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June 2010
True Specialty
By Ellison Clary

     People call Bruce Julian funny and colorful, and savvy as well. He recently reopened his eponymous men’s store after a fire with a one-liner about “hot fashion that could make Henny Youngman blush.”

     His reopening coincided with his wedding anniversary which was, yes, April Fool’s Day. Flamboyant both in style and personality, he fingers a mini-pony tail for his thinning but longish hair, dressed stylishly with a panache of color.

     “I’m known for the clothes having a little step in them,” Julian says of his fashion-forward reputation. “And for not being stupidly priced.” He firmly believes that good clothes open all doors from the company boardroom to the golf club, and has the clientele that will attest to it.

      And he’s dedicated. Shut down from December 19 until April 1, he speaks of having 14 straight Saturdays free. Then he admits he worked most of them in temporary quarters, receiving customers and taking orders. He visited New York City four times picking new inventory, and he shopped a fashion show in Las Vegas and another in Charlotte.

     Little wonder then that, after a next-door fire left him with extensive smoke damage, Julian reopened Bruce Julian Clothier with flair. Many customers consider his current stock a superlative selection. He offers brands such as Joseph Abboud and Talia, names not commonly available on other Charlotte racks.

     “It’s a specialty store,” Julian explains. “What I carry has to be priced right, it’s got to be the right color and it’s got to be the right quality.”

     Even with brands other stores carry, Julian remains different. “I’m going to buy with pizzazz,” he explains, “and department store buyers tend to be conservative. I’m priced pretty much the same as Men’s Warehouse or Brooks Brothers, but for them, it’s got to work in Milwaukee and Florida and upstate New York.

     “I’m going for the Charlotte guy with my taste, and it’s much more specific and more exciting,” he adds.

     Though he stocks traditional styles, Julian likes fashion with an edge. These days, a fresh look is luring young people for the first time in years.

     “The style is a two-button coat, side vents, and flat front trousers with a snugger fit,” Julian says. “The kids are totally coming back for that,” he continues, adding older men are getting used to it.

     The Julian reopening on April 1 truly did coincide with the 10-year anniversary of his marriage to the former Bonnie Bullock of Charlotte. She runs a fabric printing business in New York. The Julians split time between a Manhattan apartment and a Lake Wylie home in Clover, S.C.

     Julian’s April 9 reopening party featured heavy hors d’oeuvres by restaurant Ilios Noche and a store stuffed with the latest men’s fashions, from ties to shoes, with lots of suits, sport coats and trousers in the latest colors and cuts.

     The more than 200 who celebrated with Julian reveled in his return.

     “I’ve been a Bruce Julian customer for at least 15 years,” says Dewey Todd, who attended the festivities with his wife Frohn. During his 38 years with Springs Industries, Todd learned the nuances of fine cloth. “I appreciate his eye for fabric and he offers top-quality products,” adds Todd.

     These days Todd is director of quality and product development of Guest Supply, a Sysco Company that operates from Concord offices. The Todds live in Kershaw, S.C., but don’t mind visits to Julian in South Charlotte.

 

His Father’s Son

     Bruce Julian was born with men’s clothing in his blood. The story begins in 1946, when the Julian brothers, Milton and Maurice (father of fashion designer Alexander Julian), opened their first shop in Chapel Hill. Two years later, Milton went out on his own with Milton’s Clothing Cupboard, pioneering the Ivy League look throughout the Southeast.

     A local icon, Milton remained in his original Chapel Hill Franklin Street location for more than 40 years. Through the ’50s and ’60s, Milton’s expanded to locations in Charlotte, Dallas and Atlanta.

     In 1977, Milton invited the 25-year-old Bruce to open his own store in Charlotte “for better or worse.”

     Early on, it was mainly for worse in the South Tryon Street location that had been a Pontiac dealership. Center city was largely a ghost town. Most retailers had fled to the suburbs.

     Through with being beat up and robbed, Julian moved Milton’s in 1980 to a location across the street from SouthPark Mall to be close to Joseph Bank, the men’s upscale discounter. He stayed at that Morrison Boulevard address until 2001. That’s when his lease ran out and the owners had other ideas for the land.

     Julian then moved his company to the Arboretum Shopping Center at the intersection of Providence Road and Pineville-Matthews Road and changed the name to Bruce Julian Clothier. He selected a handsome spot with 3,200 square feet, but it’s about 10 miles from center city and half that from SouthPark. He worked hard to entice long-time customers to drop by.

     “I persevered, man,” Julian says. “I kept calling people. A good many of them, I forced into coming. I’ve got a customer who lives in Dilworth. He says he has to take a plane out here.”

     Julian hung on with promotions such as his “2 fer,” to which he later added his “3 fer.” When currently offered, that means two suits regularly $995 for the price of one, or even three for one. And he’ll do a “2 fer” on suits regularly $595 and on sport coats regularly $375. The “2 fer” often extends to polo shirts, dress pants and jeans.

