Jack Carlson's grand plan for Rowing Blazers
An interview with the founder of Rowing Blazers about growing up in London, being a cultural omnivore, doing the right thing, and making prep suck less.
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The thing about labels
In life, we’re often taught to stay in our lane, do what we’re told, follow the script. In fact, most people prefer to put you (and themselves) in a box. Life’s simply easier to explain that way. Living in a box makes you safe. Predictable. And boring.
But every once in a while, you meet someone who doesn’t really fit into any box. They don’t follow rules, they make rules. That someone is Jack Carlson, founder of Rowing Blazers.
Here’s a conversation we had about coloring outside of the lines…
Tell us about your background. Where were you raised and what were you raised on?
I lived in London as a kid. Think Princess Diana, punks, Brit-pop, Four Weddings… it was a magical time to live there. We moved to Boston when I was eight or nine, but London left a permanent mark on my sensibilities.
I grew up in a time and place where—in order to be cool—you had to wear Abercrombie head-to-toe. I’m proud to say I wasn’t cool. I was an eclectic dresser. I picked up stuff traveling with my family over the years. Italian soccer jerseys; hand-me-down Lacoste polos from my mom; rugby shirts I bought at cathedrals in England and stadiums in Ireland; bootleg Garfield and Tintin tourist tees I collected in Argentina, Turkey, and at the Great Wall.
I volunteered with a program that the school ran for kids from under-resourced communities that combined basketball skills training with test prep and academic tutoring. I really liked that program, it gave me an understanding that I don’t think many of my peers really grasped, which is how lucky we were to go to a school that had all these sports and languages and arts programs and great teachers and so on.
In Boston, I eventually got into rowing. Rowing was my big passion, and I threw myself into it. In my junior year of high school, we went to this race called Henley Royal Regatta, which is like Wimbledon for rowing. We got knocked out in the first round. So I spent most of the regatta meeting other rowers from other parts of the world and hearing all these crazy stories about their blazers.
The whole experience left me with two things: a burning desire to come back one day and win the whole thing (I’m a pretty relentless bastard, and after many attempts, I won with a great group of other guys nine years later); and the idea of writing a book about all these crazy blazer stories in the sport of rowing one day.
And how in the hell did Rowing Blazers the brand come about?
It all started with a book I wrote a book called Rowing Blazers.
I thought it would be a niche book for the rowing community, but the next thing I know, Ralph (Lauren) picks up the book and starts hosting events for it. That was my introduction to the clothing industry, and it gave me the inspiration to start my own brand.
Our first product (shocker) was the rowing blazer. Many of the old traditional tailors who used to make blazers for rowing clubs had closed down, and the ones that stuck around had stopped actually making them. They would essentially buy blanks, sew the ribbon around the edges, and put a patch on the pocket. After I wrote the book, lots of clubs started asking me where they could get a proper rowing blazer. The rest is history…
Making blazers is still an important part of what we do today, but I had always envisioned doing a lot more with the brand, including doing a lot of collaborations.
J.Crew was the first collaboration we ever did. They reached out to us out of nowhere. It was a successful collaboration and it set the stage for what was to come. Since then, we’ve teamed up with Barbour, Noah, J. Press, Sperry, Eric Emanuel, Nom Wah, Umbro, Babar, Lands’ End, Harry’s Bar, FILA, the NBA, and many more. These collaborations have helped us reach new audiences, and redefine who we are and what we do.
We’ve also become a multi-brand destination. One thing I’m proud of is that it gives smaller brands—including many women and BIPOC-owned brands—a platform to share their stories.
People have described your collections as a mix of high and low... can you expound on that?
Who are we to say what is high and what is low?
There’s a great book by Dan Fox that unpacks this idea of what it means to be a cultural omnivore. That’s what I try to be, a cultural omnivore. It makes life more interesting. Some people are obsessed with classic men’s tailoring. Or Nike dunks. Or dressing like they’re in the preppy handbook. Or they’re obsessed with liking whatever some podcast tells them to like. To me, though, it’s more interesting if your interests are diverse. Especially better if what you’re interested in doesn’t follow a particular pattern.
American prep used to feel waspy and gated off to anyone who wasn't white and rich. But RB feels unorthodox, it’s got this inherent disrespect for the incumbent.
What’s behind that?
You know, the intention was never to build a brand like that. I just do what feels right and natural, and honestly, I’m making it up as I go along.
