Stories / June 2019

In Conversation with Jack Carlson of Rowing Blazers

New York-based menswear label Rowing Blazers is subverting notions of the classic garment. We spoke with its founder Jack Carlson about his motivation for creating the brand and the sartorial significance of the rowing blazer.

Photograph by Jason Varney.

Classic American style has its origins in the sporting kit of Oxford and Cambridge universities, where the very first blazers were created in bold colours for college rowing clubs. Striped, piped, trimmed and badged, these blazers took on a significance beyond mere apparel. They showed you belonged to a small and elite club of athletes and college contemporaries, all pulling together in the name of collegiate competition. Over the decades, the rowing blazer has opened up its membership. The college teams still revere their colours, but the wider world of menswear has also benefited by incorporating the blazer into sartorial circles in the guise of 'preppy' Americana, a style of dressing that Ralph Lauren has extolled to wonderful effect.

It's why we have been itching to get our hands on a made in New York menswear brand called Rowing Blazers, founded by Jack Carlson. Jack is a three-time member of the United States national rowing team.  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. He earned his doctorate in archaeology at Oxford, where he was a Clarendon Scholar, and his undergraduate degree at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service.  His research interests include the visual trappings of status and power; the art and archaeology of the Roman Principate and Qin-Han period China; heraldry and vexillology; men's clothing; and Neapolitan pizza.  We caught up with him recently to learn more about the brand and his love of collegiate style...

 

Tell me briefly about your history with rowing, and why you love the sport.

I went to school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, right on the banks of the Charles River – which is kind of the spiritual home of rowing in America. It became my principal sport from when I was about eleven years old. I carried on at Georgetown and after that at Oxford. I raced in the Oxford-Cambridge lightweight boat race, and the heavyweight reserves boat race, before going on to win Henley in 2013, which was one of the highlights of my career. It was a strange experience competing at rowing events with several thousand (or in the case of the boat race, several hundred thousand) spectators. At most American races, you might have a few family members and the occasional girlfriend standing on the bank! When I was at Oxford, I spent most summers back in the U.S. training and competing with the U.S. national team. I represented the U.S. at three World Championships, culminating in a bronze medal at the 2015 Worlds.

I love rowing, because it has allowed me to keep reaching and striving for more. I also love it for its culture. Every sport has its own history and traditions, of course, but I think the fact that rowing has remained an amateur sport, and that it is the archetypal collegiate sport has meant that it is, in some ways, even more rooted in its history and traditions than others. It also creates a kind of universal fellowship among rowers around the world. Ultimately, this sense of fellowship, on a more personal level – the set of bonds and friendships I formed with the many teammates I’ve had over the years – is what I love most about the sport.

What was it that made you fall in love with the sport’s sartorial history?

I was lucky enough to take part in some of rowing’s grander events and traditions at a young age: the Head of the Charles, of course, and Henley Royal Regatta in England. Henley is a bit like the Wimbledon of rowing. It's steeped in history and pageant. Spectators – including competitors when they aren’t racing – are required to wear club blazers and ties for gentlemen, and large hats or fascinators with dresses that fall below the knee for ladies.

My first time racing at Henley was with my high school, and we were knocked out in the first round. This was devastating, of course, but the silver lining was that it gave me five days in the spectator enclosure, where I chatted with oarsmen young and old from all over the world about – what else? – their blazers! There were club blazers in orange and purple stripes; special blazers sewn out of old curtains; filthy blazers on which the stains and spills were worn like badges of honour; and quite a few blazers that had been through the old Dutch rowing tradition of blazer fighting: a ritual in which collegiate oarsmen grab one another by the jacket lapels and wrestle – usually creating huge rips in their jackets and often tearing off a pocket or even a sleeve in the process. Every nation, every club, every college, I discovered, has their own eccentric set of blazer traditions. I thought: someone ought to write a book about this!

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Ben St George

Ben St George is The Rake's Head of Buying