It isn’t uncommon for a designer to derive inspiration from their own experiences and tastes when it comes to the types of clothing they produce. It is rare to find someone who has as unique a background as Rowing Blazers’ founder Jack Carlson. It’s even more so to see how that unique life is translated into a look that has caught the eye of some of the most relevant fashion brands, celebrities, and sports clubs in the world.
For the unfamiliar, the New York-based Rowing Blazers does make blazers. But it also produces outerwear, tees, bottoms, polos, and a whole lot more.
The original style has caught the eye of Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson, the U.S. Rowing Team, the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Teams, the NBA, Sperry, and (yes) Babar the Elephant, among others.
It’s an eclectic grouping, for sure. But the threads come from an eclectic background, versed in an unlikely collection of tastes and experiences, many of which emanate directly from Carlson.
Which raises the question: What has Jack Carlson done and been through in order to create a line of clothing that appeals to the preppy rowers, the sporty rugby and NBA fans, the ’80s and ’90s retro fiends, and … archaeologists?
Jack Carlson Started in Beantown
Size does matter, but not always in the way one might think. Like a lot of kids growing up in the Boston area, Jack Carlson was a big baseball fan. But he was also not a very big kid.
“I grew up as a little kid playing baseball, but a bunch of my friends were doing rowing and they needed a coxswain,” he says. “I was a little guy, and they asked me if I would join the team. I did and really enjoyed it. Was just there with all my friends.”
For the uninitiated, the coxswain on a rowing team is the person who steers and directs the other members to work in unison. They can easily be found as the one person who is facing the other direction in the boat and is typically quite small in stature (the lower weight allows the rowers to move their craft more quickly).
Jack Carlson was good at it. After participating in the sport through high school and then at Georgetown during his undergraduate days, Carlson was able to continue in graduate school at Oxford.
Carlson made the U.S. national team in 2011, although the team didn’t perform as well as hoped.
It took Carlson three years to get back on the team, and after competing for the U.S. in 2014, decided to hang it up and continue studying … archaeology.
“I basically retired from the sport after the 2014 World Championships,” Carlson says. “I went back to Oxford. I finished my Ph.D. I came back to the U.S., and I was teaching Latin and coaching rowing at a boarding school in Massachusetts.”
Carlson says he got a call from an old coach who asked if he wanted to try for a medal in lightweight men’s eight (no men over 159.8 pounds allowed) in the 2015 World Rowing Championships.
Carlson and the U.S. team competed in France that year and took home the bronze.
While that was the end of Carlson’s rowing career, the sport had a profound impact on his future professional endeavors.
“When I was in high school, we went over and raced at an event called Henley Royal Regatta in England, which is a big rowing event,” Carlson says. “It’s similar to Wimbledon, but for rowing.”
Also similar to Wimbledon, there is a fashion component to the event.
“We got knocked out in the first round, and this gave me a lot of time to hang out in the spectators’ area,” Carlson says. “In the spectator’s area at Henley, everyone has to wear their club blazer. They’re stripy blazers, brightly colored blazers, with contrasting trim. They have emblems on the pockets. There are all sorts of traditions and rituals and myths about the blazer at every rowing club.”
Carlson says the traditions, the pageantry, and the dedication to the blazer was very impactful for him.
“I was just fascinated. I’d always been interested in clothes, and this brought together my interest in clothing with my interest in, of course, the sport of rowing,” Carlson says. “I got to chat with a lot of the other competitors and spectators and hear some of these stories. I thought,’ ‘Someone should actually write a book about this. It’d be interesting.’”
Jack Carlson Actually Did Write a Book About This
Seven years after his time at Henley, and while still studying archaeology at Oxford, Carlson decided he should be the person who writes a book about this. He titled it Rowing Blazers.
“That’s what I did. It was my side project for a few years,” Carlson says. “I would just go when I had a couple of weeks free there, a couple of weeks free here. I would just go to these different rowing clubs, whether it was in the Netherlands, Australia, or South Africa. All over the place. I would just be going to these rowing clubs with a photographer. We’d shoot some of the rowers wearing their blazers. Often they were world champions, Olympians, or world record holders.”
Carlson finished the book, figuring it would be a “passion project” that resonated with the niche community of competitive international rowing.
But interest in the looks shown in the book was not limited to the rowing set.
“Ralph Lauren actually picked up the book and hosted a series of book and launch events for the book,” Carlson says. “I worked very closely with the Ralph Lauren team. That was my first taste of the industry, not just writing about clothes, but actually working with a company, a major company in the industry. It gave me the idea of starting my own brand.”
