Dr. Jack Carlson founded the New York-based apparel brand ROWING BLAZERS nearly five years ago. He’s also an author, archeologist, and former elite athlete. He competed as a member of the United States rowing team at three World Championships, winning a bronze medal for the U.S.A. at the 2015 World Rowing Championships. He has also won the famous Head of the Charles in Boston, where he grew up, and Henley Royal Regatta in England.
Before starting the brand ROWING BLAZERS, Carlson wrote a coffee-table book, also called Rowing Blazers. The book, which Carlson wrote as a passion project primarily for the rowing community, took off in the menswear community and became something of a cult classic. Ralph Lauren hosted the book launch, and inspired Carlson to found his own brand.
Carlson holds a Ph.D. in archeology from Oxford University and a B.S.F.S. from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he studied Chinese and Classics. Carlson has also worked as a field archeologist, excavating in Italy’s Mugello Valley, north of Florence, and he has written on a wide variety of topics – from British heraldry to Iron Age weaponry; from Chinese monuments to Roman triumphal arches.
His interests include the visual and sartorial trappings of power; Roman and Chinese art and archeology; heraldry; menswear; and streetwear. Carlson has been elected a Fellow of The Explorers Club, the Royal Numismatic Society, and the Royal Asiatic Society. He also serves on the board of Row New York, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering young people through the sport of rowing, regardless of background or ability, and has been outspoken about the need for increased access to the sport and the need for more diversity in rowing – partnering with boat manufacturer WinTech to promote these goals.
ROWING BLAZERS has partnered with Row New York, Play Rugby USA, Stop AAPI Hate, Food Bank for NYC, the British Lung Foundation, the NAACP, the Social Change Fund, and the Robin Hood Foundation, among other charitable partnerships. The brand has received industry praise for its diverse campaigns and commitment to ethical sourcing.
In its four-and-a-half years, ROWING BLAZERS has collaborated with a wide range of brands, including Sperry Top-Sider, Noah, J. Press, Lands’ End, Eric Emanuel, J. Crew, Puma, Seiko, Barbour, FILA, Warm & Wonderful, Gyles & George, Beams Plus, and the NBA. The brand has been worn by such celebrities as Pete Davidson, Mindy Kaling, Timothée Chalamet, Ziwe Fumudoh, Dwyane Wade, Emily Ratajkowski, Hailey Bieber, Tan France, Ashley Graham, Macklemore, Carmelo Anthony, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim Howard, Millie Bobby Brown, Ronny Chieng, Whitney Peak, A$AP Nast, Russell Tovey, Madelaine Petsch, Dax Shepard, David Byrne, Rick Ross, Mario Carbone, Randall Park, Rick Ross, Romeo Beckham, and Russell Westbrook.
Jack and his work have been featured in The London Times, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, Antiquity, Esquire, Monocle, Foreign Policy, Vanity Fair, The New England Classical Journal, The New Yorker, Hypebeast, GQ, and Vogue.
How did you get started in this business?
I was fortunate to take part in some of rowing’s coolest events when I was in high school: the Head of the Charles, of course, and Henley Royal Regatta. Henley is steeped in history. Spectators and competitors wear colorful club blazers while in the spectator area. My first time racing at Henley, we lost in the first round. It was brutal, but it gave me five days in the spectator area, where I had the chance to talk with so many other rowers from around the world about their blazers and the traditions behind them. There were blazers made from old curtains; stripey blazers; stained, dirty blazers that had never been washed in decades. Every club, I learned, had their own special set of traditions. I thought: someone ought to write a book about the rowing blazer. And a few years later, that’s exactly what I did.
The book was really a passion project. It brought together several of my interests: history, rowing, and, of course, clothing. I realized that there were so many idiosyncratic features to these original blazers. With this in mind, and the reception that the book received in the menswear world, I started thinking about the possibility of starting a brand to make proper blazers on the original style, both for rowing clubs and for customers in general.
From the start, I’ve wanted the brand to reflect my diverse interests – and to be classic, quirky, youthful, and authentic. We’ve expanded way beyond blazers, of course. The rugby is another major category for us, and I’m just as obsessive about authenticity with the rugby as I am the blazer. We make our rugby shirts from a special type of heavyweight, high-tension cotton jersey knitted on vintage knitting machines. I think it’s possible to make these really authentic, old-school classics, but to wear them in a way that is anything but stuffy.
I also wanted the brand to reflect a commitment to community, and to stand for something good. Rowing Blazers undertakes frequent charitable partnerships, especially with organizations focused on youth access to sport and social justice, and that’s the manifestation of that commitment. At Rowing Blazers, we also are very particular about ethical sourcing and ethical materials, which is another manifestation of that commitment.
How do you make money?
