Alexander Julian tells a story about how, back in the '90s, his son told his fifth grade teacher that his dad invented the colors teal and purple. Julian can't take credit for that, of course, but it's fair to say he popularized the combination: The Charlotte Hornets' logo and uniform set he designed prior to the team's inaugural season in 1988 didn't just set off a marketing bonanza; it influenced a generation of sports logos.
If a color scheme could define a decade, then the '90s were the era of teal and purple. Now, decades after Julian submitted his original Hornets design, the team name and colors are making a comeback: The Charlotte Bobcats officially changed their name to the Hornets this offseason, and as expected, their new uniforms capitalized on memories of the original Hornets' look by using teal and purple. While the franchise embraced the retro aesthetics of Charlotte's NBA history, the man responsible for that original look was left wishing he could have played a role this time, too.
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Before the Hornets began play in 1988, Max Muhleman -- the marketing whiz who helped George Shinn land an NBA franchise in Charlotte -- suggested to Shinn that the team hire Alexander Julian, the well-respected fashion designer, a North Carolina native, to dream up the new team's look. Julian said he's long believed Muhleman saw the splashy hire as a way to keep the franchise in the headlines in the months leading up to inaugural season. In any case, Shinn and Julian shared a banker, which led to the initial request. Julian, a big sports fan, was interested, and began asking Shinn if he had any guidelines for the design of the logo and uniform.
At that point, the team didn't yet have a nickname, but Shinn said it would be nice if Julian could use some of the colors the architects had used in the design scheme of team's new arena, the Charlotte Coliseum. One of the colors, Shinn told Julian, was teal, which happened to be one of Julian's signature colors. Then he mentioned white and Carolina blue, also part of Julian's design lexicon. The final color, Shinn told Julian, was pink.
Julian wasn't so sure about that one. He also didn't think the arena's "teal" would work; in reality, it was more of a green than a blue-green. Julian recalled his conversation with Shinn in a phone interview with Sports on Earth: "I go to him and said, 'Look, George, that's a mistake. It doesn't work. The reason you asked me to design these uniforms is because I have a reputation for doing a certain use of color, and pattern and fit that combine to do something that's new and different, but timeless.'" He explained to Shinn that he wanted to use his signature teal, and not the greener color the arena had used. Shinn said that would be fine.
That gave Julian the freedom to turn to teal and purple, which had long been his signature color combination -- "my baby," he calls it. He first used those colors together when he started designing sportswear in 1978, though he can't pinpoint anything in particular that inspired him to try it. ("I've thought about, believe me," he said.) He likes the colors because he says they look flattering on everyone and look good on any skin tone. "I'm in the business of making people look good," he said.
Once Julian settled on the colors, he worked with his graphic designer to create the first Hornets logo. (Shinn's instructions to him: "I want a mean bug.") And he incorporated other details into the uniforms: pinstripes, a V-neck (like the one Dean Smith had designed for UNC) and a logo on the waistband of the shorts. The fit was critical, he believed: He used then-Hornet Kelly Tripucka to work out a perfect fit, which would then guide the customization for the other players. (Julian was horrified when he showed up to the team's first game and learned Tripucka and his teammates had gone to a Charlotte tailor and had the shorts shortened and tightened because they were afraid they'd be laughed at for having long, baggy shorts.)
The uniforms -- and the colors, especially -- were a hit. Suddenly, teal and purple became the hottest colors in Charlotte. "I felt like, at times, within the first six months there, everything in Charlotte turned teal," Julian said. "The hotel that I used to stay in changed its logo to teal. The towels were all replaced with towels that had teal trim. There was a housing development, I remember, called Teal Acres. You could sell anything in that town that was teal."
Hornets merchandise especially sold extraordinarily well, though Julian didn't get a cut. He'd asked for a percentage of replica jersey sales, but the Hornets (who shared merchandise revenues with the NBA's other teams) wouldn't give it to him. Julian didn't want money for designing the uniforms, even though he thinks he could have gotten six figures for the job. "This is a little painful now, but at the time, I didn't need the money," he said. He did work out one form of payment: Unable to secure a cut of sales (which he didn't think would be much anyway), he asked for five pounds of Carolina barbecue a month to be FedExed to him in Connecticut, where he lived. It would be his only payment for the design. On whether Julian could have predicted its massive success: "I really had no idea."
