You Don’t Know Jack: An Interview With Rowing Blazers Founder Jack Carlson

Rowing Blazers is weird. The people that inhabit the fashion world label it a neo-prep brand and point to items like 3/2 button stance blazers in patterns like blackwatch or gun club check, or chunky shawl collar cardigans. Conversely, prepsters are leery to accept a brand that sells collaboration hoodies and graphic-print tees into their orbit; they label it a streetwear brand. So which is it?

Well, it’s not really either. It follows the streetwear model of having limited release “drops” for collections made in collaboration with other brands and artists, but often those brands are heritage companies like Barbour and Sperry. On the other hand, it sells clothing items that are clearly established in the traditional genre, but it does not have a long history like Brooks Brothers or J. Press to rely on.  

Named after a sport that is decidedly white, upper-class dominated, Rowing Blazers does not shy away from its connections to the elite world. Yet simultaneously, it makes a strong effort to get a new, more diverse crowd into the sport by having prominent ties with organizations like Row New York, as well as making a conscious effort to diversify model representation in their ad campaigns and lookbooks. 

I was recently able to ask the brand’s founder, Jack Carlson, some questions to better understand the brand. Carlson, like the brand itself, is a man of many facets. He represented the United States in rowing at both the World Championships and the Henley Royal Regatta, earned his undergraduate degree from Georgetown and his PhD. in Archaeology from Oxford, worked designing crests and coats of arms at the College of Arms in London, taught Classics at a New England boarding school, wrote a comprehensive book detailing the history of and traditions surrounding club and collegiate rowing blazers, and then went on to start the brand known today as Rowing Blazers (all before turning 30!). 

In our chat, Carlson was able to tell me how his experiences shaped his personal style and the trajectory of the brand, as well as paint a more clear picture of what Rowing Blazers is. — TREVOR JONES

* * *

Ivy Style: Before we talk about the brand, let’s talk about you. Can you detail some of your personal experiences a bit more and talk about how they’ve shaped you?

Jack Carlson: When I was very little, my family moved from the US to Hampstead, in north London. It was the early ‘90s, and London was a magical place. I think my time in the UK had a lasting effect on me and on my sense of style. We moved to Boston when I was eight or nine, and I took up little league baseball and rowing on the Charles River. I raced with my high school team at Henley Royal Regatta in 2004 (we were knocked out in the first round, which made me determined to come back and win one day. I was also very taken with all of the different club and team blazers, and decided then to write a book about them all one day). I decided to go to Georgetown, mostly because I liked the people I met on my visits there the best. I had a great time there; I was in the School of Foreign Service, which was originally conceived as a sort of equivalent of the military academies for the Diplomatic Corps. I studied Chinese, Classics, and archaeology, and spent the summers working on an archaeological excavation in northern Tuscany. My senior year, I was captain of the rowing team; I also ended up receiving a scholarship from Georgetown to attend Oxford for graduate school. I headed there for a two-year master’s degree in archaeology, but ended up staying for about five years, doing both a master’s and a DPhil (which is what they call a PhD in Oxford). It was ideal, because it afforded me the opportunity to keep training, and the summer after my second year at Oxford, I made my first national team. The summer after my fourth year, I won Henley (nine years after first racing there!). My other side project was finally writing that book about blazers. I worked on it as a passion project for about four years, thinking about it mostly as a book for the rowing community. When it came out, I was surprised that it attracted so much interest from the menswear community. Ralph Lauren picked it up, and hosted a series of book events for it. That planted the seeds of the idea of starting my own brand. Something that was rooted in heritage, in classic British and American style, but that wasn’t stuffy and didn’t put on airs. Starting, of course, with the blazer. I moved back to the US after handing in my thesis at Christmastime, and taught and coached at a boarding school in Massachusetts for the spring semester. I was then asked to rejoin the national team that summer; I raced at one final world championships in 2015, taking a bronze with my teammates. I had already started working on the brand as a side project, but moved to New York in 2016 to devote myself to it full-time, and then launched the brand in 2017.

IS: It’s become clear that, through your upbringing and love of vintage, the Ivy league look has shaped your personal style. How has that look influenced you?

