Alexander Julian thought he was making the new Charlotte Hornets an offer they couldn’t refuse: To design their new uniforms for free.
Turns out they not only could refuse it: They did.
The Hornets plan to unveil their new uniforms for the 2014-15 season on Thursday. They will employ teal and purple as their primary colors. Those were the same colors Julian used for those beloved original uniforms in 1988 at the request of then-owner George Shinn. Those uniforms created a worldwide sports merchandise sensation.
But Julian – a nationally renowned designer who grew up in Chapel Hill – isn’t involved in the reboot. Is he surprised?
“I wasn’t surprised,” Julian said by phone from his home in Connecticut. “I was shocked. To not even have me as a consultant for free? I just don’t get it.”
Fred Whitfield, the Charlotte Hornets’ president, said it was an honor to meet Julian but the team ultimately decided to do all of its rebranding work under the Nike/Jordan Brand umbrella.
“It was his intent and his hope I’m sure,” Whitfield said of Julian, “that he would get a chance to be involved. But we kept everything internal.”
The Hornets certainly had the right to design their new uniforms any way they wanted, and Julian knows that. Julian stressed that he remains a fan of the team.
“I will be 110 percent supportive of whatever they do, of their future success, and of Michael Jordan,” Julian said. “I have absolutely no sour grapes. I am disappointed as hell, though, because I think I could help.”
Jordan has had his own brand with Nike for many years. Whitfield said the team wanted to keep all of the work – logos, uniforms for the players and dance team, the new home court, etc. – with Nike doing the designs and the NBA signing off on every step.
“This is a very detailed process,” Whitfield said, “and we wanted to make sure we didn’t put together a lot of ‘one-offs.’ We wanted to make sure we had a brand identity system that we were building that was connected from start to finish and that was fully integrated.”
Julian, 66, has designed all sorts of things in a starry career – men’s clothing, furniture, the University of North Carolina basketball uniforms and, currently, a line of high-tech cycling shirts. His vibrant teal and purple uniforms helped the original Hornets merchandise outsell every other team in the NBA except for Jordan’s Chicago Bulls for much of the 1990s. Even after the original Hornets left for New Orleans in 2002, vintage Charlotte Hornets merchandise continued to sell well – even overseas.
“I wanted to do the ‘three-peat’ – the Hornets, UNC and then the Hornets again,” said Julian, who plans to move back to Chapel Hill at some point. He has two children enrolled at UNC and one that has already graduated from the school.
Julian was already a standout in the design world because of his “Colours” collection of men’s clothes when Shinn asked him in the 1980s to come up with the Hornets’ original uniforms. Julian said he would do it if Shinn would ship five pounds of barbecue to his house in Connecticut every month – “Carolina caviar,” as Julian called it.
“I had no idea that an expansion team uniform was going to sell as much as it did,” Julian said. “I was really dumb. I didn’t know what I was giving up. I normally get a five percent royalty. The reports I saw was that they sold over $200 million worth of stuff. So I traded $10 million for some barbecue. George got rich, and I got fat.”
But Julian was ready and willing to make such a deal again, and this time he didn’t even want any barbecue. He actively pursued the Bobcats/Hornets design job, staying in contact with several members of the Bobcats’ marketing office for the past several years.
In the spring of 2013, Julian and some of the Bobcats’ brass met in person. That much they agree on. After that, the details get fuzzy.
“They flew me to a game, and they took me to dinner,” Julian said. “They seemed surprised that I would do the uniforms for free. Look, I know the NBA is a huge mega-business, and I understand that. But in my mind it was a done deal. Evidently, it was only in my mind.”
Whitfield countered that it was Julian’s idea to meet (which Julian said is true). Whitfield said Julian was already planning to fly into the Raleigh-Durham airport to visit one of his children at college and that the Bobcats simply paid a “change fee” for him to fly into Charlotte instead (Julian said the team actually paid for the Charlotte leg of his trip).
Whitfield said the Bobcats were interested in talking with Julian primarily to “pay homage and to honor” what the original Hornets had done. Julian thought they were also very interested in having him do the new design.
Julian thought he would meet with Jordan while in Charlotte. Instead, he met with Whitfield and some of the Bobcats’ other marketing men. Whitfield said Julian’s meeting with Jordan was never a consideration.
Julian characterized the meeting as “very good” and said he soon went home and went to work, producing 150 versions of possible new Hornets uniforms. Whitfield said that while he had the “utmost respect” for Julian, he only met with him for 10 minutes and never told him to start designing new uniforms.
There was obviously a communications breakdown somewhere. Many weeks later, Julian called Whitfield and asked what was going on. Whitfield remembers the conversation as brief, cordial and “closing the circle.”
Said Julian: “It was a very political conversation. No one wanted to say anything negative but the quote was, ‘We’re going to go in a different direction.’ I said you’re going to go in a different direction? If you’re going to use my teal and purple, there’s no way that it’s not going to look like my design. Because the colors were the main thing I gave to the uniform.”
So who’s right? Who’s wrong?
No one, really. The Hornets weren’t obligated to hire Julian. Julian was kind to make his “design for free” offer, but of course he knows if it had been accepted it would have come with great residual publicity for his own signature brands.
Both Julian and Whitfield stress they aren’t mad at each other.
But there’s no denying that the uniforms the new Hornets unveil Thursday will be constantly compared to the old one designed by Julian.
If I were the Hornets, I at least would have had Julian consult on the project for free. What could it have hurt?
But as Julian himself said: “This all turns out to be far more complicated than you think it should be.”