The Trailblazer

Rowing Blazers founder Jack Carlson has turned one of rowing’s time-honored traditions into an innovative apparel brand with appeal far beyond the sport.

By Jen Whiting
Photography: Rowing Blazers, Video: DareToBe

A ping pong game is underway. The sun streams through floor-to-ceiling windows, cascading onto the over-stuffed sofa you’re sitting on. You feel at home, like you’re back in your first apartment, maybe. There’s nothing too stuffy here: a smattering of worn Persian rugs cover a concrete floor, a chessboard is set up waiting for its players, sofas and arm chairs that are inviting and comfortable and eclectic. Sunlight that washes over everything and says, “Sit, stay awhile. You’re welcome here.”

The sunlight, the ping pong game, the warm, soft sofa: all of this is the making of a new part of the rowing community. You’re sitting in the middle of the Rowing Blazers store on Grand Street in New York City. What started as a pop-up is now emerging as the newest part of rowing. Blazers hang on garment racks, flowing from their hangers with the same natural drape that can only come from being hand-made. Rugby shirts made from fabric crafted in France and Portugal beg for your fingers to caress their woven fabric. When you touch it, you remember the books you read about the great Antarctic expedition—Shackleton and his men—and the months they spent on the ice. The rugby shirts feel like something they would have worn, in a time when clothes were made by tailors to protect and bring form to function. Back then, clothes were made for life, literally.

Jack Carlson, the man in the middle of all of this, didn’t always run a garment company. He didn’t always plan to write a book that would launch a brand that would encompass more than garments and fabric and rounded seams. In fact, he didn’t plan any of it. But, it happened, and this man—who used to train and race with the United States national team and is a world championship bronze medalist—is now creating a new wave in the world of rowing. He and his company are rejuvenating the traditions and lore of the blazers that were created to clothe and protect the rowers in the original races: the boats and clubs that raced on the Thames.

Credit: Jason Varney

But let’s back up. In order to understand what Rowing Blazers, the company, is up to, you need to understand what came before it. Carlson started coxing in middle school, at the Buckingham Browne and Nichols School in Boston. He coxed at Georgetown in college and at Oxford, in England, while he was pursuing his doctoral degree in archaeology. While he was at Oxford, he coxed the winning lightweight eight at the 2011 Boat Race, and, in 2013, won the Henley Royal Regatta, the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, and the Head of the Charles Regatta. During his graduate school years, he was also a coxswain on the U.S. national team, winning bronze in the lightweight eight at the 2015 worlds in Aiguebelette, France. 

“It’s cool to see that what we’re doing appeals to people. We’re making real stuff in a way that’s a little obsessive. It’s authentic. That resonates with people.”

-Jack Carlson

At Oxford, Carlson wrote his doctoral dissertation on the insignia used in ancient Rome and China. In an unrelated-but-natural-extension of his studies, he became interested in the history of the rowing blazer and the clubs who had maintained the tradition of these garments. After he’d finished his coursework at Oxford, and during the years he was writing his dissertation, he used the breaks in the academic calendar to travel—first in England and then internationally—to find rowing blazers from clubs all over the world. He brought a photographer with him on his trips and, in 2014, Rowing Blazers, a gorgeous span of a book, was published. 

After the launch of the book, Carlson, Keziah Beall (Carlson’s partner and a rower herself; she stroked the Virginia eight that won the NCAA championships in 2012), and Joe Guppy (a rower who raced for the British junior national team) took a leap of faith and turned the elegance of the book into a company that would, they hoped, fill a gap in the apparel world. By May of 2017, they’d launched their brand, Rowing Blazers. I ask Carlson about launching a new brand in the established world of apparel. He chuckles as he leans back into the sofa in his SoHo shop.

“It was December 2016 and I got a call from Pitti Uomo, a fashion show in Italy. Normally you have to be very established to be invited but, since we make our blazers in the States, and, because there is such a dearth of brands made here, they couldn’t fill the section of their show that spotlights ‘Made in the USA’ brands… so they invited us.” Carlson smirks, “We really had no business being there because the brand hadn’t come out yet. We took eight samples and setup a booth. We didn’t have any decorations—nothing—just our samples.”

