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 email@example.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.