ALEXANDER JULIAN, the clothing designer, rolled through town the other day a little like a Size 40 regular rainbow tagged onto a tornado. Julian himself was playing the part of the rainbow, what with the 40 or so colors blended into the jacket, shirt, tie and shocking blue socks he was wearing; the tornado was approximated by his tour of 16 cities in 19 days, all to promote his fall fashion line, which this year includes clothing for women.
To look at Julian's clothing is to be immediately assaulted by an unremitting barrage of colors.
"I design things to please me," he says. "Hopefully, they make my customers smile and my competition frown."
Once the initial shock of Julian's palette has worn off, his clothes seem remarkably traditional, virtually preppy. It is almost as if there is some deep-seated cultural clash taking place, which may in fact be mirroring Julian's own background: His grandfather was a Russian Jew who emigrated to New England and then moved to North Carolina. He describes his father as a "New Englander who brought to the Southeast the visible vestiges of the Ivy League" by opening a clothing shop in Chapel Hill about four decades ago.
In the '50s, his father introduced Top-Siders and what Julian still calls "alligator shirts" to the area. This sense of New England establishment seems to collide with the hot colors of the South in Julian's own work: "Clothes with a little jazz," he calls them; others might say it goes a bit beyond this, maybe into the realm of psychedelic music. "I guess I'm sorry I never took acid," says the man who may well have managed to dress up punk sensibilities in a respectable manner. This also from a man who just recently met Timothy Leary: "He said we have it all wrong in the East; it's not the San Andreas Fault; it's the San Andreas Opportunity. He calls it the Big Zipper. Do you know he's on the lecture circuit now with G. Gordon Liddy?
"I suppose for me there was never any question that I'd be a designer, even though it was something my parents forbade me to do. I was supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer, but I had such an innate understanding of clothing, because I really grew up in my father's shop from the time I was 12. I went to high school with James Taylor," who does not wear Julian's clothes, although Barry Manilow does.
It's questionable whether this means anything, although Julian has a way of making statements about most things. Of music, he says, "The Beatles were not simply a musical group, but a symbol of cultural change, a breakthrough of class structure in England. I would hope my clothes can do something like that. What do Ben Vereen and Ted Koppel"--or, for that matter, Susan Sarandon and Claudette Colbert--"have in common except my clothes? Some people think my clothes are outrageous. You look at me, though, and I'm really a printout, all these graphs. A lot of people at IBM wear my clothes--especially when they're not working.
"I studied English at Chapel Hill, and I used to drive up to Washington all the time for entertainment. There was this building at George Washington that we used to call the Super Dorm: There were a thousand women living in it." Consequently, when Julian opened a clothing shop in Chapel Hill and began designing his own clothes, he remained attached to Washington. He had his bachelor's party at Clyde's, and the only store devoted exclusively to his clothes exists just a beer bottle's throw from Clyde's, over on Wisconsin Avenue. It is there that, in addition to some gorgeous rugs he's designed, one finds the most complete collection of Julian's Bespoke label. "It means 'couture' in English," he says. This comes out Ka-tur. "Hey," he says, "I'm from Chapel Hill."
Well, sort of. He and his wife and daughter live in New York, where Julian has two showrooms in the Garment District. He travels around town in a Checker limo and has a house in the Hamptons, where he is fond of holding lobster races on the deck. "Last one over the finish line is the first one in the pot," he says.
Just like the fashion business itself. "This is hardly a cutthroat industry," says Julian, and he rolls his eyes around sarcastically. His eyes, incidentally, reside over a closely cropped red beard and red mustache, and just below a short crop of red hair. He claims he had nothing to do with the design of his facial hair.
"I design my clothing on graph paper," he says. "This is usually done on airplanes and in automobiles, where I seem to spend most of my time. The first thing I do is sit down and free-associate and decide what I want to wear. I have about 7,500 different colored pencils and I draw these things out and then have them manufactured, usually in Japan. The Japanese make the best fabrics in the world. That's because they lost the war. No, seriously, they do recreate things to exact tolerances in a way no one else can."
In addition to his couture line, Julian has in the past two years begun a lower-priced line of clothing marketed as Colours by Alexander Julian. The cheaper stuff "outsells the other stuff 10 to 1," he says. How do these relative numbers translate into the realm of high finance? "Let's just say it's doing better than I ever dreamed it could. Sales are bigger than a breadbox, smaller than a doormat."
Alaxander Julian respects his roots. Much of his conversation is sprinkled with salutes to his father, as well as to Ralph Lauren: "A giant," he says. "I never would have been in this business if it wasn't for what Ralph did. I was buying his clothes for my shop when I was 21. There used to be tens of us who had shops who wanted to design our own clothing. Look at a place like Britches. They're trying to become the Brooks Brothers for their generation.
"I think one of the most fascinating trends in this business today is how personal shoppers are replacing specialty stores as an outlet for designer clothing. Another fascinating thing is photography. People don't talk about the clothes now; they talk about who photographed the clothes."
Apparently, people also try to get their clothing autographed these days. "We were down in Raleigh the other day," Julian says, "and I must have signed nine jackets and four or five ties. This one guy had bought a jacket that I had made for myself. They took it to the store to use in an ad, AND THIS GUY BOUGHT IT! So I wrote across the lining, in indelible ink, "This jacket is stolen." Hey, the guy bought $3,000 worth of clothes; how could I not let him have the jacket?"
Such are the trials of the fashion business. On the plus side, Julian has learned to speak Italian quite fluently, thanks to the time he's had to spend over there with manufacturers. On the down side, he is already becoming something of an institution, described by one writer as, at 35, "too young to be the father of a fashion trend." Julian says that there is a woman in Dallas who regularly buys $1,000 worth of his ties, "because she's a fabric manufacturer and wants to copy my work. Permit me to say that imitation is the highest form of aggravation."