We sell products, mostly clothing and accessories. Sometimes other brands pay us to collaborate with them, and sometimes we consult privately for other companies on branding and design. We are primarily a direct-to-consumer company, which I think is important as it allows us to control our own story, and our own relationship with our community. Most fashion brands traditionally rely more on wholesale than direct-to-consumer, but when a company does wholesale, its retail prices either have to be significantly higher, or it must find ways of cutting its costs of production in order to have enough margin for the wholesale account to take a significant cut. And, with wholesale, it’s much more difficult to control one’s brand adjacencies, narrative, and presentation. That’s why we focus more on direct-to-consumer.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
It took some time, because we were focused first and foremost on creating really special products and building a great brand. To me, it was most important to build a great foundation. The more solid the foundation, the taller the tower that can be built on top of it.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
Ha – there were many times when I thought this wouldn’t work. Before we even launched, I was trying to juggle training on the national rowing team, academic research, teaching, and trying to start a brand. Sometimes I’d think: “What am I doing? This is silly.” And there have been plenty of times along the way since launching that I worried I was in over my skis. But I was fortunate to have the support and counsel of amazing partners, friends, family, and teammates. And that’s really what has kept me on track and motivated. I’m still very fortunate to have great people around me. We have an incredibly talented team of all ages and from all walks of life.
How did you get your first customer?
I remember when we flipped the switch to make the website live in May of 2017. We already had a small social media following and had let that group of people know that the launch was coming, so there were a few people who were aware – and maybe even waiting in anticipation. But when we flipped the switch, I wondered if anyone would actually turn up to our party! I was refreshing Shopify every few seconds. About five minutes after it went live, I remember we got our first sale. I thought to myself: it must be my mom! But I checked and no! It was someone I didn’t know at all from Rancho Cucamonga, California! That was a cool feeling.
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
Honestly, I don’t really think about “marketing strategy.” I just do what feels right for the brand. It’s amazing how far that has gotten us: just putting the right vibes out into the universe. We’ve had major brands reach out about collaborating: brands I’ve only ever dreamed of working with, like FILA, Barbour, Sperry, Seiko. These brands reached out to us, not the other way around. We’ve spotted some of my favorite celebrities wearing the brand, when no one ever reached out to them or worked with their stylists: they just ordered from the website. This is stuff you can’t even plan. You’ve just got to put the right energy out into the world.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
It’s difficult to pick one. We have to make tough decisions almost every day – without any kind of play book, and without any real right or wrong answers. I think I’ve become more decisive over the years, just understanding that my gut is usually right, and understanding that it’s often less about making the right decision, and more about making right by the decision.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
I think Rowing Blazers is successful because we have a strong sense of who we are. Even though we draw on diverse and eclectic inspirations, we are very clear on our aesthetic, and even more importantly our values. Our values guide all of our important decisions. They inform Rowing Blazers’ charitable partnerships; our collaborations; how and where we make our products, the kinds of materials we use, and more.
At Rowing Blazers, we produce almost all of our products in Portugal and the U.S. — and all in workshops and mills dedicated to quality, tradition, and human wellbeing that are clean, safe, and reputable, providing workers with fair working conditions and fair pay. Our factories are OEKO-TEX® certified, meaning they adhere to strictly-controlled processes that do not involve harmful substances or chemicals. We also avoid fur, angora, shearling, horsehair, exotic skins, down, and feathers. We also utilize alternative technologies and innovative materials wherever possible – like Cashball®, which is a sustainable down alternative. When we collaborate with other brands and they produce collaborative collections, we also hold those companies to rigorous standards of ethical production. We also work to upcycle waste materials (the fashion industry produces over 90 million tons of waste annually); our masks, end-of-the-day rugby shirts, and patchworks are all made from upcycled pieces of fabric that would normally be considered waste. We are rigorous and earnest in our attempts to promote human, animal, and environmental welfare, and that’s an important part of our identity.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
It’s impossible to pick one. Every week, every day, has amazing moments. A new capsule or collection. A new product I dreamed up that’s become a reality. A new brand reaching out to collaborate. A new celebrity wearing the brand. Of course, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. There are ups and downs; a company like ours is a rollercoaster. There’s always some fire to put out. Our business is extremely fast-paced, often very challenging, but very exciting and rewarding.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
We have so many exciting initiatives coming up this year, including some new collaborations, and some new iterations on some existing collaborations – including our unbelievably successful Seiko collab. But I’m also excited about our team. Our team has grown quite a bit in the past few months, and I think we’ve assembled an incredible – and incredibly diverse – group of people at Rowing Blazers.
What business books have inspired you?
I hate business books in general, but I do like Shoe Dog by Nike founder Phil Knight. But I like to spend more of my free time reading fiction – or traveling, or watching movies, or meeting new people and hanging out with old friends. That’s where so much of my inspiration comes from, and inspiration for the brand.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I’d tell my younger self to find balance earlier on. To take more evenings off. To unplug more. To spend more time outdoors and in nature. I think I’ve found more balance recently, and it’s both better for me, and better for the business.
Are you willing to be a mentor? If so, how should someone contact you?
I’ve been mentoring young people interested in the industry for years, and it’s very rewarding. I myself came into the apparel industry as an outsider. It’s a crazy, bizarre industry, truly unlike any other, and it can be extremely difficult for an outsider to break in. I’ve been fortunate to have some incredible mentors myself, and giving back is the least I can do.