From that show, Rowing Blazers became known in Europe and Asia, even before they’d sold their first blazer. “For what our goals were, that was the perfect way to start.” I probe into his answer, looking for details.

“From the beginning, we wanted to keep our distribution very tight, to control how the story is told.” Carlson stops here and looks right at me. His look is the one he used when coxing, I can tell. “We’re about authenticity. That’s all it is. We want it to be authentic—to the sport, to the person wearing the garment.” Carlson interrupts himself here and looks over to Guppy, who is straightening a display in the window that looks out over Grand Street. “Joe,” Carlson calls across the store to him. “Do you mind making that Edwards hat a little more, you know, better?” He shifts his focus back to the sofa and my notebook.

“We make blazers for rowing royalty: Sir Matthew Pinsent, Susan Francia, Jason Read—big rowers—but also Will Farrell, Lance Thomas, Macklemore, Jordan Clarkson, Timothée Chalamet. It’s been truly organic.”

-Jack Carlson

“It’s really important to us to do it the right way. Making rowing blazers the way they were originally made is almost a forgotten art. We’re almost to the point of being a little obsessive about it but it’s important to the brand.” Carlson watches the ping pong game for a moment before continuing. “It’s equally important to the brand that these things aren’t stuffy.” This balance between authenticity and accessibility is seen on the racks and shelves that surround us and by the people who are with us in the store. The texture of the fabric is supple yet strong. The designs are either stable and traditional or irreverent and diverse. Carlson explains that the original methods used to make the original rowing blazers were, at the time of the publication of his book, being done by only a few shops in England, and these craftsmen were retiring. “No one stepped in to fill the void.”  

Carlson dives into a garment maker’s world of detail and lingo. “Our blazers are made as three-roll-two.” Carlson explains that the traditional rowing blazers were worn as warmup jackets by the athletes of the day. “The blazer’s lapels roll open, naturally, down to the second button. It’s not pressed into this shape; it has a natural roll that happens through the cut of the fabric.” 

Carlson goes on, pulling a soft blazer from a nearby rack. “This is a traditional thing in a rowing blazer to have that raw edge there,” he points to the soft fabric that covers the shoulders inside the jacket, just below the label. “Traditionally, the jackets weren’t lined so that means the seams are finished by rolling the fabric into a soft edge. This is all done by hand.” Carlson’s voice grows soft here, as if he’s describing a loved one’s cherished trait or a favorite moment from his past. From his voice I can feel the hours he’s spent in his production space in the Garment District. “We have 12 people making our blazers, in a space no bigger than this,” he motions with his hands to outline a space that would fit a small living room set, at best. “This isn’t a big, VC-funded manufacturing operation. It’s all done by hand.”

As I write in my notebook, a ping pong ball whizzes past us. “Did that hit anyone?” A voice from the table calls out, sheepishly. “Oh, that’s classic,” Carlson chuckles as I retrieve the ball from the sofa cushions and toss it back. I ask, “Are those customers or guys who hang out here?” Carlson looks at them, “I don’t know…probably both.”

I can tell that Carlson is still a coxswain. He’s constantly scanning the store for things that are out of place, a rack that needs to be rolled a bit to the right, a stack of rugby shirts that could be straightened, a hanger that’s mismatched. As we talk, he makes a few coxswain-like calls to get the blades to drop in together, so to speak.

“When the book came out, I got calls asking if we were making blazers. Weirdly enough, just at that time, many of the original, authentic manufacturers were going out of business—some were one-man shows and they were retiring with no one to hand their business to. Clubs were calling. Some clubs hadn’t ordered blazers in years. Some, like the University of Washington and Texas, had never had blazers. It’s been great to work with [Washington] coaches [Michael] Callahan and Sarah Keller to design their first blazers.” Carlson smiles as he remembers, “For the University of Texas women we designed a mix of cowboy jacket and rowing blazer.” The sun shifts on the sofa cushions, Carlson gazes across the store. “We probably should have started the company when the book came out.”

