Monday, August 07, 2006

Alexander Julian

30 years of Alexander Julian
By Crystal Dempsey

McClatchy Newspapers


Alexander Julian, the award-winning Chapel Hill-born designer, is best known for his colorful menswear, sports uniforms with a twist, furniture/home furnishings, and his latest venture, wine.

He's celebrating his 30th year as a fashion designer. Here's a look back at his career:

BORN INTO THE BUSINESS: He's the son of the late Maurice Julian, owner of Julian's menswear shop in Chapel Hill, N.C. Julian's was a haven for men who preferred prep-school style and fine tailoring.

At age 12, during a game of touch football, Julian tore the collar on a blue oxford button-down shirt. He took the shirt to be fixed at his dad's store. In what became a defining moment, Julian put a yellow collar on the blue shirt.

At 19, the prodigy with the preppy pedigree opened a boutique, Alexander's Ambition, across from his dad's store, and stocked it with his own more contemporary designs.

CHASING THE DREAM: In the mid-`70s, Julian moved to New York to pursue fashion design full time. His designs featured a bold use of color and playful twists on traditional fabrics (a trompe l'oeil tweed) and details such as buttons and stitching in bright hues.

In 1981, the Colours collection made him a household name. The clothes echoed his sense of fun but were priced for the masses. He briefly delved into women's wear.

He moved to Italy and designed his own fabrics (a first for a designer). "It was the most fertile period of my career," Julian told the Raleigh News & Observer. "I could dream of a fabric I wanted and they would spin it for me. It was the freest I could be."

UNIFORM DECISION: However, by the mid-`80s, Julian's company went bust because of bad management decisions.

But he didn't stay out of the spotlight for long. George Shinn, owner of Charlotte's new NBA team, asked him to design the uniforms for the Hornets.

The teal/purple and white uniforms featured pin stripes and pleated shorts, which was not quite what the rest of the NBA was wearing at the time. Shinn paid him with monthly shipments of barbecue.

Julian has since designed uniforms for the Tar Heels basketball team (twice), the Charlotte Knights (the seats at the baseball stadium echo the design), the Charlotte Checkers and racing drivers such as Mario and Michael Andretti.

THE LOW POINT: Julian got another investor in the late `80s and opened two retail stores and three outlets.

The key investor pulled out, and the stores closed after only a few years.

It was a low point for the Carolinas' best-known designer. "With the exception of the passing of my parents, this was the most horrible point in my life," he told the N&O.

BOUNCING BACK: In the mid-`90s, Julian designed a collection of furniture. It was a hit. He was back.

Next came bedding, wallpaper, lamps and more. "The only difference between designing home furnishings and fashions is that there are fewer sizes," he says. "You're dealing with the same kind of decision-making process for consumers."

In 2001, Julian, who loves wine almost as much as barbecue, developed an eponymous line of wine.

Yet, Julian missed designing menswear.

Four years ago, he unveiled the Private Reserve collection, which features Julian's design sensibilities and his wine line.

Julian's next project? Heeding the success of Colours, he wants to produce a lower-price version of the Private Reserve clothing for a younger audience.

REFLECTIONS: This year, a Connecticut museum and a New York gallery featured "Uncommon Threads," a retrospective of Julian's career.

When Julian, 58, first walked through it, he said the effect shook him.

"I remember the process of every damn yarn, every thread, all the seasonal showing, the press showings, the celebrities who wore them," he says. "They were all there, all speaking to me at once."

He says he left the room and opened a bottle of wine.

LESSONS LEARNED: Julian, who is a charmer and great storyteller, is never at a loss for words. When asked what he's learned, his answer was in three parts:

ABOUT HIMSELF: "I learned to stick with it. And to be happy with my space and my place. I have a particular handwriting that works in a lot of different places and a lot of different mediums. And I've learned not to be afraid of any challenge."

ABOUT THE PUBLIC: "(They have) been underrated in their level of sophistication and taste. They have greater appreciation of things when they are good."

ABOUT THE INDUSTRY: "The old axiom is lead a horse to water, but you've got to hold his head under. Change is a hard thing to effect when it involves unknowns that can't be proven in advance."

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