A Chat With Dr. Jack L. Carlson, Founder of Rowing Blazers
From The Chap, Summer 2018 Edition
How did Rowing Blazers first come into being?
I don't come from a menswear or apparel background at all. Before starting Rowing Blazers, I was a member of the U.S. rowing team for a few years. Before that I did a Ph.D (D.Phil actually) in archaeology at Oxford. While I was at Oxford, I also wrote a coffee-table book called Rowing Blazers, about the traditions, myths and rituals related to the blazer tradition at rowing clubs around the world. Rowing Blazers the book laid the foundation for the Rowing Blazers the brand in a couple of ways.
First, during my research for the book, I re-discovered the origin of the blazer. Today, most men have blazers. But very few realize that the blazer comes from the sport of rowing. There's a false etymology that places the genesis of the blazer with the HMS Blazer, a late nineteenth-century Royal Navy ship. In reality, the blazer originates as a casual jacket worn by oarsmen at Cambridge and Oxford in the early nineteenth century. It was something men would wear to jog down to training in the morning, and possibly wear in the boat while they warmed up (or even keep on for racing in cold weather). Rowers quickly began wearing them around their colleges as well, in social settings, where they were something of a status symbol. These jackets were wool flannel; unvented; unlined; with patch pockets; and usually made in the colours of its respective boat club or college. One of these colorful jackets even gave us the word "blazer:" it was the nickname of the "blazing red" jacket of Lady Margaret Boat Club at Cambridge.
Second, in the course of writing my book, I accumulated a decent collection of vintage rowing blazers. I studied them. I looked at their details and the way they were constructed. I realized that no one was really making proper blazers like them anymore; and that many of the features that make a blazer were largely ignored nowadays: the fact that it should be unlined in the back (which is more difficult today, because the interior seams have to be beautifully finished by hand); or the fact that there should be no vent (the vent is an innovation of riding).
So I decided to set up Rowing Blazers. At first it was a side project for me while I was training on the national team. It was a lot of work finding the right people who could do all the handwork necessary, but the result is beautiful. We make everything by hand in the U.S., U.K., or Europe. We started by making blazers for rowing clubs and universities; and in May of last year, opened up to the world.
Aside from the book, what other inspirations are behind the brand?
The brand is all about classic British and American menswear; especially those aspects that originate in the world of sport. It's about producing the classics in the most traditional, authentic way possible, and simultaneously bringing those classics into the modern world.
Aside from the world of rowing, and the blazer tradition documented in the book, I also draw on my time at Oxford generally. For the graphics and iconography, such as they are, I draw on my archaeological career, and also on my work in the field of heraldry. I don't like it when the likes of Ralph Lauren use phony-baloney coats of arms, or, even worse, adapt the coats of arms of real Oxbridge colleges.
How important is sourcing material and Made-in-USA construction to the brand?
The material is very important. The flannel, for example, needs to have that slightly fuzzy, brushed hand, but also needs to be comfortable year-round. The cotton jersey needs to be high-tension, heavyweight and have a dry hand. We use British, Italian, American and Japanese fabrics. Made-in-USA is important, but what's really important about it is being able to work with the people sewing the garments directly; to show them the vintage blazers, for example, and draw their attention to certain construction techniques and details.
What does the future hold for Rowing Blazers?
I'd like to position the brand as the go-to for the most authentic blazers, rugby shirts, and polo jerseys. When someone wants a beautifully made blazer, with all the right details and trappings, I want them to think of us.
Have you read the Chap before?
Of course! I was very proud and amused when The Chap organized a protest against the opening of Abercrombie & Fitch on Savile Row.