“Design is creative problem-solving.”
This was one of the major points made by Alexander Julian, an award-winning fashion and home furnishings designer, when he addressed a crowd of School of Art and Design students Oct. 26 at Indiana University Bloomington.
His appearance at the newly renovated Kirkwood Hall was part of The Bill Blass Fashion Design Seminar Series.
“Bill Blass is the reason I’m here,” Julian said.
His words were more than a nod to the lecture series endowed by the Indiana-born designer: “Bill Blass is the reason that all American designers exist.”
He recounted how Blass warmly welcomed him to the rarefied air of the fashion elite, when Julian was a young designer winning his first Coty Award in 1977. Julian would win five of the coveted awards before they were discontinued eight years later.
Through spoken remarks and “Listening to Color,” a video made in conjunction with his 2006 retrospective, Julian related his meteoric rise in men’s fashion, his forays into home furnishings and the recent relaunch of his clothing brand.
Cut from the cloth
Alexander Julian was born into the menswear business.
His father, Maurice Julian, climbed out of Depression-era poverty by establishing a haberdashery in Chapel Hill, N.C. in 1942.
The younger Julian designed his first piece of clothing at age 12, by adding a yellow collar to an old blue shirt. When he wore it to school, a girl he had admired suddenly began speaking to him. That was his first lesson in the power of fashion.
“No one does colors like Alex,” said Andy Mallor, the owner of Andrew Davis Clothiers in Bloomington, who was instrumental in bringing Julian to IU.
Julian was stirred by the sophisticated way painters used color, especially Paul Klee, Mark Rothko and Claude Monet. “I don’t copy art, but I try to capture the energy and the color relationships,” he said. “Art has always been my greatest source of inspiration,” Julian said.
As a designer, Julian also looked to nature, learning what the artists already knew: real-world color is complex. “It’s all about coordinating color and pattern to harmonize and work together,” he said.
Color became his signature and his company name: Colours by Alexander Julian.
He became the first major menswear maker to not only design his clothes, but also his cloth.
Julian’s neutrals were composed of many colors of fibers, giving them a subtlety and richness not found in ordinary grays. As an example, he described a single sweater made with 30 yarns, with each yarn containing 30 distinct colors of wool.
Over the years his work has entered many arenas, literally and figuratively.
Julian designed basketball uniforms for the Charlotte Hornets and the University of North Carolina. He even added personal touches to a baseball stadium for the Charlotte Knights, with 14 colors of seats brilliantly laid out in stripes, almost as if it were a giant shirt.
Julian also was ahead of the curve in digital printing, which he continues to employ more than 20 years later in a new collection designed with input from his son Huston.
Julian told the students from IU’s Department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design that his first experience with design school was as an instructor.
“I was not as lucky as you guys to be able to go to design school,” he said.
He admitted feeling a twinge of jealousy as he observed the students in a drawing class upstairs. “I can’t draw a straight line; I can’t cut a pattern,” he said.
Julian was lucky, however, to serve an informal apprenticeship by growing up in his family’s store.
Peg Faimon, founding dean of the School of Art and Design, said today’s design students are expected to hit the ground running at the start of their careers with practical experience and a full set of skills. She’s also a firm believer in the liberal arts education her design students receive in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Julian, too, stressed that the communications skills he learned as an English major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were instrumental to his success.
“Many of the best designers you will never hear about, because they can’t explain well enough what they are trying to do,” he said.
“It gave me the language,” he said. “I can envision things and can explain it to someone to get it to where I want it to be.”
Julian’s appearance was part of The Bill Blass Fashion Design Seminar Series, established in 2002 through a bequest from Blass. The series is presented by The Sage Fashion Collection in the Department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design, now in the School of Art and Design.