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Meet the man behind the classic Carolina argyle

Alexander Julian
Chapel Hill native and fashion designer Alexander Julian says, “I’m not known for fashion anymore. I’m known for argyles". The Julian's storeowner redesigned the basketball team uniforms with and added the original argyle in 1991.

Alexander Julian, owner of Julian's on Franklin Street, remembers seeing a UNC graduate walk up Porthole Alley in 2007 wearing a teal graduation gown. He thought to himself, "poor girl," thinking she was one of the unlucky few women who are color blind.

He thought maybe they were confused because when you're in South Building looking at the Old Well, the roof almost looks teal.

Then, he had another realization.

"Suddenly I realized that my son was going to be a candidate for a teal robe," he said.

Since 2011, Julian has designed the UNC graduation gowns, but he's known for more than that.

Julian grew up in Chapel Hill and, like most people in this town, grew up a hardcore Tar Heel fan. Julian was nine years old when the UNC men’s basketball team went undefeated to win the National Championship in 1957, and he remembers seeing the town turn white with toilet paper covering the trees.

“The first song I ever knew was, ‘Don’t give a damn for Duke University, I'm from Carolina,’” he sang.

Julian said he practically grew up in his father’s clothing store on Franklin Street, which opened in 1942.

Despite being a good student in high school, Julian left early to pursue a degree at UNC because he couldn’t stop thinking about fashion.

“Suddenly, all I could think about was these textures, and color combinations, and patterns,” he said.

In the fall of 1969, when Julian was 21, he said his parents went away for a month, leaving him in charge of the store and other real estate locations of theirs. After about a year trying to convince his father he was missing a new market in Chapel Hill, he decided to do something about it.

While his parents were away, Julian released one of his father’s tenants and took over the spot where the current Julian's store is now.

His first store was called Alexander’s Ambition.

“I was disinherited for three days that time — that was a record,” he said.

Julian said Alexander’s Ambition was the eighth clothing store on that section of Franklin Street at the time. To compete with the other stores, including his father's, he differentiated himself by making his own exclusive fabrics, becoming the first American fashion designer to do so.

Julian attributed his success to the uniqueness and longevity of his work.

“Fashion and timelessness were not used in the same sentence in those days,” he said.

In 1975, Julian decided to go to New York to pursue a career in fashion. He remembers telling a friend about this monumental step.

“He always reminds me when I see him that he came in and I said, ‘Doc, I’m going to N.Y., I’m going for the brass ring. I’ll probably be embarrassed and back in six months, but I’m going to try for it,’” he said.

And he did it and made it. He successfully established Colours by Alexander Julian, still thriving today. He received the prestigious Coty Award to promote American fashion before he turned 30.

Despite his success as a designer by pioneering menswear in the U.S., this isn’t what he’s most well known for. Julian recognized this when reflecting on his greatest accomplishments.

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“Objectively, bringing color into modern American menswear was the most important thing that I did — creating this category called ‘modern traditional.’ But I think subjectively, it’s argyle,” he said.

Julian said he first developed the argyle pattern for the men's basketball uniforms for the 1991-1992 season.

“Being born and raised here, and having Dean Smith call you and ask me to design new uniforms for the Tar Heels, was like having God on the phone, asking for new halos for the archangels, and if I screwed it up I couldn’t go home,” he said.

Seemingly written in the stars, the Tar Heels went on the win the National Championship in 1993, the second season Julian designed the argyle uniforms.

In the back of Julian’s on Franklin Street hangs a framed, commemorative Sports Illustrated from the 1993 win, showing Dean Smith cutting the net after winning the championship. The cover of the magazine has argyle bordering.

Julian recalled fondly what Smith signed: “Alex, see what you started!”

Beyond designing UNC's uniforms, Julian also designed the Charlotte Hornets uniforms, the Carolina Inn towels and the Order of the Bell Tower's suits and ascots, and he does it all pro bono. He even custom makes some of Roy Williams’ suits.

Julian is such a die-hard UNC fan that when he had a medical issue 10 years ago and needed a procedure that required a piece of Teflon for the operation, he made the surgeons wait three days until they found Carolina Blue material.

“So if you cut me open, I am Carolina Blue,” he said with a grin.

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