JC: I have always had fairly eclectic tastes, but, yes, I have a penchant for the classics. The so-called “Ivy League look,” though I don’t love that label, looks right in my book, but can also be worn in a way that doesn’t look too camp or contrived. I also think there’s a sense of cheekiness, of sort of subtle impiety to it, which makes it more fun, more interesting, and also more timeless.

IS: You have positioned Rowing Blazers at the nexus of classic menswear and streetwear. How have these two genres of men’s fashion shaped the brand?

JC: I hate all these labels, but one ends up having to use them from time to time. I don’t like to categorize Rowing Blazers at all really. It has features most commonly associated with classic menswear; i.e., we make blazers, and very traditional blazers, with an extremely keen attention to detail. We make most of our blazers in New York, and employ some fairly idiosyncratic details which are all features of the original blazer: a 3-roll-2 stance, patch pockets, an unlined interior, no darts, a soft shoulder, and no vent. We also have features more commonly associated with streetwear: we regularly launch new capsules; many of our products are limited edition and sell out right away; we undertake creative collaborations with a fairly wide variety of major brands. But I wouldn’t really classify Rowing Blazers as either a classic menswear brand or a streetwear brand. It’s kind of just its own thing.

IS: You mentioned that you don’t like labels, especially those describing the brand as “preppy”. Why? 

JC: “Preppy” is a word that means so many different things to different people. Some people will think of J. Press; others will think of Vineyard Vines. It’s just a word that has kind of lost any kind of real meaning as a result. It can also be used in a sort or pejorative way, and has a lot of baggage that comes with it. I don’t see it as a very helpful word.

IS: Rowing Blazers does frequent collaborations, both with established brands as well as artists and individuals. Where did this idea come from, and how have you continued to do it so successfully?

JC: Brands just started reaching out asking if we wanted to do collaborations. The first few times it happened, I thought it was a hoax. How did some of these brands even hear of us? But we did a few great collaborations early on: J Press, Eric Emanuel, J Crew. They were all very different, but all extremely successful. And while those three brands are all very different from each other, somehow what we did with each one was totally on-brand for us. Since then, we’ve done collaborations with Barbour, Sperry, FILA, Noah, and Lands’ End. They’ve all been so much fun to work on. I love digging into some of the brand archives and pulling out things that the brands themselves sometimes don’t even realize they’re sitting on, or pushing them to do things the old-fashioned way. We also do collaborations with artists, individuals, and institutions. In these cases, we’re often the ones reaching out. Our collaboration with artist Luke Edward Hall is a real highlight. I love his illustrations and he has a great sense of color. And of course our capsules with Harry’s Bar in Paris (the first cocktail bar in); the Annapolis Cup (annual St. John’s College vs. the US Naval Academy croquet match); the Harriman Cup (annual Yale vs. UVA polo match); and the Hasty Pudding Club at Harvard have all been quite fun.

IS: Both you and the brand still have strong connections to the sport of rowing. In what ways has crew influenced the brand?

JC: Rowing is an important part of the brand’s DNA. Most people don’t realize that the blazer originated in the sport of rowing; the earliest blazers were warm-up jackets for oarsmen at Cambridge and Oxford, produced in unlined wool flannel, often in club or collegiate colors. One of these early rowing jackets actually gave us the name blazer: the “blazing” red jackets of Lady Margaret Boat Club at Cambridge. In my research for the book Rowing Blazers, I re-discovered the earliest known written use of the word “blazer” to refer to a jacket from a list of rowing club uniforms. This little story reveals a lot about us as a brand, I think, and not just about our connections with rowing: we like doing the research, uncovering the obscure; digging deep; and challenging the status quo and even widely-held beliefs if they’re incorrect. Sport in general is at the center of the brand and everything we do, too. Of course, many of our other core products originate in the world of sport.

IS: Rowing Blazers makes many items for specific clubs and teams that can only be purchased or worn if one is a member of that organization. How did that start?

