Originally published May/June 2013
When did it all start for Alexander Julian?
Speaking strictly chronologically, you’d probably have to say the journey from local-boy-with-talent to internationally famous and successful fashion mogul began with young Alex making forts out of suit boxes and swatch books in his father Maurice's East Franklin Street store, shoving his kid sister, Missy Julian, into plush piles of cashmere.
But his wasn't a linear, uninterrupted trek to the heights of the New York City fashion world. First there was the bed young Alex, dutifully but enthusiastically placing an order for his father at a trade show booth or staring out at the moors as dad consulted with the manager of a Scottish manufacturing facility.
That's not to say he didn't show flashes of style, even flair, in his youth. He calls it a “light bulb moment,” the day at age 12 when his shirt was ripped in a scrap with a pick-up football adversary after school. He took it to Pete the Tailor at his father’s shop and, seeing a discarded yellow shirt, asked if Pete would take the yellow collar and affix it to his blue Oxford. “It was the first time I got that look that I’ve seen hundreds of times now, like, ‘Well, [there's] an extraterrestrial among us,’” a comment on his keen eye for color and daring that would ultimately propel him to fame and fortune.
First, though, he had to navigate his teen and college years. Alex's path was not a particularly easy route, made all that much harder, as he says, because of "...some adolescent tension between my father and I." In short order – though it most likely seemed endless to his patient but demanding father – Alex attended, with carrying degrees of dedication, boarding schools, Chapel Hill High and UNC for a few years. Sandwiched in there somewhere was even a short stint as a bartender and bouncer at a bar in Ocean Drive, S.C.
His original promise to dad to study hard and become a doctor was modified – OK, jettisoned – when his aptitude for math and science was found to be not in harmony with the demands of science.
Which led to the moment or, more accurately, the deed that saw Alex give way to Alexander Julian as the world has come to know him. “To this day,” his sister, says, “the nerve of it has never diminished from me.”
It was August 1969, the same month as Woodstock, and Alex’s mother, father and sister were gone for the month. Left behind to run the family store, the 21-year-old took the opportunity to let one of his father’s tenants out of his lease and, spending today’s equivalent of $600,000 of Maurice’s credit, he took over the space for his own boutique. He called it, almost too perfectly, Alexander’s Ambition.
GROWING UP FAST
“Now, where the hell was I?”
We’re into the second hour of our interview over shrimp vermicelli and banh mi at Lime and Basil, and Alex is refocusing after another entertaining digression. The man is nothing if not a raconteur, spilling forth with hilarious anecdotes and stories - some not suitable for this family magazine - as he hopscotches through time. Landing the plum role as Dopey in the Junior Playmakers’ production of Snow White, directed by Georgia Kyser. The integration of Chapel Hill High School. His epic streak of cutting school his junior year. Refusing to stand for Dixie at a meeting of the Daughters of the Confederacy at Bill’s Good Food in Chatham County that his Scots-Irish maternal grandmother had dragged him to.
His ever-present wide smile leavens even his most frightening tale of youthful derring-do. Friends say he's always been a jokester with more than a dusting of benign devilishness.
“He was a lot of fun, very sociable and gregarious,” says childhood pal Bland Simpson, a musician and UNC professor. “He’s just a great spirit. Everybody loves him. It’s universally true that you see people smile whenever you say his name.”
Alex, Bland and fellow classmate Cheryle Jernigan form a unique club: They each remember walking from school – near what is now University Square – down Franklin Street for afternoon shifts at family businesses.
Bland worked at his uncle’s stationery shop near Sutton’s, Cheryle at her family’s Thell’s Bakery, and Alex, of course, at Julian’s College Shop.
Alex has stayed close to his childhood friends, even as Alexander Julian has traveled the globe, making a name for himself in every sense of the phrase. Before all that, though, he toiled in his father’s shadow.
‘WHAT DADS DID'
Maurice Julian opened Julian’s College Shop at that familiar corner of East Franklin in 1942. The son of Russian immigrants, he had followed his brother, who attended UNC law school, to Chapel Hill from Massachusetts.
