Brand Spotlight: Rowing Blazers Founder Jack Carlson Tells SPY Why He Hates the Word ‘Preppy’

Rowing Blazers
Courtesy of Rowing Blazers
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Brand Spotlight is a new conversation series that highlights SPY editors’ favorite up-and-coming brands. We’ll introduce you to unique brands and share some of our favorite products.

Tired of your mainstay menswear brands? Yeah, we were too. Basic t-shirts and basic button-downs and basic denim with basic hats. Look, don’t get us wrong, there’s something to be said about a nice, crisp white tee. But, man, enough already! If all you have in your closet is a bunch of plain, basic gear, you need to upgrade.

Or better yet, you need to check out one of our favorite up-and-coming menswear brands, Rowing Blazers.

We first stumbled upon Rowing Blazers when looking for the best rugby shirts on the internet. In an article of funky-looking rugby shirts, Rowing Blazers still managed to stand out. Their colors were wacky, their fabric dense and their site was just… cool. Every product we found had this same unmistakably cool feel to it, like the shirt itself didn’t give a damn if you bought it or not.

So after a few trips to their site and falling in love with their face masks, we decided to reach out to Jack Carlson, founder of Rowing Blazers. From a distance, we knew we liked the gear, but we wanted to know more. Where did Rowing Blazers come from and how do they manage to make such rad clothing, from shoes and hats to signet rings, rugby shirts and, obviously, blazers?

Over the course of a 40-minute phone call, Carlson gave us the rundown. He told us where his passion for clothing came from. He told us how the business started making blazers for club and national sports teams in the first place. And he told us how he managed to get the business off the ground while rowing on the US National Team AND going to grad school at Oxford.

We know that not everyone loves the preppy, just stepped off the polo field look, but Rowing Blazers has a unique aesthetic when so much menswear looks so similar. After hearing Carlson’s story, we’re just doubling down on our appreciation. He even told us why he doesn’t like to use the word “preppy” to describe his designs.

Read on for our chat with Carlson, as well as SPY editors’ favorite products from Rowing Blazers.

jack carlson rowing blazers Jack Carlson, Courtesy of Rowing Blazers

What made you want to start a clothing line?

Well, I had always been interested in clothing. I had always been interested in the history, the stories, and, well, the meaning behind the clothing that people wore. When I was a really little kid I got a copy of a book called Dressing the Man by Alan Flusser which is the most quintessential men’s clothing book that there is, probably.

My other big interest was rowing. That was my big sport from 7th grade onwards. It was a sport that I stayed with for a long time. From high school to college, grad school when I was in England, and then I was on the National Team for several years.

I went with my high school rowing team, we went over to England, to compete in this race called Henley Royal Regatta. Henley is kind of like the Wimbledon of rowing. It’s very prestigious. Like Wimbledon, there are different events. There’s a junior event (when you’re in high school, you’re not competing against the top people in the world), but it’s a very prestigious event. It’s very British. It’s a big spectator event. There’s a lot of tradition to it.

One of these traditions is that everyone has to wear these traditional blazers when they’re not racing. When an athlete isn’t racing they have to wear their club blazers.

So it was a cool thing to be a part of and I basically designed these blazers that our team was going to wear. And the school that I went to had raced at Henley before, so I didn’t just make it up. I went into the school archives and looked at what the blazers looked like and so on. And it was a cool little project to be part of. They were navy blazers with cream trim and a badge on the pocket.

It wasn’t anything too elaborate. We thought they were very fancy, very cool.

But, actually, being over there and getting a chance to meet all these other athletes from all over the world, from the Netherlands, from England of course, from New Zealand, Argentina, Italy, from wherever, and hearing some of their stories about their blazers that they were wearing, it really fascinated me. It brought together these three interests: the sport of rowing, clothing and history, because there are a lot of stories and anecdotes and traditions and rituals tied up in the blazer or the design of the blazer or what you had to do to earn a blazer at any given club.

Fast forward eight or nine or 10 years when I was in grad school at Oxford and I had been on the National Team a couple of times and I started writing a book. It basically came from the seed that was planted back when I was in high school. The book was about this blazer tradition in the sport of rowing.

The book was called Rowing Blazers. It took me about four and a half years as sort of a side project, a passion project, to create. And I traveled all over the world working on it. And ya, it started really as a book, not as a clothing brand. It started as me doing academic research.

But the book that I thought I was mostly writing for the rowing community, actually took off. It took off in a big way in the menswear and fashion community. The book got picked up by Ralph Lauren who hosted a series of book parties for it when it came out. And that was my first little taste of the seed. And that sort of planted the new seed, the new idea of starting my own brand.

And that then became my side project.

I stayed on the national team for a few more years and my side project, like an hour a day and maybe one more full afternoon a week, I was working on trying to figure out how to start my own clothing brand. And I did that for like two years before “officially” retiring from the sport, moving to New York and working on it full time.

What was the very first piece you ever made under the Rowing Blazers brand? Can you tell me a bit about it?

