Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

When the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill football team plays at home, the town breaks out pregame essentials including hot dogs, red Solo cups, and corn hole sets. Country music wafts over tailgate parties in dormitory parking lots and across the front lawns of grand fraternity houses. Visitors might wonder what unusual occasion inspired men to put on their crisp Polo shirts and women to don their brightest sundresses. But at UNC, this is just traditional game-day attire.

The Chapel Hill community long ago adopted a style characterized by neat dress with colors that pop. It is found everywhere: from game day togs to graduation robes to argyle sports jerseys. And one longtime Chapel Hill family is largely responsible: The Julians introduced preppy to the South.

Preppy style, of course, was born in New England. And so was Maurice Julian, who moved from Boston to Chapel Hill when his brother attended law school at UNC. Maurice enrolled, too, earning his undergraduate degree just before the start of World War II. When the Navy opened a preflight training school in Chapel Hill, Maurice spotted an opportunity in men's apparel.

At the time, officers' uniforms were custom-made, so Maurice began making and selling them from a storefront (called Julian's) on Franklin Street, the town's main drag. Soon he expanded into off-duty clothing. "Where he got his knack for doing that so well, I really can't say. But he was a master," says Alexander Julian, Maurice's son and the company's CEO.

Alexander describes his father's taste as "Ivy League-style meets Southern." Maurice stocked his store with such exotic-to-the-region goods as Regent shoes, Corbin pants, and Lacoste shirts. But "those navy blue Lacoste shirts became pink and orange and yellow and green and lime," says Alexander, explaining his father's southern twist.

Alexander and his sister, Missy, were virtually raised in the shop where their mother and father worked. "Alex and I played in the suit boxes," says Missy. "We made houses, we made up games. And I think when people ask me about it now, as an adult -- I actually raised my own children in the same business -- it was just the most joyful way to grow up."

Alexander's ambition.

Her brother's memories of the family business aren't all as rosy. When Alexander was 21, he made a bold move that sparked serious father-son tension. For some time, Alexander had been trying to persuade Maurice to use a space he owned across the street, which at the time was a jewelry store, to open a separate clothing store serving a younger, hipper clientele. "He would never pull the trigger on it," Alexander recalls. "So he went away for the annual family vacation in August with my mother and my sister. And I had the keys to the kingdom..."

While his family was away, Alexander quietly opened the store, using more than half a million dollars of his father's money. He filled it with brands that he had handpicked as well as clothing he designed himself. The merchandise was characterized by a more contemporary traditional style rather than old-school traditional. He called his clothing line and his shop Alexander's Ambition.

"It was certainly entrepreneurial," Missy says, laughing. But Maurice wasn't amused. He had never wanted his son to follow him into the family business, preferring that he choose a career with a more prescribed path to success."It was quite a family stir," Missy recalls. "I would go so far as to say it was just shock."

"I had tried for months to get my father to agree to my idea," Alexander says. "He hemmed and hawed and wouldn't commit, so I committed for him." He adds that soon after, when his business partner bought his father out, Maurice made money on the deal.

After a few years during which the relationship with his father remained chilly, Alexander closed the shop in 1974 to pursue designing full-time in New York City. "It's not something that I'm proud of -- the method that I went about it," says Alexander about opening Ambition. "But it was really important to my career.

"I went out and did exactly what [my father] had taught me to do," he says, "which was trying to customize by designing what I could for my store."

The call from Coach.

In New York, Alexander went on to success as a designer. He won five Coty Awards --the Grammys of fashion back in their day, Alexander says. In 1988, he designed the Charlotte Hornets' basketball uniforms.

With that project, Alexander caught the attention of a prominent fan back home. Legendary former UNC basketball coach Dean Smith called to ask if he could design new uniforms for the Tar Heels. Alexander was a UNC graduate, class of '69. He revered Smith. It was the weightiest design challenge he had ever faced.

"I took it very, very seriously and quickly realized that this was even tougher than any of the other challenges in the public domain because it was my hometown, and it was my school," says Alexander. "And if I screwed it up, I could never go home again," he laughs.

Alexander came up with 30 different designs in Carolina blue (Pantone 542, according to UNC Creative, which provides print design and other services to the school), including one with an argyle pattern running down either side. That felt lucky to Alexander, who won his first Coty Award with an argyle design. He even recruited former NBA star and UNC alum Michael Jordan as a sounding board. Once Jordan said he loved the argyle, Smith and his players fell in line.

Just one year later, in 1993, the team won a national championship. Sports Illustrated designed a cover with argyle running down the sides. Smith sent Alexander a magazine cover upon which the coach had scrawled, "Alex, look what you started." Alexander calls that cover his prized possession. This year, UNC announced that the diamond pattern would be extended to all its sports uniforms.

The prodigal son returns.

Like that argyle, Julian's clothing shop has proved timeless. Maurice died in 1993, and the business has largely retained his ultraconservative style. But the store also carries the more casual apparel favored by Alexander. Missy ran it with her husband until 2007, when back problems forced her to retire. The company doesn't disclose revenue. But with the help of Missy's son Bart Fox, who manages the shop, revenue has increased 66 percent in the past eight years.

"My brother is very, very smart. And he told me in the beginning: 'You know, mom and dad didn't get to stay here without change,'" says Missy, who now runs the UNC visitors' center.

After four decades living in and around New York City, Alexander is in the process of moving his design headquarters back to Chapel Hill. "I'm excited sitting here," he says on his way to the airport to catch a flight that will take him home.

From his perch on Franklin Street, Alexander will continue designing for his own line as "Scion" of Julian's -- the title he put on his business card. "I had wanted to entitle [my wife and me] 'Current Stewards' or 'Custodians,'" he says. "But folks confuse too easily."

 

 

Published on: Jul 20, 2015