JC: It started when my book came out, actually. Many of the old-school tailors that used to specialize in making club and team blazers had started to retire, and no one was replacing them, or at least no one was doing it properly. So, rowing clubs began asking me if I could make blazers for them. I had to answer that I couldn’t. But a few were persistent, so I began the arduous process of trying out various tailors in the Garment District  to see if they could make a traditional club blazer. It’s not as easy as it looks. The first clubs we made blazers for were Leander Club, New York Athletic Club, and, ironically enough, a very wealthy rowing club in China (it was nice making blazers in New York City and shipping them over to China). This is still an important part of our business; we’ve made blazers for the rowing teams and Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, Washington, the US national team, the German national team, and more. We also make blazers for other clubs and teams too, including the US national rugby team, the Cambridge rugby team, the Explorers Club, and more. Through our club partnerships, we’ve made blazers for royalty, Olympic champions, NBA players, and Apollo astronauts.

IS: Your brand has the word “blazers” in the title, but you’re perhaps most well-known for your wide variety of heritage rugby shirts. What makes these shirts so popular? 

JC: We offer rugby shirts in two weights: a lighter weight, which is made in America, and a heavier weight, which is made in Europe. I think the heavier weight version is very distinctive and quite unlike most other rugby shirts on the market today. The fabric is made on vintage knitting machines, and it is a different texture than any other rugby shirt you can find today. It’s a far higher tension, and a far heavier weight — though somehow it’s still quite breathable. 

IS: To those that say the brand is not only garish, but that it rips-off things that traditionally could be worn only by earning them, what do you have to say?

JC: These aren’t things that I have heard very often, but everyone is entitled to their own opinion. The brand is very colorful, for sure. This is one of the main attributes of the brand, actually, and it relates back to the name of the brand itself. Rowing Blazers are traditionally very colorful, and as I mentioned above, even the word “blazer,” which is so commonly used today, originated as a descriptor for brightly colored rowing jackets. The other categories for which we are best known lend themselves to being colorful. I like bright colors; they are integral to the sporting origins of much of what we do; they are an important part of so-called “Ivy style,” and they make me happy. I suppose if one wants to go out of one’s way to be pejorative or negative, one could describe this attribute as “garish.” The brand is not for everyone, and that’s okay. 

With regard to this idea that the brand “rips off things that traditionally could only be worn by earning them,” I don’t think anyone that knows what they’re talking about would say that. We are actually one of the few stewards of the club blazer tradition in the sport of rowing, and we are keeping that tradition alive at many clubs around the world. We don’t sell proprietary club or team blazers to the general public, and in the case of some clubs and teams with whom we work, we have, at the club or team’s request, processes in place in which the name of any customer seeking to order a club or team blazer has to be approved by the organization in question before the blazer is made. Of course, we sell other blazers and sport jackets to the general public, but none at all which are not the designs of any specific clubs or teams. We do make rugby shirts that are based on historic jerseys, but there is a very long history of the sale of “replica jerseys” in the sports of soccer and rugby. I worked at the College of Arms in London, helping to design coats of arms for people, and doing heraldic and genealogical and I am very rigorous about this sort of thing. 

IS: To those that say the quality of the products is poor, what do you have to say? 

JC: In three years, this is not something I have heard often at all. But if someone said the quality of the products they received was poor, I’d apologize to them and offer to replace the product for them. I don’t want any customer to have a bad experience with us. My email is jack@rowingblazers.com, and if anyone has had such an experience, I would ask them to email me directly with their order number in the subject line. Generally speaking, I’m extremely proud of our work and our products, though, of course, I don’t think every single product we’ve ever produced has been 100% perfect. I think our quality is extremely high, and we often jump through some fairly difficult hoops in order to make things the old-fashioned way; to use vintage techniques; or to ensure that certain idiosyncratic — but to us important — details are correctly achieved. We go to great lengths to have our blazers made according to the original pattern, rather than selecting a standard block from a factory that pumps out jackets; to have our rugby shirts made on vintage knitting machines so that the weight and the tension of the fabric is just right; to use fabrics that aren’t readily available on the open market – things like the original Gun Check tweed; proprietary blazer stripes; and our signature croquet-stripe seersucker woven for us at historic mills. We also make a great deal of our product here in the US. We do a lot in Europe as well, and we’ve dabbled with Japan and China. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and the brand is not for everyone, and that’s okay.