It started with the blazer. We made a navy blazer with cream trim. We had tried to make a lot [laughs]. I’m talking about the kind of like, this was the first thing we made where I was like, ‘yes, this is perfect. this is it.’

We had tried often and with many different manufacturers to try to do this. And it’s one of those things that’s quite deceptive. It looks very simple. It’s a navy blazer with white grosgrain, how hard can it be?

Well, it’s actually very difficult to get it right and make it look right. And to get the folds and the grosgrain to go around the lapel, to look just right. It’s not easy. It’s not easy.

I was living in Princeton at the time, which is where the US Men’s National Team trains, and I would go up to New York every Wednesday afternoon and meet with these different manufacturers or these different workshops in the garment district, meet with the sewers. I’d show them vintage blazers that I had collected over the years. I’d show them little details on it. It was a lot of trial and error but ya, it was very special.

And then one Wednesday afternoon, going up there, and it’s like, ‘Wow, this is it. This is exactly what I’m trying to do. This is exactly what the vision is.’

Do you still have that same piece (more or less) on the website?

We do, yeah. Absolutely.

rowing blazers Courtesy of Rowing Blazers

So now, circling off of that, do you have a favorite piece in the Rowing Blazers collection right now? Or is there a favorite piece you’ve had in the past? I know, it’s like picking your favorite child but …

Ooo it’s really hard to say. It’s really hard to pick one. And, you know, it changes all the time. I love our blazers. Probably my favorite blazer is our double-breasted blazer. It’s an 8×3 double-breasted jacket which is pretty unusual, pretty rare to find. I don’t think you find any other menswear company making a ready-to-wear 8×3 double-breasted blazer.

 8X3 DOUBLE BREASTED BLAZER Courtesy of Rowing Blazers

That’s probably my favorite blazer but it really [laughs] it changes all the time. One of my favorite categories that we do, it’s not blazers, it’s the rugby shirts.

Man, I love the rugby shirts.

I grew up wearing rugby shirts. I obsess as much about the design of the rugby shirts as I did for getting the details just right for our blazers. Again [laughs], it was a lot of work, a lot of trial and error to get the exact right weight of the fabric, it has to be a very heavyweight fabric, that’s what I wanted, that’s what’s most traditional. We ended up making these on vintage knitting machines in France. It took way longer than I ever imagined to get the perfect rugby shirt.

But, now that we have, ya, I mean I love them, I wear rugby shirts almost every day. It’s hard to pick a favorite. One thing I love about the rugby shirt is that they’re so colorful. I guess if I had to pick one, the most colorful one of all that we do is what we call our croquet stripe. It’s actually a design that my girlfriend came up with using Microsoft paint when we first moved to New York City, and it’s inspired by the stripes on a vintage croquet stake. You know? It’s black, yellow, red, green, pink, brown and blue. Its kind of become our trademark pattern, our trademark stripe, basically.

THE CROQUET STRIPE RUGBY Courtesy of Rowing Blazers

We started doing it in a blazer. I remember actually when we got the fabric woven for us, to our specifications, I thought, ‘Okay this is cool. It’s more for press than anything.’ But it was the first thing we ever sold when we flipped the switch and made the website live. The first order.

Regarding COVID and quarantines, not that anyone wants to talk about this anymore, but how is it impacting you? I saw the masks, which were awesome.

You know, we’re lucky, but most of the business is online. So, we’re fairly lucky in that that has kept going. We had a pop up in Brentwood and a pop up in Brooklyn which they were coming to an end anyway. I had wanted to have some sort of leaving party but they were always intended to be short-term things. But it’s sort of a bummer it had to end during all of this.

We just actually just moved out of them recently.

But then we still have our flagship store in SoHo which had to be closed, of course. So that’s also a bummer. But I think we’ve done a good job in terms of pivoting a lot of the store staff to fulfilling e-commerce orders. And I think we’ve done a good job of keeping newness. Because, you know, it’s part of the brand, it’s what we do. We have new stuff coming out al the time.

And so, we’ve actually, one way or another, done a fairly good job of keeping newness and I think that keeps people interested in coming back to the site. And ya, we weren’t able to make anything for a while. But, just as out about a few weeks ago now, we were able to start making masks in our factory in New York in the garment district, which is great because, one, we’re making maks for the New York City Food Bank now, two, all the sewers are able to get back to work. We’re also able to sell some of the masks on our site. Nowhere near as many as I imagine, rather, I never imagined there would be so much interest in these masks.

ROWING BLAZERS FACE MASK Courtesy of Rowing Blazers

They sold out almost instantly, didn’t they?

Well, we made the first batch. And what we do is we send our most loyal customers an email the night before something comes out when it’s something like this. And it’s just a courtesy, we weren’t expecting it to sell out.

But they almost entirely sold out when we did that. And I saw how quickly they were going, just looking at our website. So I was like okay, I need to pull some so I still have some for the main release tomorrow. And then the main release the next day, at 11am, we put them online a few minutes before the email goes out. But there was so much interest in these maks, Vogue had written about them, Esquire and people were sharing them on Instagram, it was going viral (no pun intended), but people were just refreshing on the site.

