The Haberdasher Of Chapel Hill

chris vest

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

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7 Comments on "The Haberdasher Of Chapel Hill"

  1. Orange Fiji | March 31, 2016 at 1:11 pm |

    Alexander Julian had a hand in designing UNC’s basketball uniforms, on display this weekend at the Final Four, along with the Charlotte Hornet’s unis. Is Julian’s College Shop in Chapel Hill still in business?

  2. RD Coleman | March 31, 2016 at 3:41 pm |

    Wonderful article ! I attended the University of North Carolina from 1965-1970 and during those years spent countless time gazing in the windows of Julian’s, usually after a late night meal at the Rat (now gone)or the Coffee Shop (still there.) Stepping into the shop one found rack after rack of tweeds and chalk stripes stuffed along both side of the store, shoes filling the rear of the store separated by a table of what seemed like hundreds of ties. Visiting the store shortly before it closed at it’s long time location, Mr. Julian’s desk was still just inside the door on the left. The shop is now located across the street in Alex’s original, Alexander’s Ambition, location. You will still find tweeds and chalk stripes as well as a collection of argyle sweaters and Carolina Blue ties. Football Saturdays will usually find Alex at the back of the store offering you a country ham biscuit and a glass of wine. Just one of many reasons to visit Chapel Hill. Go Heels !

  3. Bought only one thing there, a suit that a scholarship kid really couldn’t afford but had to have. It was charcoal flannel, nearly black, with a very faint burgundy chalkstripe. Wore it until it nearly fell apart, with some mended moth holes, and haven’t found just that pattern since, though I’ve looked all up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

    I recall, on Franklin St. 1968-75, there were Julian’s, Milton’s, Alexander’s Ambition, Varley’s (aka The Pipe Shop, pipes, tobacco, pinstripe suits), The Hub (5-6 store NC chain of better mid-level clothes) and a thrift/consignment place somewhere upstairs. There were still plenty of students, faculty, business and professional men who needed at least some “dressier” clothes to keep them all in business

  4. @RD Coleman & NCJack Thank you for sharing your NCJack memories

  5. I grew up in the community and was always fascinated by Mr. Julian’s shop. He offered a range of classic, unique items and fabrics I’ve not seen since. In fact, purchased a pair of “go to hell” pants of red corduroy that I pull out at Christmas-time to this day.

  6. Terry Sullivan | January 4, 2017 at 10:09 am |

    Tardy, but someone just sent me the link. There used to be places like Julian’s near every campus in the country, and we’re poorer and much more badly dressed for their loss. Maurice gave great quote, as we say in the scribbling business, and with a bonus twinkle in his eye. One of my all-time favorite interviews.

    Terry Sullivan

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