IS: How does the frequent outreach Rowing Blazers participates in fit into the brand’s identity? 

JC: I don’t know if it’s really about brand identity; I just think it’s the right thing to do. I do think there’s more to life — and there can be more to a business — than making cool things and employing people and making money. I want us to use our platform and our business to be a force for good. As soon as it became clear that the pandemic was serious, before it even hit our shores in a major way, I was trying to find some way to give back and something to support. I connected with Save The Children, because I actually used to volunteer for them a little when I went to Oxford. We’ve also donated to Robin Hood, Direct Relief, and the NAACP. We also make masks, and I’m very proud of that initiative for a few reasons: one, we are making them all here in New York, and we’ve been able to provide safe jobs for people who couldn’t work for a long time; two, we are using scraps of fabric from making blazers, suits, and shirts, which would normally just be waste; and three, we are donating one mask to the NYC Food Bank for every mask we sell. Row New York is an organization that is very important to me personally, because sport, especially a team sport like rowing, really can change lives; and Row New York is doing more to improve access to the sport than perhaps anyone in the US.

IS: Your online presence is sizeable, and much of the brand’s business is done through the website. What about your three brick and mortar stores in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Brentwood Country Mart in Los Angeles? 

JC: Brooklyn and LA were pop-up locations, which were slated to have ended earlier this year; of course, the pandemic cut them a little short. Our Manhattan location is our flagship and is an important hub for our brand and community. The store has been closed since March. We are planning to open again this autumn, but I’m in no hurry because I’d rather err on the side of caution. 

IS: How has the ongoing pandemic and economic downturn affected your business? 

JC: I think we are faring much better than most. We’re lucky not to have a big brick and mortar presence, and not to rely much on wholesale. Most of our business is online, and our online business is vastly exceeding our projections. It’s sad and scary to see what happened to Brooks Brothers, J Crew, and so many others; it also makes me realize we’re doing well relatively speaking, so I really can’t complain.

IS: There always seems to be something new popping up with Rowing Blazers every week. What is next for you guys? 

JC: We have some exciting things coming up this autumn. I won’t give too much away, but we have a Take Ivy meets the NBA collection on the way. Think British-made schoolboy scarves but for NBA teams instead of Yale colleges – and much more. 

23 Comments on "You Don’t Know Jack: An Interview With Rowing Blazers Founder Jack Carlson"

  1. The interview raises some concerns that I have heard here and in other corners of the internet. They made me hesitant for a while, and as Mr Carlson notes, RB may not be for everyone. Some here who lean more trad than others (cue the indigence of those who think there are not degrees to Ivy) may not like some of what’s on offer or the irreverence of the website. To each their own, of course, but I recommend reconsidering those views if you hold them.

    I made a few purchases from Rowing Blazers during the pandemic, and I am looking at a few more items. Included were rugbies in the European line described above; both are very comfortable and perfect to throw on for the weekend (or for some, everyday).

    My experience with the company matches what Mr Carlson describes above. I received a handwritten note with each purchase and, when one purchase was unexpectedly delayed, a very nice handwritten apology from the person at RB whom I had alerted to the problem. Personalized service, quality products, and authenticity for whatever that word means anymore. These concepts are what we are supposed to care about around here – well, besides whether your collar rolls just right and your jacket ticks all the right boxes of course.

    So if the opinion of a stranger on the internet matters to you, that’s mine.

  2. Indignance, not indigence – although perhaps some amongst us have been placed in a state of poverty as a result of an interest in Ivy.

    Thanks autocorrect.

  3. As P.T. Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” For those excentric spendthrift suckers out there willing to toss $195 for a rugby shirt from Rowing Blazers, they should at least get a note of thanks, especially since they could get a better rugby shirt from https://www.barbarian.com/catalogue/ for a hundred dollars less.

  4. Nice Clown World reference with the PT Barnum line, but did you really have to flatulate negative vibes on the site, brother BC?

  5. I love J. Press but as a relatively younger person sometimes it looks a little stodgy on me. Rowing Blazers hits a sweet spot.

  6. Behind Enemy Lines | September 3, 2020 at 10:54 pm |

    Thanks, Christian. Good interview, interesting guy.