I think “preppy” clothes, nostalgia, or vintage-inspired pieces have long felt waspy as a genre because many of the brands behind that look have often perpetuated those stereotypes. I personally just find it all a bit cringeworthy. If I see an ad for a clothing brand and it’s a bunch of white dudes with square jaws and perfect hair and they’re all together in a rowing boat and all leaning out of the sides—and for some reason, they’re all wearing three-piece suits in the boat or something—that’s cringe.
I create Rowing Blazers’ collections and campaigns based on what I’d like to see in the world.
I’ve always had very eclectic tastes that run from preppy to street, from the 1820s to the 1990s, and everything in between. And I’m fortunate to have friends who are diverse in their senses of taste and style, as well as in their backgrounds. Everything we do is a reflection of that. Some people say,
“Why are collaborating with FILA? It’s too street.”
“Why’d you collaborate with J. Press? It’s too crusty.”
“Why are you making sweats? That’s not fancy enough.”
“Your ads don’t look like Bruce Weber photos. They’re too rogue, too weird.”
On and on and on.
But, I think a lot of people appreciate what we’re building. I’d like to think our campaigns carry a sense of authenticity. By being eclectic, by being a little rogue, by having a healthy sense of irony in everything we do, that’s what makes what we’re doing less stuffy, less exclusive, and more fun.
I once had an Ivy League rowing coach berate me over email for an Ad that showed two black models wearing tweed suits in a collegiate-looking setting.
“Something’s wrong with this picture,” he said.
I couldn’t believe it. It’s stuff like this that can ruin your day, your week, your month, and even your year — not to mention your whole perspective on humanity. But it’s also stuff like this that makes you realize that what we’re doing—which I have never thought of as being anything super ground-breaking—actually might be positive.
If you’re pissing off racist assholes, you’re doing something right.
Rowing Blazers, as a brand, feels like an enigma. Your store and products are rife with color, tradition, irony, funk, nostalgia.
Where did you begin to build that persona for the brand?
Rowing Blazers is all a reflection of who I am and my personal tastes. It’s a blend of so many things that I’m into; sport, nostalgia, travel.
It’s old-school British style, but also ‘90s New York.
It’s Japanese Ametora and vintage Benetton and Esprit ads.
If you just see one collection, you won’t get it. If you just hear the name, you won’t get it.
I want Rowing Blazers to be something you fall into, like Alice down the rabbit hole.
How is Rowing Blazers actively working to make the brand bigger than itself?
First off, Rowing Blazers is about much more than just “selling product.” We both partner with and support causes that we believe in. One weekend last year—early in the pandemic—we donated 100% of our proceeds to the NAACP. This was still early in the pandemic, and our own business was in a very uncertain and precarious position. I wasn’t even taking a salary at that time so that we could afford to make payroll for the rest of the team. But to me, it wasn’t even a question.
We also support the AAAD Foundation, which helps collegiate athletes who deal with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. These are challenges I’ve faced myself, and it’s important for us to acknowledge an aspect of sports that isn’t talked about enough. There’s also Row New York, a non-profit rowing program dedicated to empowering young people through the sport of rowing, regardless of their background or ability.
And then there’s the Social Change Fund, founded by Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul. SCF is focused on ending police brutality, championing criminal justice reform, enabling economic equity, supporting voting and civic engagement, and advocating for the human rights of all black lives. When you buy one of our navy NBA sweaters, we donate a portion of our sales to the SCF.
I hope that our existence and efforts put pressure on larger brands to do more as well.
Where are you taking us with Rowing Blazers?
We have some great collaborations in the works, and each one adds more color to the picture. It adds meaning to what this brand is all about. We don’t do collabs just for the sake of doing them.
Going forward, we’ll iterate on blazers and get more into tailored clothing with our made-to-order program. I’m excited about that because we’ve been working hard on it for a long time.
We’re also going to push ourselves internally. Our leadership team—which is currently half women—will become majority women, and even more diverse by early 2022. A few other things we’re investing in…
We’re also working on getting RWS-certified for our wool sweaters.
Sourcing alternative, sustainable materials for apparel and footwear.
Offering more inclusive sizing for our products.
Some brands shout about this kind of thing from the rooftop more than we do. But to me, it’s more about esse quam videri: to be rather than to seem. It’s about knowing we are making the right moves for the right reasons, and putting people and the planet before profits.
Most important, we’re going to keep having fun and working on projects that excite us!