The sport of rowing is dominated by the stereotypes of posh athletic giants called ‘Constantine’ or ‘Toby’. Their arrogance only surpassed by their prowess with a couple of oars and the Lycra in their rowing suits. But, off-duty they stick to tradition and continue to wear their team colours. The blazer was invented to be part of the rowing fraternity's uniform and as part of British culture, and our continual love affair with uniforms, it often takes an outsider to see and appreciate what we have and repackage and present something that has always existed.
Just when we thought ‘preppy’ was dead and wasn’t coming back for a while, we see green shoots appearing, and a new label like ‘Rowing Blazers’, reinventing and adding more fun to this seasonal British style.
Founded by Jack Carlson, a three-time member of the United States national rowing team, Rowing Blazers’ aim is to reintroduce one of the originals in men’s sportswear. The days when ‘sportswear’ still meant you wore a tie. He won a bronze medal for the U.S.A. at the 2015 World Championships and has also won the Head of the Charles Regatta, Henley Royal Regatta, and Royal Canadian Henley Regatta. Jack earned his doctorate in archaeology at the University of Oxford and is the author of the book Rowing Blazers (Thames & Hudson, 2014).
Left - Jack Carlson, founder of the American rowing blazer specialists, Rowing Blazers
Impressed the brand’s website and his passion for reintroducing this loud heritage style, I sent him a few ChicGeek questions to find out more:
CG: Why the fixation on rowing blazers?
JC: I spent a long time in the sport of rowing: nearly two decades, including three years on the US national team, so I've been immersed in this world for a while. But I've also been very interested in heraldry and in the visual and sartorial trappings of status and hierarchy for a long time as well. And I think the blazers that are traditional in the sport of rowing bring together all of those interests: menswear, heraldry, and the sport of rowing.
CG: When did you start? And what was the Eureka moment?
JC: I first competed at Henley Royal Regatta in 2004. My crew was knocked out in the first round, which was pretty disappointing. But it meant I had a great deal of time to spend in the spectator enclosures for the rest of the week, where I began chatting with other current and former rowers about their jackets and the stories and traditions behind them. I thought: someone should study these things, write a book about them. Six or seven years later, I realised I should be the guy to do it. The book came out in 2014, and the company - making blazers by hand, and incorporating a lot of details, traditions and construction techniques I came across while creating the book - launched this year.
CG: How have you found the reception to them?
JC: People from all sorts of different backgrounds love what we're doing. Menswear nerds love the research that has gone into everything we do and the quality of the construction and materials. The rowing community respect the authenticity and pedigree of what we're doing. The Japanese - we have a significant following in Asia - love the fact that our pieces are handmade in America. We've even had a positive response from many streetwear fanatics, who like the irreverent spirit, the cryptic Latin graffiti, and the graphics on our caps and badges.
Right - Rowing Blazers - Croquet Stripe Blazer - $995
CG: What would you say to those people who say that preppy is dead or is out of fashion?
JC: Preppy is dead. Long live preppy. I hate much of what that word has come to signify, and I think much of what it's come to signify is pretty dead for now. I think the consumer - at least the higher end menswear consumer - wants something with authenticity, with a story, a sense of meaning behind it. This consumer wants to know where, how, why, and from a product was made. Our pieces have tremendous depth to them; from the 3-roll-2 silhouette of our blazers, to the small embroidered faucet motif on our ties, there's a story and a reason behind every decision; and our pieces are all handmade in the US. So our collection is very different from much of what is usually considered to be "preppy" nowadays; but blue Oxford cloth button downs; flannel blazers - in navy or more outrageous colours; and webbing belts will never go out of style.
CG: Do you mostly concentrate on rowing teams and clubs or are you targeting a fashion consumer?
JC: We are a menswear brand first and foremost, but we are also proud to make blazers for a wide range of rowing teams and clubs, including Britain's most prestigious rowing club, Leander Club in Henley-on-Thames. We've also created blazers for rowing clubs in China - which is pretty cool considering we make everything in Manhattan; Oxford Brookes; the University of Texas - for whom we made blazer-cowboy jacket hybrids; and many other clubs, schools and universities.
CG: I’ve always loved the British Army blazer that I saw at Henley, would you make one of those?
JC: We might do something in camo, but we are always very careful to be respectful of existing club blazers, and would never "knock off' any institution's blazer.
CG: What’s your favourite style & why?
JC: My favourite piece in our collection is the 8x3 double breasted blazer, which is inspired by a blazer Prince Charles always wears. One never sees an 8x3 double breasted blazer on the market, so we had to make one. With five cuff buttons, an oversized front button from a vintage die, and a perfect fit, it came out brilliantly.
Left - Rowing Blazers - 8X3 Double Breasted Blazer ‘Prince Charlie’ $1095
CG: Do you ship to the UK? Isn't this a bit like taking coals to Newcastle?!
JC: We ship worldwide. Although the UK is the land of the blazer, no one is doing what we are doing: it's our commitment to quality and traditional techniques that's enabled us to become the official blazer supplier to Leander Club, Oxford Brookes University Boat Club and many other British institutions while making everything in New York. We are chatting with several British menswear retailers about going into their stores as well, and they understand that we are a high end brand with a unique product; they wouldn't be looking at us if they viewed us as a school uniform supplier!
CG: What would you say to those people who say rowing is elitist?
JC: Rowing has its roots in Oxbridge, but also the far more blue collar world of professional sculling. It developed not only through public schools and the Putney clubs, but also through many working man's clubs around England. Today many still associate the sport with Oxbridge because of the prominence of the Oxford-Cambridge race, but the truth is the sport is becoming more accessible and more universal all the time. British Rowing has done a great job bringing the sport into many new communities in the UK. I'm part of an organisation in the US, here in New York, called Row New York, which is a highly competitive rowing program for kids from the city's underserved communities. They've just qualified a boat for the national championships for the first time, which is fantastic to see.
CG: What’s the future for Rowing Blazers?
JC: We’ll be expanding into a few other categories and also expanding our retail footprint; we have a lot of pop-ups planned, including at Henley and Goodwood Revival; and we'll be going into a number of stores in Japan, Taiwan and China in the next few months. We have some cool collaborations planned with Merz b. Schwanen, a very cool and historic German knitwear manufacturer, and a few other exciting brands. We are really just getting started.
CG: You don’t just sell blazers? What else do you sell?
JC: We also make shirts in a few different styles. They are pretty unique because they are hand-distressed - here in the US! - and come with or without busted seams. They've been a hit with the more street-oriented customer actually. We also do hats, belts, ties -- many featuring satin-stitch embroidery, or hand-embroidered wire bullion motifs - and a wide range of rare, funky and quirky vintage product.