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The explosion of teal and purple wasn't just limited to Charlotte. Kids all around the country rocked Hornets Starter jackets. Basketball fandom wasn't a prerequisite either: Julian recalls Shinn telling him about his first trip to China, a few years after the Hornets began play. Shinn was on an airplane "in the middle of nowhere in China," as Julian recalls him saying, and a Chinese boy got on the plane wearing a Charlotte Hornets cap. Julian said Shinn found a translator and asked the boy if he was a fan of the Charlotte Hornets, to which the kid replied he didn't know who the Charlotte Hornets were. He just liked the color of the hat.
Teal and purple were working from a marketing standpoint, and other teams tried to capitalize on the craze. The NHL's Sharks took the ice in 1991 wearing teal. Major League Baseball expanded in 1993 with teams in Florida (the Marlins, who wore teal) and Colorado (the Rockies, in purple). The NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars wore teal when they began play in 1995. Even teams with long histories updated their look: The Detroit Pistons overhauled their red, white and blue logo in 1995, and began to wear teal. (This trend wasn't exclusive to big-time pro sports: In the mid-'90s, my own elementary school changed its sports team's colors from maroon and gold to teal and purple.)
But despite all the franchises using those colors in the years following the launch of the Charlotte Hornets, Julian said he doesn't think any other team ever quite did it right -- particularly the New Orleans Hornets. In retrospect, he said, when the team moved to Louisiana, he wishes he'd called them and said, "If you want help doing a knock-off of my own work, I'll help you, just for the sake of pride."
Julian isn't exactly flattered that so many teams used the colors he popularized. "Imitation is the sincerest form of aggravation and if you focus on it, you do nothing but consume yourself, and not do any good," Julian said. "So I just ignore it."
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The explosion of teal and purple wouldn't last forever. The Marlins eventually switched to a multi-color look. The Pistons switched their colors back to red, white and blue. Madison Square Garden, which had long used a teal-and-purple color scheme, abandoned it as part of its recent renovation. Some teams stuck with the teal -- the Sharks still rock a shade of it -- but new franchises began to look elsewhere on the color spectrum. Even the original Hornets would change things up: The franchise moved to New Orleans in 2002, and in time the team would stray from a strictly teal-and-purple color scheme.
Says Julian: "Fashion is cyclical, in some ways, in that when something is new, everybody says 'Gee, why didn't I think of that?" and they copy it.' And then everybody copies it, and they say, 'I don't want to look like everybody else,' and then they come up with something new, and then everybody copies that. And then all of a sudden somebody says, 'Boy that teal was really good.'" Julian pauses to laugh. "And then they bring it out, and everybody copies it."
We may be at the beginning of yet another cycle -- one in which those colors have a sort of retro appeal. In April 2013, the New Orleans Hornets officially changed their name to the Pelicans -- a moniker reflective of the team's Louisiana home. That July, the NBA approved the Charlotte Bobcats' request to reclaim the "Hornets" nickname -- a popular move in Charlotte, where there remained a fondness for the original iteration that left town in 2002. The new Hornets, which will begin play in the fall, will inherit the history and records of the original Hornets. They'll wear uniforms with that classic teal-and-purple color scheme -- ones that nod to Julian's original design.
Indeed, when it was announced that Bobcats owner Michael Jordan was getting the Hornets name back, Julian says he got calls from friends in the apparel business wanting a Pantone number for his teal, anticipating the resurgence of the color. "It's going to be Teal Town again," Julian said.
But Julian didn't get an opportunity to design those new unis himself: The team instead worked with Nike and Jordan Brand -- perhaps not a surprise, considering MJ's ties to the company. Still, Julian said he'd have loved the opportunity. "I was disappointed not to be personally involved in helping them this time," he said, "but I wish them nothing but the best." He was even willing to work for free -- to design a new look "just for the fun of it."
Julian, whose latest launch is a line of multi-purpose bike shirts to be sold at Performance Bike stores, said he tries not to talk negative about other teams' designs. There are team logos and color schemes that he can't stand, but other than an acknowledgement that he wasn't a fan of the New Orleans Hornets' design after the move from Charlotte, he won't say which they are. He says he likes the new Hornets logo, and while he admits he'd make "a few moderate adjustments" to it, he won't say what those tweaks would be.
Said Julian: "I will not say anything except I'm proud to have been a part of it before, and proud to have my colors displayed again."