How An Upscale Fashion Designer And Jim Henson's Daughter Made Charlotte Hornets Gear Legendary
Next year, the Michael Jordan–owned Charlotte NBA team will be reassuming the Hornets mantle. Here's the story behind the original Hornets' early '90s sports merchandise juggernaut.
By 1988, Carolina native Alexander Julian had established himself in New York as a fashion designer known for incorporating bright colors into upscale men's clothing. Twenty-five years later, his company is still going strong, and his most popular contribution to menswear is remembered for its bold combination of teal and purple — but it's not an item of high fashion. Julian's signature work is a basketball jersey, the one worn by the erstwhile Charlotte Hornets, perhaps the most unlikely sports-business success story of the last half-century. It was an item that became a national sales phenomenon despite being affiliated with an expansion team that never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs during their 15 seasons in North Carolina. By 1995, just seven seasons into the franchise's existence, more Hornets jerseys were sold than any other team's in the NBA. And it wasn't only jerseys that sold; Starter jackets featuring the bold Hornets teal continue to top twentysomethings' lists of favorite childhood wardrobe items.
The Hornets eventually moved to New Orleans — where they've now renamed themselves the New Orleans Pelicans — because their owner couldn't get along with city officials or fans, but the Hornets' mystique has proven so enduring that the team's NBA successors in Carolina, the Michael Jordan–owned Charlotte Bobcats, are now announcing that they're going to be reassuming the Hornets name. Crucially, the Bobcats haven't yet commented on whether they'll be bringing back the original Hornets uniforms and color scheme. But they'd be crazy not to take advantage of a design that was such a phenomenon.
"When it came out, I felt like I had dropped a teal bomb on Charlotte," Julian said. "There was a new housing development that changed its name to 'Teal Acres.' The Park Hotel, which was the best hotel in town, changed its logo to teal. The towels were embroidered in teal. I felt a little like Doctor Frankenstein. I had created a monster. It took off like crazy." Julian grew up the son of a men's clothing store owner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In terms of passion for basketball, few places rival the hometown of the Tar Heels, and Julian was always a fan. He graduated from the school in 1969 and has since sent four of his children to UNC. He never took to following the NBA with anything more than cursory interest until the late 1980s, when talk of a professional basketball team in Charlotte began circulating. George Shinn, the businessman who ultimately brought the Hornets to Charlotte (and took them to New Orleans), happened to share a banker with Julian. That banker introduced Julian to Shinn, who included him in a jersey-design process that had gotten into some early PR trouble.
"Way before there was any talk about involving me in the design, the fashion editor of the Charlotte Observer asked George if they knew what kind of colors they were going to use," Julian said. "He said he didn't know but that they'd try to use the same ones chosen by the architect of the stadium, and when they mentioned that pink was one of them, she jumped. She had an artist design a pink uniform and ran it in the newspaper, and the reaction from radio shock jocks was horrific. I wasn't there, but what I can tell you is when we had the press conference to announce that I was going to design the uniforms, the first 14 questions I took from the press were about whether or not I was going to use pink."
Pink was indeed briefly considered as a uniform color but eventually nixed. Julian's ultimate color choice was bold nonetheless. His hunch was that teal was ready to make its major debut. "Teal was ideal to use because it was fresh and new and exciting and looked good on every color of skin tone, from dark to light. Same with purple," he said. He added a few more fancy details. "Usually the stripes on jerseys were printed, but one of my touches was knitted stripes. So we knitted the stripes into the fabric. And then I did multi-color trims because that was another of my signature touches."
Perhaps just as important to the popularity of Hornets gear as their colors and uniforms was their appealing mascot, Hugo the Hornet. It remains unclear just who sketched the original hornet logo — Alexander recalls that it was designed fairly quickly by a local Charlotte artist, the name of whom he didn't know — but the woman who brought the bug-eyed creature to life was in fact Cheryl Henson, daughter of legendary puppeteer Jim. The younger Henson had just finished up a graduate degree at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and was trying to get a job working for Julian. "Looking at different American textile designers, Julian stood out as being fabulous," she said. "His color sense was extraordinary. I went to interview there, and he said he wasn't hiring but that he'd just taken this challenge to design costumes for the new Charlotte Hornets basketball team and [asked], was I interested in doing the mascot?"
Henson had sought out Julian at least in part as an attempt to break away from the family business. Julian lured her right back in with his request to turn a quick sketch into a full-sized mascot costume. She's thankful he did. "I loved the colors. I worked exactly with his colors. The teal and purple just zing together," she said.
The popularity of Julian's design did not make the now 65-year-old designer a fortune. However, it may have helped him get a later gig redesigning the unis of his boyhood favorites, the Tar Heel basketball team. It also may have led to weight gain: His compensation from the Hornets came in the form of an alternative currency. "In North Carolina, 'barbecue' is a noun — pork shoulder, slow-cooked over a fire. It's always been one of my favorite things," he said. "So I said to George that he could have the uniform design for free if he FedExed five pounds of Carolina barbeque to my Connecticut home each month. An extra hundred grand didn't mean anything to me in those days, and barbecue did."
That arrangement continued for several years. Whether Julian will start getting new shipments from Michael Jordan sometime soon remains to be seen.