The innovative fashion and furniture designer received the award that recognizes entrepreneurs who are leaders in their industry and who exemplify the values of Elon University.
Elon leaders honored fashion and furniture designer Alexander Julian on April 27 with the Elon University Medal for Entrepreneurial Leadership, bestowed on individuals who possess integrity, innovation and creativity, passion for lifelong learning, and a commitment to building a dynamic community.
“This opportunity gave me the chance to reflect on my life and the word ‘entrepreneurship’ and what that means,” said Julian shortly after receiving the medal from President Leo M. Lambert at a ceremony at LaRose Theatre. “I really shouldn’t be here to accept an award on entrepreneurship. I’m not good at running a business. What I’m good at is ideation.”
It’s that ability to come up with unique ideas and designs that has led the North Carolina native to win every major award for design, including five Coty Awards, three Cutty Sark Awards, the Council of Fashion Designers of America Award, the International Color Marketing Award, the Pantone Award and the Worldesign Award. He is the first American fashion designer to personally create the majority of his own textile designs, for which he won seven awards. His textile design is part of the Smithsonian National Design Museum’s permanent collection. Julian is also the only fashion designer to win the Pinnacle Award for furniture design and the only fashion designer to design for both professional and college sports.
Julian’s career traces its beginnings to his parents’ haberdashery in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where a young Julian spent countless hours learning the importance of paying attention to detail and aesthetics. He opened his first shop at the age of 21, which he appropriately called “Alexander’s Ambitions.” He told the audience at the ceremony that he opened that business with his father’s money while he was out of town, something that led his father to disinherit him for about three days. “It turned out to be a very important part of my career,” Julian said, for it allowed him to experiment on his own terms and all without ever going to design school. It’s something he considers an advantage because he never learned what not to do.
“My parents were my teachers,” he said, adding that as a child, swatch books were his toys.
When he started designing clothes shortly after moving to New York City in the mid-1970s, he focused on having beautiful designed fabrics to create innovative, yet timeless pieces. In the past four decades, he has been involved in at least 25 start-ups, not including a handful more he is currently working on. “I’ve designed 108 different categories of products,” he said, including clothing lines for men and women, linens, wallpaper, furniture and even vodka labels. Take ties, for instance. “I have designed 150-200 a season,” he said. “Over the course of 40 years, that’s a lot of textile designs.”
While he agrees with Albert Einstein that creativity is more important than knowledge, “what great schools like [Elon] provide you,” Julian said, “is the opportunity to have both.” He encouraged students to think creatively in whatever endeavor they choose. “Design thinking is your friend.” He also told them to believe in themselves and be ready to fail. When he moved to New York, he said, he was rejected so many times he was ready to give up. But then, at the 1,001th time, a door opened, and he took it.
Even after all his success, he continues being relentless. He will launch a new line of clothing in May featuring a new digital-printed fabric he started developing in the 1990s. Though it’s taken this long for others to see the potential, he said, he never gave up on the project because he believed in it. It’s just another example of Julian’s instinctive vision. “Mr. Julian’s success as a designer and an entrepreneur can be attributed to his ability to combine creative passion with business acumen,” said Doherty Scholar Laura Orr ’16, a finance and entrepreneurship double major who spoke during the ceremony. “Imagination is the key to addressing some of the world’s biggest challenges. And—at the very least—it can make it a more efficient and aesthetically pleasing place to live.
“Mr. Julian encompasses that sentiment, as well as the purpose behind the Medal for Entrepreneurial Leadership, which is awarded to a leader who exemplifies the values of integrity, innovation and creativity.”
Doherty Scholars, as well as the Doherty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the university, are named for Elon Trustee Ed Doherty and his wife, Joan, entrepreneurs from New Jersey whose daughter graduated from Elon in 2007. Ed and Joan Doherty established the center with a gift to the university and have been longtime Elon supporters. “Ed and Joan are committed to giving back to the communities where they do business and to causes that they are committed to and we are fortunate that Elon University’s continued success is a cause to which they are committed,” said Love School of Business Dean Raghu Tadepalli.
During his remarks, Tadepalli also thanked the center’s director, Professor of Management Kevin O’Mara, who will be leaving Elon after 26 years of service to become dean of Campbell University’s business school. “Kevin took the directorship, on my request, and immediately went about giving the center much needed direction,” Tadepalli said. “ Working tirelessly, he’s taken the center to new heights. I thank Kevin for his outstanding leadership and wish him the very best in the years ahead.”
Past recipients of the Elon University Medal for Entrepreneurial Leadership include:
2009 – Jim Goodnight, CEO and Founder, SAS
2010 – Bernard A. Harris, Jr., CEO and Managing Partner, Vesalius Ventures, Inc.
2012 – Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Founder of the Grameen Bank and Chairman of the Yunus Centre
2013 – Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, founder and CEO, Pace Communications and Chairman of the Board of the American Red Cross
2014 – Patrick Awuah, Jr., Founder and President, Ashesi University
2015 – Guy Harvey, wildlife artist and conservationist