Alexander Julian flies his colours at home

November 13, 1994|By Sharon Overton | Sharon Overton,Special to The Sun

HIGH POINT N. C. — High Point, N.C. -- Alexander Julian is rarely at a loss for words. But when the famed menswear designer was asked to come up with a generic label for his newest venture -- furniture -- he was stumped.

First he tried "traditional modernism" as a way to describe his Home Colours collection, which combines elements of formal 18th-century antiques with more rustic painted and wicker pieces and colorful, contemporary fabrics that might have come from one of his suits or ties.

That phrase didn't go over well at Universal Furniture, the High Point manufacturer that is producing the line. So someone suggested "a vintage look for the '90s." Still, Mr. Julian seems less than satisfied.

"If you ask me what the collection is all about, it's what I used to serve at my store on football Saturdays," says the 46-year-old designer, who grew up working in his father's clothing shop in Chapel Hill, N.C. "It's champagne and biscuits."

Translation? It's a little down-home casual, a little big-city sophisticated.

Whatever you call it, Julian's Home Colours collection already has created quite a buzz. At the Internation Home Furnishings Market in High Point, where it debuted to retailers and the press last month, the 125-piece collection was "unquestionably a hit," says Lester Craft Jr., editor of Furniture/Today, the industry's largest trade journal.

"We went to see it out of curiosity," says Char Hamel, sales manager for Lauman's Fine Furniture in Baltimore, which will be carrying the line. "We do a lot of 18th-century furniture, and after a while it tends to look alike. . . . This is a little bit of a romance story."

A good part of that romance, retailers hope, will be connected with the designer's name. Alexander Julian, who has dressed the likes of Harry Connick Jr., film director Robert Altman and the Charlotte Hornets basketball team, often is credited as being the designer who taught American men that it was OK to wear lavender. His "Colours" clothing collection has been wildly popular over the past 13 years. He also designs sleepwear and leather goods, eyeglasses and a line of bed linens for Dan River.

Dressed in heavy tweeds and tortoise-shell glasses, Mr. Julian seems right at home -- if slightly overheated -- recently in the hot glare of Universal's High Point showroom. Copies of the latest edition of House Beautiful lie open to an eight-page spread of his new arts-and-crafts-style Connecticut home. The cover shot of his dining room features a dozen chairs upholstered in Crayola colors. But shoppers won't find the chairs in Alexander Julian's collection. Home Colours, with its subtle twists on tradition, is tailored for more mainstream tastes.

Some pieces -- such as Chippendale chairs, four-poster beds and pie-crust tables -- were inspired by antiques the designer found in Connecticut and North Carolina. A modern-looking "retro" sofa echoes the lines of two art deco-style wing chairs in JTC his Connecticut living room. A haberdasher chest with glass doors and exposed drawers was copied from one in his father's store.

Other designs are obviously drawn from his menswear collections. Sofas and chairs are covered in oxford cloth, cable-knit print and regimental stripes. An iron scrollwork design was taken from a wingtip shoe. The diamond inlay pattern on a dining-room table comes from argyle socks. There's even an overstuffed sofa and chair upholstered in a distressed brown leatherthat looks like an old bomber jacket.

Mr. Julian says he started thinking about designing furniture "the first time I sat on a chair." But like other apparel designers who have lent their names to furniture, sheets and towels, he also recognized that there are potentially huge profits in home

furnishings at a time when couture fashion seems to be in something of a slump.

His choice of Universal to handle his first furniture line surprised some observers. With $600 million in annual sales, the High Point company is among the world's largest producers of lower-priced case goods. Its traditional dining and bedroom suites typically are sold in middle-market stores.

A division of the giant Masco corporation, Universal was looking to expand into the growing "lifestyle" category -- furniture collections that emphasize mixed pieces rather than matched sets. It needed a designer name to give it clout. Alexander Julian was a natural choice, says Wes Collins, the company's chief executive officer.

Retail prices in the Home Colours collection range from about $599 to $999 for a sofa, $799 to $1,199 for a bed and around $3,500 for a dining table, four chairs and china cabinet.

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