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Lithium Don’t call Rowing Blazers founder Jack Carlson preppy

Oct. 14, 2021
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Whether you saw it on an influencer or in a @starterpacksofnyc call-out post, Princess Diana’s iconic sheep sweater has been making the Instagram rounds lately. You can thank Rowing Blazers for that. Though the sweater’s original debut was in 1981, its resurgence is courtesy of the brand founded by Jack Carlson, a former Olympic rower. Self-described as a youthful take on classic fashion, Rowing Blazers wants to turn stuffiness into self-awareness within the world of preppy style.

In an interview with Carlson over Zoom, there are several tangents and an unabashed bluntness about the state of contemporary fashion and consumption. He is not reading from a PR script (as far as I can tell) and doesn’t hesitate to name-drop when talking about everything he never wants Rowing Blazers to become. It’s not a hate sesh, though. Carlson’s passion for style, history, and storytelling is clear as the conversation bounces from authenticity to COVID to cancel culture. Throughout the interview, nothing is more apparent than the upfront charisma of Rowing Blazers—and of Carlson himself.

Lithium Magazine: I wanted to ask about you guys closing your location in SoHo due to the pandemic. 

Jack Carlson: The thing is, we’ve always been a mostly online brand. We opened the location in SoHo as a summer 2018 pop-up, and it was fun, so we just kept it on a month-to-month thing. In February 2021, the lease was ending, and the world had changed. We can’t have parties or events, which were such a big part of the store. It’s kind of a bummer. The store was for people to gather and we just couldn’t do that anymore. We’re planning to open a new store but probably not until those things are possible. It was the right thing to do.

Lithium: For sure. So, you started Rowing Blazers with inspiration from the Henley Royal Regatta. How did your experience with spaces of class and exclusivity influence the brand?

Jack: You know, it’s funny, I always love a high-low mix and I am very interested in authenticity. I think what you find is that a lot of these clubs have really charming, fun traditions and there’s not necessarily this sense of elitism when you’re actually there. Rowing as a sport has these connotations of being associated with private schools and the Ivy League, and it is a predominantly white sport, and I think those are some of the things that need to change about the sport. If people aren’t familiar with the brand they might conjure up this image, which is so cringe, of, like, a bunch of white guys with perfect hair in a rowing boat with an oar in their hands, wearing a three-piece suit with their ties perfectly tied up.

Lithium: Right. It’s not real.

Jack: Yeah, that’s not the vibe of the brand at all. I do think that there is a heavy dose of authenticity for everything we do. Like, we make actual blazers for all these national teams and organizations and I think that’s one of the things that makes us very distinctive from a brand like Ralph Lauren. I love Ralph and he’s a huge inspiration for us, but you go into a store and there’s crossed oars and it’s a cool graphic, but it doesn’t have any real meaning. We’re trying to make sure that everything we do has real meaning. I think the other piece that makes us different is this sense of irony and irreverence and self-awareness, and that irony is like the inverse of stuffiness, you know? To be a little bit playful, even a little bit subversive.

Lithium: I feel like so many brands today are all about subversion, appropriation, taking something old and trying to make it popular. So when you talk about “redefining” or subverting stuffiness, do you think brands can actually redefine a concept?

Jack: That’s a good question. You know, before starting the brand, I would have said that I’m not sure how much a brand can really redefine something. Someone had counseled me not to start the brand [because] they had a particular idea about what it was going to be, and they were like, “this is the opposite of what’s going on in fashion right now. You don’t want to do preppy right now” But a while ago that person texted me and said, “Congratulations, you avoided the word preppy until you had helped to redefine it.” It is kind of a dirty word and I do try to avoid it, but now if you pick up GQ or Esquire or The New Yorker, it’s hard to not talk about what preppy is without talking about Rowing Blazers. On the whole, our contribution has been positive, I hope, I don’t know. Wait, how did you start out this question?

Lithium: Brands using terms like “subverting”––

Jack: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. There are so many of these words that get used and abused by brands, and “authentic” is like culprit number one. It’s so overused that it almost has no meaning. It’s unfortunate because for those of us who are trying to use the word in a meaningful way, it’s hard to anymore. It’s not a new phenomenon either. Everyone wants to say their thing is authentic. Maybe this is a bit of a tangent but I don’t know if you’ve seen this thing with Hugo Boss and Russell Athletic. I’m embarrassed to say I saw it, but I’ve been served five million ads for it every time I open my phone.

Lithium: I don’t think so. Our advertisement algorithms are probably a little different.

