UNC Graduation: Children Swathed In Alexander Julian's Ego

The Lucky Dog pack will not venture to Chapel Hill today for Mothers Day brunch. We did, however, celebrate Mom last weekend when we enjoyed some classic Crook's Corner brunch; shrimp & grits, Eggs Benedict, pancakes with strawberries and a few Bloody Marys. Plus a side of five dollar fries (worth it).

No way, today. It's UNC Graduation today and the town will be packed, restaurants overloaded and everyone will be a-twitter about the fabulous gowns the children will be wearing.

Those finally "true blue" gowns' inspiration and design are compliments of (gratis, he wants you to know) Alexander Julian, self-proclaimed cloth auteur. The Colour Man. You remember him, I'm sure. He has a son graduating today and Alex couldn't stand the thought of his progeny wearing aqua (!) across the stage rather than UNC True Blue.

You can read about the inspiration at the link above. And you might "enjoy" the homage to the Maurice Julian clan at the Julian's web site. I say "enjoy" because you might agree that Alex's dad Maurice can't be credited with "Preppy Style", as implied. And, I'd be interested to know what "renown Tarheel beauty" Mary was renown for (OK, that's beyond the pale. But I want to know!).

Oh, I've got some great Julian family stories, told to me by reputable menswear professionals or personally experienced. But first, understand this: Maurice Julian, the founder of Julian's in Chapel Hill way back in 1942 was a very--repeat, very--successful business man. He ended up owning a ton of real estate on Chapel Hill's main drag Franklin Street, worth who knows what. Like many successful business owners, how the profits from the cash cow are reinvested tells the real story.

And, of course, son Alex has garnered world-wide acclaim and respect via his Colours line from the late 70's (now available at JC Penny) and his houseware line (Bed, Bath & Beyond) and more. A multi millionaire, no doubt. Talented. Creative. But was he really the designer to "inadvertently became the first American fashion designer to design his own cloth" ?!

Was Maurice the first person to put a penny in a Bass Weejun, as folklore around these parts exclaims?

The Stories...

In my (and Alex's) youth, around fall of '69 (maybe '70), I found myself walking Franklin Street for some reason and came across a store called Alexander's Ambition. The storefront was classic for the time; two big windows on either side parallel to the street with another window angled toward the front door, creating a shaded entry way.

There, in the shade were two fellows. One a red head with a short beard. I remember that he was handsomely dressed. The other a chubby blond boy who immediately struck me as a frat boy stooge for some reason. They were seated, with a small card table between them, playing a board game I'd never seen. I asked about the game. "Backgammon," the red head curtly stated, never looking up from the board. The frat boy snickered. I stood and watched a moment as the fellows quickly moved the pieces after every throw of the dice, seemingly without motive. I was impressed. But by what, I wasn't sure.

I moved toward the door, interested to see what was inside this obviously cool establishment.

"No reason to go inside," the red head said, again never looking up from the board. "You can't afford anything in there."

"Oh, really?" I was not especially well dressed that day, as I remember. But a decent corduroy sport coat, crisp tattersall button down, Levis and Topsiders was not exactly Southern Redneck Poor Boy. Needless to say, the game was postponed and the stooge had to come in with me to make certain nothing was...stolen.

I worked that fat f***er over, touching everything in the store, messing up stacks, tried on a few things that were folded and pinned and generally trashed up the place. The red head finally came in and asked me to leave, "unless you wish to make a purchase." My one and only encounter with the great Alexander Julian.

Remember that my wife's family was in the menswear business in Durham, mere miles from Chapel Hill. I had the honor to be associated with the family business twenty years. That was plenty of time to hear many of stories about the Julians.

Years ago, before our former salesman John came to work at our Durham store, he frequented Julians for his clothing needs. Ol' John was an eclectic sort, never married, by wealth no need to work, had military secret clearance in a former life (he was 50 when he came to us) and he was quite the hand with putting together a good, creative and stylish wardrobe. Frankly, as good at color as... He wore his trousers too short, though. But that was his trademark. Think Fred Astaire.

Anyway, he enjoyed telling the story of Maurice Julian alerting his frat boy salesmen of potential problems with certain articles they might show a fellow frat boy. "MH, MH!", Maurice would signal, as his minion would pull out a sport coat to show. " Moth hole, moth hole!" Old stock. Years old. Colorful. But old.
Both Maurice and our store sold Talbot ties and H. Freeman & Sons clothing, the latter including their custom swatches. Maurice used to call my father-in-law trying to negotiate prices for the custom clothing, wanting to jack up the price. My father-in-law held the retail price; Maurice would say he'd just tell customers he had superior ranges of cloth. OK.

The travelling men had limited respect for the patriarch. The Talbott tie rep was a good example. After two hours plus of reviewing Robert Talbott tie swatches nobody says "I'll pass this season. I don't see anything I like." Except Maurice.

Here's to the UNC grads of 2011. The gowns are fantastic. I'll give Alex that. And perhaps that's the bottom line. But you decide. Thank goodness Alex's son--and Alex-- will not be traumatised by the kid's graduation.

Next Sunday: Brunch in Chapel Hill.


  1. An interesting expose. I remember when his higher end line...more expensive than Colours...came out. Tasty but not so tasty. The Colours stuff...Arrow/Cluett made the shirts...Grief made the clothing...sold pretty well for about a five year stretch.

  2. I have not seen a picture of Maurice Julian's wife Mary Lily Brady, but the Brady women from her line were quite attractive ladies. Don't know about "renowned Tarheel" but I imagine she was a beauty.