    I hadn’t realised that they were suppliers to clubs, and I assumed their blazers were knock-offs of existing colours (ie the same problem we have with regimental ties). I’m not a complete purist but do live in a place where there’s always risk of running into someone who served (or rowed) within the Commonwealth.

    Will now go take a closer look at RBs’ kit.

  7. Behind Enemy Lines | September 3, 2020 at 11:05 pm |

    Oops – just noticed that the interview credit goes to Trevor. Thanks to Trevor for the interview, thanks to Christian for hosting.

  8. Rene Lebenthal | September 4, 2020 at 2:54 am |

    I had the chance to meet Jack twice. He is a very smart and intelligent guy. But what also struck me is that he is humanistic and very open minded. The success of RB is well deserved even if not every single item is for anyone’s taste. They are jsut innovative and traditional at a time.

  9. So much interesting history and culture behind the brand. The list of clubs they supply alone is impressive. Yet, they try so hard to push the “diversity” button in their ad campaigns, by constantly employing a few black guys with exaggerated “Afro-American-urban” hairstyles. The aggressiveness of this “virtue signaling agenda” is both, unnerving and ridiculous at the same time, as are the prices. The blazers, however, arebeautiful, and maybe one day I’ll purchase one, but only if I win a lottery.

  10. Old School Tie | September 4, 2020 at 5:02 am |

    To be fair, I have been vacillating over their terry towelling beach blazer for ages….but then I come to my senses and buy something I will actually use – a bottle of whiskey or some inner tubes for my bike. But I keep coming back to mental images of those classic 1980s RL sporting advertisements, everyone in whites, with my face mentally photoshopped onto Buzzy Kerbox….and my finger once again wavers over the “add to cart” button…

  11. Randy Ventgen | September 4, 2020 at 5:02 am |

    I’ve been a RB customer from it’s beginnings and ordered a blazer, ties, belts, shirts, polos, sweaters, shoes etc. There is no other brand nor store that I’ve experienced like it. The customer service including how they’re packaged has been uniformly excellent including dealing with the occasional problem. What you get with Rowing Blazers is quality well made items, unique, authentic and with ties to specific earlier historical traditions. My closet is more than full but there will always be room for Rowing Blazers.

    Randy Ventgen
    Vancouver Washington

  12. I apologize, Christian, I get cranky sometimes. Perhaps I am too old and thrifty to appreciate the styling and price vs. quality of the Rowing Blazers version of rugby shirts.

    Have a fun Labor Day Weekend!

    Cheers, BC

  13. I wish the brand good luck; it seems to be rooted in some fairly solid “ivy” principles.
    I do think that, at least in how the founder presents it, there seems to be a tremendous underlying tension between achingly trad-ivy-wasp heritage (not least the fellow’s bio…) and then trying desperately hard to dissociate itself with it which frankly comes across as craven.

  14. The Books tab caught my eye immediately. I would really like to have a copy of Scottish Estate Tweeds, 1995. Any possibility of a new printing?

  15. This is a pretty hard-hitting interview. One question I would love to know is who put up the funds for this operation. Its pretty amazing that a 20 something could fund a full inventory, web presence and NYC location. Even Ralph Lauren started with just a humble tie collection out of his car trunk, and he had worked in the fashion industry for a while before then.

  16. Berkeley Breathes | September 4, 2020 at 12:36 pm |

    There’s a lot I like about Jack and RB, but one line gave me pause and connects to something I’ve noticed before. “Dabbled with China” makes it sound like something RB tried and quickly moved on from. In fact, they still use Chinese manufacturing – not a crime in itself, but their website does not indicate Chinese-made products as such (even for jackets that cost upwards of $300), and the company has provided no information about the factories they use there. Add to that that Jack used to rail against companies that made products in China, as recently as 2018. I would hope that Jack and RB have taken care to use ethical manufacturing facilities that pay living wages overseas, but the lack of transparency makes it look a little suspicious.

  17. Fantastic interview! I like RB. It’s too expensive, but I dig it.

  18. Too expensive for what it is. I can only imagine the mark-up. Way high. Way too much for what it is. But his target audience will pay for it without asking too many questions. So.