Maurice got an undergraduate degree in 1938, then opened his first store, a bicycle shop called Julian’s Cyclery, near where what is now McAlister’s Deli.
Hailing from shoe-making hub Brockton, Mass., Maurice started selling shoes out of the store and the trunk of his car. That somehow morphed into offering tailoring services to officers soon headed to some World War II front, which led to the clothing store opening in 1942.
Alex and Missy say their father was a perfectionist and could be harsh when employees – blood kin or no – fell short of his expectations.
He was also competitive. He had to be. There were five other menswear stores on Franklin Street through the ’40s and ’50s.
Alex credits his dad for showing him how to carve out a niche in the marketplace. Every family vacation – to Scotland, Italy, New England – involved a long visit to a factory or two. Maurice would work with the manager to tweak designs that would set him apart.
“I grew up thinking that’s what dads did,” Alex says.
And he paid close attention. “I sensed something new was happening in men’s apparel,” Alex says referring to the days before he launched his own store on his dad's dime. “I tried and tried to convince my father to let me open a men’s boutique. He always found a way to get out of the conversation.”
“I was disinherited for three days,” Alex says of the fallout over his opening of Alexander’s Ambition.
Around this time, Alex had married his first wife at age 19, and they had a young daughter. (He has since had five more children.) “The fact that I gave my dad his first grandchild is the reason I got off so easy,” he says.
The new store carried expensive, handmade items and thus relied on monied clotheshorses like Owen Kenan and Billy Armfield to keep it going. That was, until the shop attracted the attention of a Greensboro textile magnate with the Dickensian name of Brokie Lineweaver.
Meanwhile, “My father and I went through the single worst phase of our relationship at that time. He owned the store, but he treated me like competition. It was a rotten situation.”
Brokie suggested, “Why don’t you just write him a [expletive] check?” Brokie offered to underwrite the buyout and Maurice jumped at the offer. Unexpectedly but maybe not surprisingly, that just made things worse between Alex and his father. "Now we really were competitors.” And Alex was designing his signature line.
Missy says the tensions took their toll on the family. “I am in this world today because my brother cried for a baby sister,” she says. “My mom said he was on them: ‘I want a baby sister, get me a baby sister.’ From the minute we laid eyes on each other, he’s just been my keeper, and he is to this day. So it was hard, seeing these two men that I loved so much and who loved me so much [at odds].”
By this time, Alex’s work had started to gain the notice of stores in San Francisco, New York, Nantucket and elsewhere. Then the oil embargo hit in 1973 and, because he had few local customers, it became cost prohibitive to ship to his regulars. Something needed to be done.
He told a customer, “I’m going to New York. I’m going for the brass ring. I’ll probably fall on my ass and be back in six months, but I’m going to go try.”
IF YOU CAN MAKE IT THERE
He’d called 50 buyers if he’d called one and couldn’t get a nibble. Bloomingdale’s was going to be a tough nut, but Alex saw getting in the nation’s pre-eminent menswear store as his gold ticket.
So, he started chatting up the sales people – “I could talk their language” – and found out what the buyers looked like and their paths to lunch.
“I laid in wait,” he says. “I was the spider in the Gary Larson cartoon waiting at the bottom of the slide saying, ‘We’re going to eat like kings!’”
He got the attention of a Bloomie's buyer named Billy Ray Lee and made enough of an impression to get the buyer’s permission to send him some of his stuff. Cut to Billy Ray on an elevator with legendary Bloomie’s exec Gary Shafer.
“Where did you get that tie?” Gary asked.
Billy Ray told him.
“I want an audience; get him in here,” Gary said.
Alex remembers: “I flew up and set up that corner of the showroom, and here come all those people I couldn’t get on the phone. Halfway through the presentation [Gary] stood up and said, ‘Kid, sit down. Gentlemen, one of the most important names in the future of menswear is Alex Julian. I want you all to buy this, coordinate it, we’re going to launch it, put his name on the wall. This is the new Ralph Lauren.’ It still makes the hair raise on the back of my neck.”
