals continued to produce the Lilli Diamond line throughout the 70s and 80s, though not with the same Hollywood bombshell appeal of the earlier designs.
Lilli meanwhile refocused on acting and became a regular member of the Santa Monica Playhouse. She performed in many small theater productions, commercials and ad campaigns for decades to come.
Watch closely during the 1995 video for Bjork’s version of “It’s Oh So Quiet”, and you’ll catch a glimpse of Lilli twirling an umbrella just behind the Icelandic chanteuse. She also appeared in a hilarious Miller Lite commercial in the late 90s.
Marni remembers visiting her grandparents at their Santa Monica apartment as a kid, and swimming with Al, who would toss her and her four siblings high into the air and catch them. They attended UCLA football games back when the team played at the Coliseum. Al taught the kids that unless there was an 'absolutely do not enter sign', they could move the cones and find a secret spot to park where it would be easier to leave at the end of the game.
Today, the fashion bug remains in the Diamond blood. For years, Marni co-owned and operated an infant clothing store called Spanky Lane. Lately, she’s been busy designing and sewing masks to sell during the COVID-19 pandemic. She hopes to one day relaunch the Lilli Diamond line, but with a focus on vintage styles for infants as well as items for folks of all ages: aprons, bandanas and tea towels.
When asked why she thinks her grandfather walked away from something he was so good at, Marni said the decision didn't require much thought.
“He was finished with work. He was ready to retire, and wanted to devote time to his family,” she said.
For a man who faced significant uncertainty at such a young age, it’s not so hard to imagine why. Maybe having a family and the time to spend with them was more than enough.