  19. Thank you Trevor for reaching out and for all the good questions! I’ve been an Ivy Style reader for a long time, so it’s an honor.

    This interview was edited for length (I can be pretty long-winded apparently!), and so I wanted to share a few additional points and to answer a few questions raised in the comments…

    We’ve always made a lot of our products in the US and will continue to do so. We’ve also always made things outside of the US as well: in the past, we’ve made things in the UK, Europe, Japan, and China. (In all of these places, we’ve been very rigorous about both quality standards and ethical standards. Of course, there’s a cost associated with this, and that cost is reflected in our prices). But I’m happy to say that our Fall/Winter 2020 collection, which is about to come out, is made entirely at some of the very best factories in the US and Europe. I’ve personally spent a lot of time over the course of the past year visiting and meeting with factories, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the manufacturers with whom we’re working now. I don’t have anything against China (I did a PhD in Chinese archaeology after all), and for two seasons we did maybe 15% of our production at some great factories there. But those factories are geared towards much more mass production, which is not us, so we exited those relationships. We’re a relatively small company, and we make our clothes in small batches. (That, along with using expensive fabrics and idiosyncratic construction techniques, is also part of why our clothes are sometimes more expensive than bigger brands’: it’s not that our markup is higher; it’s that we aren’t mass producing each product and reaping volume discounts from the factories.)

    Regarding the notion that I try “desperately” to disassociate myself from my own background (Oxbridge, prep school, rowing)… I have friends who would argue that, if anything, I drop these things into conversation too often!! And after all, I did found a brand called “Rowing Blazers.” The gents with the Basquiat-esque hair that one commenter mentioned are good friends of mine (and went, I believe, to the Ghanaian equivalent of a prep school!). I don’t really see any dissonance between casting these legends in our lookbooks and anything else we’re doing. I’m not casting our campaigns to make any kind of political statement or to engage in virtue-signaling. In fact, if I step back and assess objectively, I actually think we could do more to be more inclusive in our images! I love “Ivy style,” but if our ad campaigns literally looked like the pages of Take Ivy, I do think that would be problematic and sending the wrong message. In general, though, I think I spend a lot less time being calculating about these kinds of considerations than the commenters give me credit for!

    For the Ivy Style family and anyone who has been thinking about placing an order or who isn’t sure if the price is justified, here is a code for 15% off your first order: IVYSTYLE. If it’s your first order, I recommend ordering a rugby shirt. Fall is around the corner, and with all due respect to other rugby manufacturers, I am confident you’ll agree ours are in a class of their own!

    Enjoy and all the best — Jack

  20. barbarian does not make a great rugby shirt .. t.dalton clothing does..
    barbarian too stiff and are not cheap .
    and weight is a little heavy.. RB your right is not for eveyone . I rowed at Henley once head Charles .. row Hilton Head everyday.. Fencing Polo Rowing Pentathalon is not for everyone .
    RB just trying to keep some traditions ahead as we do. 1929 baseball shirts Babe Ruth 1930 baseball sweater .. all cotton Hockey sweaters..Not everyone in world like under armour and nike poly stuff.

  21. I’ve really, really tried liking RB… but it’s pure hybrid neo-camp, can we just be honest about that? And this upcoming NBA collaboration literally made me smh. Talk about something nobody anywhere asked for ever. Hard pass.

  22. Great job !!!! I am looking for a red jacket with white piping.. I am going to a 50th reunion. Would love a patch with a white Block M. Milton High School. Any help or ideas would be great. Thanks

  23. I am a huge fan of RB and Jack. I grew up in Idaho and still live here and every time I wear one of my RB pieces I get questions and comments (all good) about what the symbols mean. It’s fun, I get a chance to share a story about a coat of arms or about the great photographer Slim Aarons. As a kid who always wishes he grew up in New England and travels to Europe whenever I get the chance, I love being able to bring some of this Classic and quirky vibes to my small town in North Idaho. My only hope is that they stay around forever. But if they keep up innovating and tackling fun new projects, I just don’t see how they can lose. and Jack, if you are reading this, HMU. I would love to chat with you about RB. you are an inspiration and legend.

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