When North Carolina in April unveiled its uniform redesign in all sports, it did so with an emphasis on argyle, which has become nearly as signature a feature on the Tar Heels’ men’s basketball uniforms as the Carolina blue color itself.
Now the argyle is going mainstream – or at least more than it has been. It will be prominent on the Tar Heels’ football uniforms this season. Argyle will be used in other uniforms, too, and is now “a secondary identity” – there’s some Nike and school marketing jargon for you – in all sports.
The UNC men’s basketball team began wearing argyle down the sides of its jerseys during the 1991-92 season, but this year is something of the 25th anniversary of the design. At least, it’s the 25th anniversary of when Alexander Julian, the well-known fashion designer, put it to paper.
Julian, a UNC alum and Chapel Hill native whose father’s clothing store remains a staple on Franklin Street, beamed like a proud papa a couple months back when UNC and Nike unveiled the redesign. His argyle, after all, was everywhere.
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And it was everywhere a quarter-century after it was only in one place: on a piece of paper in his design studio. Before argyle won out, Julian in April said he put together “20-some other designs” after Dean Smith called him in the late 1980s and asked him to redesign UNC’s basketball uniforms.
Julian was honored by the gesture. Here was Smith, calling him to touch up some of the most recognizable and revered uniforms in college basketball. And then here was Julian, somewhat overwhelmed by it all.
The redesign was one thing. Julian insisted something be done about the fabric, too.
“It would have been 25 years of the (argyle) uniforms now,” Julian said, “had I not insisted on trying to find a better fabric.”
And a better color. Compared with the television viewing experience these days, watching sports in the 1980s was something like what viewing them through a grainy, faded Instagram filter might be like today.
Years ago, to compensate for TV cameras that didn’t accurately capture color, UNC’s jerseys didn’t so much feature Carolina blue as they did an oversaturated version of the hue. Without the alteration, Julian said, true Carolina blue looked gray on TV.
And so that was one change Julian made after Smith called him. The blue on the jerseys had to be the right shade. The fabric – then a punctured nylon – needed to be better. Then it came time to redesign the rest of the jerseys, which, while iconic, were somewhat plain.
“I tried all of the things that I thought were classy and timeless and fashionable without being fashionable,” Julian said. “Because this is basketball. This is sports. This is not about dressing up for a date – this is going out there to perform.”
At some point, Pat O’Brien, then a broadcaster with CBS Sports, became aware of Julian’s involvement redesigning UNC’s basketball uniforms. Julian said he remembers O’Brien asking him for details, and Julian agreed to share his designs.
During a halftime show of an NCAA tournament game Julian gave the OK, he said, for CBS to quickly pan across renderings of his designs. He soon found out that some former UNC basketball players had been watching – and taping – the broadcast.
A few days later Smith called Julian and told him that they had “a problem.” Smith had received feedback from “several of the important alumni” – as Julian put it – who had frozen the tape of the broadcast to take pictures.
Some printed out those pictures and sent them to Smith, with their preferred design circled. The preferences were all different, Julian said, with some preferring one design and others another.
“So it was like, ‘OK – well what are we going to do now?’” Julian said with a laugh.
He needed a leader to emerge, someone whose opinion could sway the thoughts of others. He needed a pitchman of sorts. Then it came to him.
“And the idea,” Julian said, “was M.J.”
There was no email then. Not even a color fax, Julian said. So he used FedEx and filled a package with his designs and mailed them to Michael Jordan, the former UNC All-American who was then on his way to the first of the six NBA championships he won with the Chicago Bulls.
A little while later, they all picked up the phone for a three-way call – the kind of thing high school kids might have done to share the latest gossip in an age long before texting and SnapChat. Only this time it was Smith, Jordan and Julian, deciding the future of the look of UNC basketball.
“And we had three or four of those,” Julian said of the three-way calls. “Michael liked the argyle. I liked the argyle. Guess what? Dean loved the argyle.”
And after word got out that those three favored the argyle, “Guess what?” Julian asked, before answering his own question: “Everybody lined up after the argyle.”
So that’s how the argyle came to be. It was meant, Julian said, to represent “timeless class and style,” and the design paid homage, too, to one of his early career highlights.
The first Coty Award – the Coty Awards for a time were something like the Academy Awards of the fashion world – that Julian received came from a design that featured argyle. He found comfort and inspiration in the diamond pattern.
“Argyle was lucky for me,” he said.
The season after UNC started wearing the argyle jerseys, it won the 1993 national championship. Sports Illustrated came out with a commemorative edition not long after, and on the cover there was Julian’s argyle design running down the sides, framing Smith cutting down the net.
Smith mailed a copy to Julian, signed the cover and left a message, too. Julian recently said that magazine remains one of his prized possessions, and he recalled the words Smith left him on the cover: “He said, ‘Alex, look what you started.’”