Jack: Well, that’s good if you’re not seeing it because it, like, hurt my eyeballs and my brain. It’s actually one of the most embarrassing things I’ve seen in fashion since I became part of this industry. 

(At this point, he pulls up a promotional video for a collaboration between Hugo Boss and Russel Athletic. The shots of streetwear-clad models of various sizes clapping and breakdancing in a circle is perhaps attempting to make Hugo Boss cool.)

You’re now dumber because you saw that. I mean, I went on this tangent because there’s good ways and bad ways to use these words. There’s real ways to do it and there’s the fake, bullshit way of doing it.

Lithium: What I think is interesting about Rowing Blazers is that it’s founded on a commitment to this very specific piece of clothing. Really niche brands are becoming popular, I think in part because of the focus on intention, ethics, and sustainability. What do you think of that?

Jack: I think niche brands and things that are a little more under the radar are, by definition, cooler because you don’t want what everybody else has. It's like, if you know, you know. It’s a philosophy that's from the world of streetwear, you know, scarcity, collaboration, not necessarily doing things the conventional way. We are basically just direct-to-consumer. We’ve been in a lot of amazing stores but I’d rather speak directly to the customer. Wait, how’d I get off on this tangent? Oh, I think there’s merit in being a niche brand, and you don’t want to get too big too fast, like all these direct-to-consumer brands that raise hundreds of millions of dollars so they can take over every subway car in New York with their ads. Whatever, it’s like a classic thing, like Casper or Away or whatever it is.

Lithium: You see the store in person and you feel like the internet has come to life.

Jack: Yeah, that’s just not our vibe. Something that Rowing Blazers probably doesn't talk about enough is sustainability because it’s like, well, obviously we’re going to be doing things in a thoughtful way. It’s impossible, obviously, to be perfect—by definition, if you’re making clothes, you’re having an impact on the environment. I see other brands very much grandstanding about how sustainable they are.

Lithium: It’s definitely become another buzzword.

Jack: Right. I try to think about the Latin phrase, “esse quam videri,” to be rather than to seem. There are a hundred examples. But actually, we just posted something on Instagram where we were making a donation to stop AAPI hate and we got people in the comments like, “well, how are you treating your Asian workers in your factories in Vietnam” and I’m like, we don’t make anything in Vietnam. Also, [that’s not] related to stopping AAPI hate. If you even think that’s remotely a thing, then you have the wrong end of the stick about what we’re about as a brand. 

Lithium: That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. Do you think, in these conversations about sustainability or social justice, people talk about it so much on the internet that it loses some of its meaning?

Jack: Yeah, it is so hard. There definitely is a need for that but I think call-out or cancel culture can be dangerous because it can be so misdirected. We did this sweatshirt that was a logo flip on a British Lung Foundation sweatshirt that Princess Diana famously wore. Part of the proceeds of that sweatshirt go to the British Lung Foundation, but we didn’t put that in big letters or whatever. Next thing I know I had thousands of texts because someone was mad on Instagram, saying “they copied the British Lung Foundation and they aren’t even donating.” Meanwhile we were donating quite a bit. By the time I saw it, like 50,000 people had commented on it, like “these people disgust me.” What do you even do at that point?

Lithium: There’s definitely an obsession with public discourse that really does not lend itself to nuance.

Jack: It's painful because it's like, there is actually bad shit going on that should be called out, but it can so easily get whipped into this furor that's misdirected.

Lithium: With that sweater and the sheep sweater as well, do you have a Princess Diana obsession?

Jack: I mean, her style was the inspiration for the last collection. I’m a child of the eighties, lived in London in the early nineties and everything was all about Princess Diana and the royal weddings. I’m very much a product of that environment. My mom had one of the original sheep sweaters in the nineties, made by Warm and Wonderful. Because it was pre-internet, it was kind of forgotten about. It’s the kind of image that’s on everybody’s moodboard but until we brought it back, people didn’t know where it was from. And the sweater’s been copied by all these different brands with zero credit to the original designers. I basically went on this little odyssey to track them down. I love stuff like that. That speaks to the idea of really being intentional, doing your homework, and going deep on the backstory.

Lithium: Do you think bringing something back taints that ephemeral quality?

Jack: Well, I think that’s part of why it had such a reception and captured people's imagination. So much of what we do is rooted in nostalgia. That’s a big theme for the brand. To me it’s more about if we can do this the right way. If [Warm and Wonderful] hadn’t been down to bring it back, then we would not have. There’s so much good stuff in the past that has been neglected.