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Meet Iconic Designer Alexander Julian

Alexander Julian is credited with the iconic revamp of Tar Heel sports uniforms. But his journey to creating the legendary Carolina blue argyle was a long time in the making. Julian drew up his first designs when he was a child, and he started working the sales floor at his father Maurice Julian’s haberdashery when he was in his teens.

Alexander Julian was inducted into the Fashion Hall of Fameat just 33 years old, making him the youngest member at the time. He has also won five Coty Awards, a prestigious fashion prize. Host Frank Stasio speaks with Alexander Julian about his contributions to men’s style and about getting a life-changing phone call from legendary University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill basketball coach Dean Smith. 


On his sartorial beginnings

The rumors that I was born in the custom department of my father’s store are not true. But it is true – and I’m not kidding – I had blue Oxford cloth diapers. I had little tiny Bass Weejuns, and you know, I was the average kid that at five years old had custom-made suits.

On his parents helping to spread preppy style in the South

My father comes down from New England, from Massachusetts, understands all the trappings of Ivy League, ends up opening Julian’s in 1942, and it’s sort of Ivy League-style meets Southern love of color and exuberance  – aka my mother – and [it] begets preppy.  

On designing his first shirt after a fight

I designed my first shirt after a pickup football game and a fight that ensued, tearing the cotton collar, and putting a yellow collar at dad’s tailor on a blue shirt. And I remember our tailor saying, “You ain’t gonna like this.” And I wore it to school the next week when it was washed … One of the best looking girls in school suddenly turned to me and started a conversation. Man, I’ve been hooked on fashion ever since.

On opening his first store, with his father’s money

Dad had a little real estate in town, and I kept trying to convince him that what we should do is open a branch under another name across the street and go after this younger, hipper customer. He would never commit … I was 21. I decided to sort of grab the bull by the horns, and I had it all set up. And when he and my mother and my dear sister Missy went off on summer vacation for a month – they were barely through Durham by the time I let a tenant out of a five year lease. And I basically opened another store without my father’s knowledge when he was out of town – across the street, called Alexander’s Ambition … We opened in less than a month and spent today’s equivalent of probably half a million bucks of my father’s money.

On the rift the Alexander’s Ambition clothing store created between him and his father

My only regret was it was just disastrous between my father and I. It was ego versus ego. He took it personally. Even though he owned it and would benefit from any sale, he thought I was the worst competitor. Maybe it was a reflection about his brother [Milton Julian] opening a store across the street back in the ‘40s, but it was nasty.

On getting the call from UNC basketball coach Dean Smith to design new uniforms

It was like having God on the phone asking you to design new halos for the archangels. I mean, our team man … We just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the argyles, which is now the icon for all Carolina sports. I’m proud of that [I] put the ball on the court when it comes to the argyles. But it was coach Smith, coach Guthridge, coach Williams, their assistants, the hardworking coaches and staff, and all of those great players. They’re the ones that popularized the argyle.
Note: This program originally aired on May 1, 2017. 

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Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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