     Suffice it to say he’s a promoter. He learned that from his father and uncle Maurice Julian. Bruce Julian grew up working in his dad’s Chapel Hill store which for a time operated across the street from one operated by uncle Maurice.

     “He used to send me up on the roof,” Julian reminisces about his father, who would stir interest in a sale by keeping his doors locked until 4 p.m. People would gather on the sidewalk waiting to get in. It was Bruce’s job to fling items of free clothing into the crowd.

     Such frenzy developed that Milton’s would remain open until the wee hours of the morning.

     “So I got my deal-making from my dad,” Julian says.

 

A Promotional Wonder

     Julian started cooking up his own marketing schemes as early as age 14, when he unleashed dozens of turtles marked ‘Sale at Milton’s’ all over the UNC campuses.

     Nowadays, a bit more reverent, among Julian’s most successful promotions is a ladies’ day he has established on one of the first Saturday’s in December. It’s a chance for women to shop for their men.

     “I offer them a nice spread and complimentary mimosas,” says Julian, who offers beer, wine and mixed drinks routinely from an in-store bar. “Women love to come in here. They’re not put off. We don’t do stodgy.”

     The live band that played for the reopening party supplanted the usual unique recorded music, a constant in the Julian environment.

     “I’ve always been into music and I keep it playing,” he says. “I’ve got 14,000 songs on the iPod.” Eclectic is how he defines his musical taste, professing to like all styles except some of the heavy metal.

     It’s another enticement to enter the store. So is the putting green. Ditto the pinball and slot machines.

     Thinking of other lures, Julian offers, “I like to feed customers. More Saturdays than not, I’ll have a restaurant in here catering. It’s kind of old school.”

     Given his innate hankering for promotions of all sorts, he muses about promotions gone wrong. A scheme to spin a wheel for varying discounts failed spectacularly. Then there was the time he mailed coupons for a free bottle of wine, no strings attached.

     “You got to see ‘the other side,’” he giggles, eyes filled with glee. “I had people come in here, they just wanted that wine. They didn’t want to see nothin’ else. That was funny.”

     What did work was when Julian found his sales manager of 15 years, Ace Whiteheart. A regular customer, Whiteheart’s gig selling jeans on the road fizzled and Julian brought him on, initially as an outside person, taking fashions to businesses and outfitting employees of car dealers and such.

     A diminutive dandy with a healthy handlebar mustache, Whiteheart enjoys a natural gift of gab. Soon, customers were demanding his services.

     “I shop at Bruce Julian because of Ace,” says Thom McKinney, principal of Thom McKinney & Associates. He’s a Charlotte-based motivational speaker and corporate trainer.

     “I also like the fact that the clothes, when I put them on, make me look wonderful,” McKinney says. “As an old man, that’s what you want from clothes.”

     Julian’s typical customer is a family man in his early 40s. “He’s the guy who’s running the company for the guy who owns it,” he says. “He’s going to live mostly in this neighborhood or farther south.”

     He’s built his custom clothing offerings, too. Custom now accounts for a quarter of his business.

 

Toying With the Future

     Also prominent in the store are thousands of toys, with emphasis on cars and sports games. Julian started collecting in the mid-’80s and he restocked his toy selection for the reopening by shopping the New York Gift Show.

     He favors toys with action to them, such as windups and those that operate on batteries. All are for sale.

     Whatever it takes to make shopping for men’s clothes enjoyable is what he’s up to, Julian explains.

     “My job is to make the customer love the clothes, love the quality and what I’m offering,” he says. “And secondly, love the environment. There’s always going to be something exciting and new.”

     He pauses, and then with a wicked chuckle, adds: “And I’ll take as much of your money as you’ll let me.”

     It works. “I like Bruce and Ace,” says David Wagner, a principal at Wagner Murray Architects in Charlotte. “They’re engaging people. They’re always cheerful and happy to see you. They make working with them pleasurable.

     “Plus, they’re stylish,” Wagner adds. “I still wear a jacket I bought from Bruce when he was uptown in 1979.”

     Julian dodges questions about revenue, but shares that he’s grown a little more than 10 percent annually in the last three years.

     He acknowledges his father as his biggest influence. “He is the most ridiculously positive person,” Julian smiles. His dad’s face adorns the Julian logo. It’s on the body of a man in a 1920s suit rowing a boat.

     Now 92, Milton Julian still takes orders from long-time customers. He lives on a farm near Chapel Hill with Julian’s mother and sister.

     “He likes to come down during the Charlotte men’s show because he sees his all his cronies,” Julian says of his dad.

     Julian has plied his trade for 33 years now. At 58, he harbors no thoughts of retirement. The question seems a surprise.

     “I had a chance to get out with the fire and didn’t even blink at taking it,” Julian says. “I’m sure there will come a time when I want to cash in and travel. But what am I going to do on Saturdays?”

     His voice switches to a more serious tone. “This is what I do and I do it with a passion,” he says. “When somebody comes in here, they’re going to be taken care of with a passion. That might be all that really matters.”

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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