Carlson takes me through the beginnings of his company. “One of the first club and team orders was for the Hangzhou Rowing Club in China. They wanted the most proper thing, made in America, in an exacting way. Many manufacturers make their jackets in China but they wanted the real thing. Since then, we’ve partnered with the U.S. team, making blazers for alumni and the current team.”

Carlson takes me back to the first store they opened, in October of 2017, as a pop-up store on Rivington Street, for two weeks. “That was a huge event, really, in the timeline of the company. It gave us exposure, and a connection to our Instagram followers that made a huge difference.” Carlson laughs at himself as he tells me about the day they opened that first pop-up. “We were scheduled to open at 11 a.m. As we were getting ready to open, there were people gathering outside the store. The pop-up was right next to an incredible ice cream store, so I thought the line of people was for the ice cream store. It did seem a little strange to me—it was October at 10:30 in the morning—but I didn’t think they were waiting for us. When we opened the doors, they all streamed in. One of the people waiting in line was the rapper Vic Mensa.”

Carlson leans back, surveying the waters around him. The ping pong game has ended and his staff are helping customers whose fingers seem to linger on the fabric longer than necessary. I felt this, too, when I first touched one of the rugby shirts that were stacked on a nearby table. “The rugby shirt is the other key product for us besides the blazer. We’re an official partner of USA Rugby, and we make rugby shirts as they used to be made, on vintage equipment using fabrics made as they were made a hundred years ago.” My hunch about Shackleton and his men in the Antarctic was right.

“We want this brand to be very inclusive, very relevant, very 2019.”

-Jack Carlson

Carlson’s deep dive into rowing blazers has taken him into a world of rowing clubs and rugby teams, but also into the diversity of the fashion world. “We have the people who are very preppy and traditional, but we also have the people who are much more fashion-forward. You’ll see kids come in with skateboards and older guys with The Wall Street Journal tucked under their arm. That pop-up planted the seed…” Carlson slows down a bit. “Both of those things, rowing blazers and rugby shirts, originated in upper-class British sports but both have become staples in everyone’s wardrobe. Our vision is to make those two garments in a really authentic way—the methods, the material, all of it. We’re making blazers in New York City using wool flannel, staying true to the simple way the blazers were originally made: no lining, no vent, patch pockets, no shoulder head. Everything was made by hand when the blazer was created. We’re doing it that way now.” Carlson is overflowing with the detail of his vision. “But we want this brand to be very inclusive, very relevant, very 2019.”

The store that started as a three-month lease (and was extended three times), will now become the permanent home in New York City for Rowing Blazers. They will continue to partner with clubs and teams to rejuvenate or create rowing blazers that are made authentically. This year, Rowing Blazers participated in Paris Fashion Week for the first time. And, as they’ve been doing since the beginning, they’ll continue to bring people together in their store, “We routinely have 600-700 people at our parties. We like to host other brands here—to offer them a pop-up space—and we celebrate their launch, too. We’ll have people from all walks: rappers, hip-hop, rowers, ex-rowers, national team rowers, women and men from the finance world or the creative industry, families from Connecticut. One thing that has been such fun to watch has been the organic traction we’ve had with celebrities. We make blazers for rowing royalty: Sir Matthew Pinsent, Susan Francia, Jason Read—big rowers—but also Will Farrell, Lance Thomas, Macklemore, Jordan Clarkson, Timothée Chalamet. It’s been truly organic.”

As I pack my notebook away, Marques Martin, a New York musician, asks what magazine I’m doing the interview for. Martin works at the store, having been jazzed by the brand and persistent with his resumé. Carlson chimes in, “Ques is great. Ques is also a great musician.” I ask Martin what kind of music he makes. “Alternative hip-hop,” he answers. “Plug the new single,” Carlson says, turning to me. “He just dropped a new single.” I ask Martin the name of the single. “‘Kissing Pavements.’” He answers, then smiles. “I don’t even row,” he adds, “I’ve got to start.”

Somehow, one of the most tradition-laden parts of our sport is opening doors to people who don’t even row. Carlson walks me past the ping pong table. “It’s cool to see that what we’re doing appeals to people. We’re making real stuff in a way that’s a little obsessive. It’s authentic. That resonates with people.”   

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