So before the email even went out, they were all gone. To be honest, we were all totally blindsided by how popular they were going to be.

But, luckily, we’re making more all the time. So, we’re restocking some of those styles because they sold out. We’re restocking them and coming out with a bunch of new ones.

And actually, the way we’re making the masks is by using leftover scraps of fabric that we make blazers out of or suits or shirts. So that’s also kind of a cool thing. I’ve always been a big proponent of trying to use what they call in the apparel industry the wastage. You know, it’s like when you’re cutting the fabric to make a blazer or make a suit, you end up with all these little scraps. And often, in a lot of companies, in most of the industry, that would just get thrown out.

So it’s kind of cool. Masks don’t take much fabric at all, so we can use those pieces to make masks and they’re actually really beautiful masks because they’re made out of striped blazer fabric. Or, oxford cloth or seersucker or madras patchwork. And ya, it’s a really cool project.

So we’ve been working around the clock to make more. And we’re coming out with them and donating a lot to the food bank. It feels good, it’s fun, it’s colorful and people seemed to be responding well. … So ya, that’s how it came about. One thing to mention is that we joined this group called “Brands x Better” which is a bunch of mostly e-commerce/startup brands that are all giving back, in many cases to Direct Relief, which is what we’re giving to. So as part of that, we’re giving 10% of all of our sales on our website to Direct Relief. So that’s been a nice thing to be involved with as well.

Rowing Blazers has a clear aesthetic but there are so many different styles all over the place. How did you get your brand to be like that? There’s clearly so much influence that you can see in every different piece, and yet, there’s a very clear aesthetic that joins it all.

How did you develop your “Rowing Blazers-ness?” If that makes sense.

Ya man. I appreciate you saying that a lot. It means a lot. I don’t know, really. It’s just sort of who I am. It’s just part of my aesthetic.

Everything you see is part of my aesthetic. It is a little eclectic, but also (hopefully) is really clear. All these different influences that weave their way in are all things that I’m generally interested in, if that makes sense.

Nothing about it should feel contrived in any way, because it is all genuine.

I don’t know if that makes sense or answers it but it’s not a straightforward (and I hate this word) “preppy” brand. If you heard the name you might think it is, and there’s definitely elements of that in the brand without a doubt. But if you look at our mood board on Instagram, or if you follow our normal Instagram, you’ll see all kinds of different eclectic influences and inspirations weaving their way in.

It’s all genuine. I don’t know how else to put it. It’s not trying too hard to be cool. It just is what it is and if you get it and you think ti’s cool, that’s great.

  

While we here at SPY definitely dig Carlson’s favorite Rowing Blazers products, we wanted to include our own personal picks from the brand’s vast collection as well. Take a look at our staff picks below!

BRENTWOOD COUNTRY MART RUGBY

The Brentwood Country Mart is sort of the definition of an “if you know, you know,” location in Los Angeles. In fact, it’s where SPY copy editor James Schiff got his haircut for the first 20 years of his life. So when he saw that Rowing Blazers sold a rugby shirt with the Country Mart’s same writing style and in their classic burgundy, it was a no brainer. And even though it’s basically sold out, it’s too rad not to include in our list.

 BRENTWOOD COUNTRY MART RUGBY Courtesy of Rowing Blazers

  

HOLLYWOOD SNAPBACK HAT

Jamie Miles, SPY’s editorial director, describes the color of this awesome snapback as “millennial pink,” but the color isn’t the only alluring aspect of the lid. For starters, it’s made of 100% merino wool. And on top of that, it’s made in the USA. Rowing Blazers has an array of different city-specific hats, with several different options for various LA neighborhoods (something those of us who live in LA appreciate).

 HOLLYWOOD SNAPBACK HAT Courtesy of Rowing Blazers

  

SHORT SLEEVE OG FUN SHIRT

We knew our managing editor Timothy Beck Werth would pick this incredible (and appropriately titled) shirt. And how did we know? Because as soon as we discovered Rowing Blazers as a team, Tim shared the shirt on Slack and proceeded to buy it. When you know, you know. This 100% cotton short-sleeve button-down shirt features four different striped colors from top to bottom, left to right. It makes a strong case for the ultimate summer shirt and one that makes living in a quarantine that much harder to bear. This sort of shirt demands an audience.

 SHORT SLEEVE OG FUN SHIRT Courtesy of Rowing Blazers

  

ENGLAND-WALES 1923 AUTHENTIC HEAVYWEIGHT RUGBY

Our assistant editor, Taylor Galla, has great taste, which is why she landed on this authentic rugby shirt. Handmade in Europe and weighing in at 14 ounces, this is the sort of weighty shirt whose quality you can really feel when you wear it, even if you know nothing about clothing. The white rugby shirt is made entirely from cotton and features an embroidered rose as well as the Prince of Wales’ feathers on the chest.

 ENGLAND-WALES 1923 AUTHENTIC HEAVYWEIGHT RUGBY Courtesy of Rowing Blazers

  

The Coolest Rugby Shirts on This Side of the Internet

  
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.