It was 1975. From that moment, Alex’s star was on the rise. The first of five Coty Awards – then the Oscars of the fashion world – came in 1977. (Alex says his father’s reaction to the first Coty win was, “Have you thought about law school?”) Fame came first, then fortune, as the early ’80s launch of his famous Colours line, which, through the miracle of mass production, made Julian couture available to wide audience.
Alex took up residence in New York and Italy, while traveling the world promoting other lines, notably a wildly successful run in Japan. At his apex in the early ’90s, he designed the uniforms for the upstart Charlotte Hornets then, famously, the argyle-adorned uniforms for the Carolina men’s basketball team.
It was a crowning achievement for the Chapel Hill boy made good. He just couldn’t see the catastrophe waiting around the bend.
The 1990s were the time of the venture capital boom, an almost irresistible period of cheap and plentiful money. Alex gave in to the temptation to consolidate all of his apparel business into one company and put it under the umbrella of a thriving venture fund.
But when a new finance guy took control of the fund in February 1995, one of his first orders of business was to liquidate the Julian arm of it. He wanted biotech, not fashion.
“They fired 119 of my friends and me and closed the entire apparel business lock, stock and barrel,” Alex says in what he calls “the venture capital trainwreck.”
"It was gut-wrenching to lose all that.”
Fortunately, Alex had launched a furniture line in October 1994 and that kept him alive over the next 10 years as he slowly rebuilt his clothing business.
And Alex is back, having relaunched the Colours sportswear concept at big stores like Ross, TJ Maxx and Marshall’s. Another line, the Alexander Julian collection, is doing well across the country at Stein Mart and Meijer. And deals are in the works in Canada, Mexico, Taiwan, China and Japan.
As he rebuilt his international empire, a smaller but no less important crisis emerged closer to his home and heart.
GOING HOME AGAIN
When Maurice died in 1993, Missy and her husband, Michael Fox, took over Julian’s and ran it until 2007, when Missy’s back problems made it difficult to be on her feet for long. It was decision time. Would this institution, one of the last mercantile bastions of Chapel Hill’s version of Memory Lane, succumb to modernity and close?
“The last thing I wanted was a business 600 miles away,” Alex says, whose primary residence is in Fairfield County, Conn. “But we decided to do it.”
“We” meaning Alex and his wife, Meagan.
Alex’s pal and colleague Ralph Lauren had opened (and closed) a Rugby outlet on East Franklin Street a few years prior and sunk nearly $1 million into the space, which he leased from the Julians. Meanwhile, the original Julian's store was a hand-shake lease from the university, as it had been from Day 1.
So he took over Rugby's space and moved the business across the street into a building Alex would actually own. And yet, Alex says, change is not always welcome: "I still, six years later, get little old ladies hitting me over the head with an umbrella, ‘You moved the store!’”
But what made Julian’s what it is and always has been is that personal family touch. Which is why it’s fitting that Alex’s nephew, Bart Fox, now helps run the store after he, like his uncle, literally grew up enveloped in it.
“I had to park him under the sportcoats in his playpen,” Missy says of her son, “so no surprise that his love and his passion has come out in this store. [Retailing] becomes such a part of you.”
For childhood friend Cheryle, whose family’s bakery has long since closed, as did her retail store, Toots & Magoo, a few years ago, “It’s wonderful to have Julian’s still here. When people come to town, they all stop in. And he remembers them all.”
Missy says her dad and brother patched things up as Maurice’s life drew to a close, and they were all there holding his hand when he passed away.
Maurice is still there, of course, in the press clippings cramming the walls, and in Alexander Julian, his competitive, ingenious, larger-than-life son.
“Later on today,” he mentions in passing to an employee, “let me explain to you how I sold that guy that coat, and you didn’t.” CHM