Indiana Jones and … the Temple of Cool Clothes
While Carlson readily admits his time on the rowing circuit was the primary driver behind the looks that Rowing Blazers puts out, there were other influences as well.
One of those was … Indiana Jones.
“He’s got such great style,” Jack Carlson says. “It’s how everyone, I think, of my generation who studied archaeology got into it; they just watched Indiana Jones when they were a kid.”
Initially looking to get a master’s degree in archaeology via a two-year program at Oxford, Carlson received a Clarendon scholarship to stay on and complete a doctorate.
So what does this have to do with clothes other than the fact that the character of Indiana Jones is an undeniable fashion icon?
Quite a bit, actually.
As Carlson put it, “Archaeology is the study of material culture.”
Perhaps people think dusty bones and buried treasure, but it’s more than that.
“So much of what I do is studying vintage clothing, studying fabrics and construction techniques, and so on,” Jack Carlson says. “I think that’s informed a lot of what I do with the brand.”
Going Retro, Rowing Blazers Style
Retro, done right, really doesn’t go out of style. Bell-bottoms, popularized in the late 1960s, saw a rebirth in the mid-1990s. Television shows like Stranger Things cater to the nostalgia of the mid-1980s even though it was first released in the mid-2010s.
But the key is doing it right. In the 1980s, for example, people pinch-rolled their jeans instead of embracing bell bottoms. Timing is everything.
This makes the influences of Carlson’s youth, the 1980s through the early 2000s, a perfect nostalgic cultural period for the 2020s.
“I think so much of what we do is inspired from that time period,” Carlson says. “It’s inspired by the things that I grew up with. I think we’re not the only brand, obviously, that’s taking inspiration from that time period, but I do think we are among the brands that are the most consistent in our dedication to drawing inspiration from that era.”
Rowing Blazers is a collaborative company by design. And that allows Carlson opportunities to not only reinvent the looks he loved growing up but also to work with some of those companies.
“One of the really fun things, too, has been getting to collaborate with brands that I grew up with, like Fila and Lands’ End,” he says. “Just delving into the Fila archives and looking at all of this incredible stuff, like ski gear from the late ’80s and the early ’90s.”
Brands like Fila are making a bit of a comeback recently, in no small part due to the injection of modern flair companies like Rowing Blazers provide.
“There’s just so much cool stuff,” Jack Carlson says. “I don’t want to say it’s underappreciated, but I think there’s so much that’s untapped. One of the things I love with Rowing Blazers is getting the opportunity to go down those rabbit holes. To draw inspiration from something that some people might know about and might know is cool, but we can also show a whole new audience something that they might have forgotten or might not have realized existed. That’s a big part of the fun for me.”
With the eclectic background of Carlson as a driver for design, Rowing Blazers has certainly put forth a collection of threads that defies any conventional categorization.
And that’s where Carlson wants it.
The company touts its product as “irreverent”, which might be a bit of an understatement.
Taking a tour of Rowing Blazers’ website, one is seemingly transported to a place where one can choose “adult clothing” (such as a blazer or traditional sweater) and then make it what most clothing isn’t: fun.
Sweaters span the gamut from a traditional black crew sweater with an oversize NBA logo on the front to a cashmere sweater featuring the calming presence of beloved children’s character Babar the Elephant.
Women’s bottoms include polar fleece joggers inspired by the early 1990s Fila color patterns as well as a pair of white ski pants with a vertical spelling of “Babar” in bright red lettering.
Carlson enjoys the fun his clothes provide that most others don’t.
“I think what I wanted to do was take those classics and combine that classic aesthetic with a sense of irreverence, with a sense of being a little bit subversive, being a little bit tongue in cheek,” he says.
In addition to being fun, Carlson hopes his take on some niche fashion, such as what’s worn at traditional rowing and rugby clubs, allows more people to experience the styles on their terms. Just as long as it’s not in a mall.
“We wanted to bring in some of the ideas and philosophies from the world of streetwear, meaning doing frequent collaborations and doing regular product drops instead of doing just big seasonal collections,” he says. “Being primarily direct to consumer, instead of having a big wholesale network, or being in malls, or having big flagship stores all over the world.”
As Rowing Blazers continues to grow both as a business and as a creative leader in fashion, one can bet that Carlson’s unique perspective will continue to drive it in a direction that is the road less traveled.