I am haunted by the photograph of a haberdasher in the twilight of his life. He is wearing a pin-collar gingham shirt and an Italian silk sportcoat of green and heather with the perfect patina. As I peer into the face of Maurice Julian, I ponder what might have been behind the quixotic expression. Is it the recognition that he and his brother Milton, once partners and for years rivals, were the last men standing on Franklin Street, a street that once boasted several men’s retailers, including Julian’s own son Alexander?
The photograph was part of a 1990 GQ article entitled “The Haberdasher of Chapel Hill,” by Terry Sullivan. In the article Sullivan is prompted to visit Julian’s by a female friend who describes Maurice Julian as “an archetypal gentleman in the most beautiful suits and ties I’ve ever seen.” Sullivan finds Julian sitting at “a tiny desk, just inside the front door surrounded by files and fabric samples,” and soon learns that alumni are the best customers and the ones who go for custom work.
When I first read the article 26 years ago, it cast a spell over me. “Julian’s is a place where you can spend an afternoon looking at fabrics and buttons, some stock some one of a kind-ordering a suit you won’t see on every other guy on the street, and taking about tweed and twill and Scottish mills and what all the rain will do for the magnolias.”
I made a promise to myself that I would one day make the pilgrimage to Julian’s, and in 1994 I buoyantly crossed the threshold only to be deflated by a death notice on the wall. I was to late meet Maurice. I commiserated with the sales clerk, surveyed the shop with its accumulated bric-a-brac treasures that reminded me of the bar at the 21 Club. It was a delightful space were students and alumni could purchase crested Old Well ties and where deadstock whale-embroidered chambray trousers were hidden away, but would be brought out if you asked for them. Fondling the fabric bolts, my heart leapt when I discovered a bolt of cotton shirting of “a rich soft brown with a large deep red windowpane plaid,” the “gambler cloth” Julian had shown Sullivan during the writer’s visit. A subdued but riotous pattern that also included gentleman of yore engaged in billiards and indulging in cigars, pipes and pints in a repose reminiscent of works by Cezanne. It is hard to believe that Julian bought such a masculine pattern thinking it would make appropriate curtains for his daughter, but that was in fact the case. The bolt ended up in the shop and was eventually rendered into a jacket for a retired army colonel.
I always wondered who that officer was, and I am sure that wearing a gregarious sportcoat to the club was not the bravest act of his life. That day planted the desire to join what must be a rarefied and minuscule fraternity of folks who have garments in gambler cloth. When I left the shop I had no idea what I wanted made of the cloth, only that I wanted it. The inspiration for the garment came from my friend Elliot Edwards. He had started collecting vintage fabrics, which he turned over to a local seamstress to make into odd waistcoats. They became his signature look at cigar functions. A phone call to Missy Julian secured the fabric and two vests were made, one for myself and one for Elliot. The waistcoat saw a lot of cigar club action and was the subject of animated conversations in which I would regale particpants with the story I’m now sharing with you.
The draconian hand of the state ceased my merriment many years ago. For myself and my vest, the title of the popular song, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” is apropos. Like a talisman, the gamblers cloth still draws me to the closet, where the site of it reminds me of old friends and the kindness Missy Julian showed to an eager young man desperate for a remnant of her family’s lore.
In the end, it is the cloth that is the thread to a man that I never met, yet he still casts his sartorial shadow on my subconscious. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP