Jack Carlson Sits Down With Loose Threads (Listen to Full Podcast)
Listen to Rowing Blazers founder Jack Carlson and Richie Siegel talk business and blazers on the Loose Threads podcast!
Check out the full transcript below.
Richie: [00:00:07] Welcome to the 63rd episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the rapidly changing consumer economy. This episode is brought to you by Loose Threads Membership, which gives you actionable analysis, insights and events that drive growth, and Loose Threads Espresso, your energizing and high-pressure filter for consumer news—in context. We also have a newsletter that features the latest open letters to CEOs, podcasts with industry leaders and news from Loose Threads. Check it all out at LooseThreads.com.
Richie: [00:00:34] Joining me today is Jack Carlson, the founder of Rowing Blazers, a brand that started during Jack’s professional rowing career and after his years-long quest to understand the origins of the blazer.
Jack: [00:00:43] I love all these little, quirky aspects of the rowing blazer—really what makes a blazer a blazer—and I wanted to bring that to life.
Richie: [00:00:53] Now the company is quickly growing into a Supreme-meets-Brooks Brothers lifestyle brand. Jack has one of the most untraditional backgrounds, yet it makes his brand incredibly interesting as it evolves the meaning and purpose of heritage for a modern world. Here’s my talk with Jack Carlson.
Richie: [00:01:10] Why don’t we start. Just talk a bit about your background, and so forth. Then we can work our way up to Rowing Blazers existing.
Jack: [00:01:17] Yeah. I did a Ph.D. in archaeology, in Roman archaeology and Han Dynasty Chinese archaeology, specifically, at Oxford. That’s also… was the time period when I wrote the book Rowing Blazers. And I also spent an inordinate amount of time rowing at Oxford and then I would come back in the summers, come back to the U.S. and try out, sometimes successfully, sometimes not successfully, for the U.S. national team for the world championships. And then, after I finished at Oxford, I came back to the U.S. and I was on the U.S. team for two more years while slowly starting the process of figuring out how to actually start a brand and how to actually make blazers here in this country and make them the way I wanted to make them.
Richie: [00:02:08] And so talk about the book a bit because that kind of acts as the precursor to this whole thing.
Jack: [00:02:12] The book is kind of the foundation for the brand. Absolutely. The story of the book actually goes back even farther. It goes back to when I was in high school. I grew up in Boston. I went to a high school that has a long tradition of rowing and, when I was a junior in high school, we went and raced at this race called Henley Royal Regatta in England and it’s kind of like the Wimbledon of rowing. One of the things that is unique about the event is all the spectators and also all the athletes—when you’re not racing—wear their club or school or team brightly colored blazers. So I’m a junior in high school and I took that opportunity, while we were there racing at Henley, to talk to other rowers from all over the world and to hear the stories behind the blazers they were wearing. And I realized that many of these clubs and schools had pretty fascinating and quirky and eccentric and weird stories and traditions related to their blazers—why it’s a certain color or what weird things you have to have done to earn a certain blazer or a certain badge on your blazer. Or in the Netherlands, where there are all these traditions where guys grab each other by the lapels of their blazers after a big rowing event and they try to wrestle each other to the ground or into the water, and the blazers end up getting torn apart and shredded and sometimes they sew them back together themselves, sometimes they don’t.
Jack: [00:03:46] So there were just all these cool, weird stories and I thought, “Someone should write a book about this.” I was a junior in high school so I didn’t start writing a book about it then, but I thought someone should do this and it could be interesting beyond just to rowers. It could be interesting to people into fashion or just people into weird, quirky stories.
Jack: [00:04:07] Fast forward seven years or so—I’m a grad student at Oxford, I’ve been on the U.S. team and I have friends who are rowers all over the world. And I sort of realize, maybe I’m the guy to write this book. I’m doing a Ph.D., which means I have some flexibility in my schedule and in my life and I just kind of started in earnest there. And it ended up being a four-and-a-half-year project that took me all over the world, put me in touch with some amazing stories and amazing history, kind of rediscovering the origins of the blazer, just generally, as we know it. So it was really kind of a cool and crazy adventure that led to the book eventually being published in 2014. Did a bunch of launch events with Ralph Lauren and that laid the foundation for the brand.
Richie: [00:04:59] What are a few of the coolest things you learned or weirdest things from the book, just off the top your head?
Jack: [00:05:03] Well, a lot of clubs have very cool and quirky and weird stories and traditions. For example, Hampton School, which is an all boys school outside of London—the blazer for the rowers at the school is yellow and black stripes. But there’s another blazer for Hampton School that is awarded to guys who have won all three major schoolboy rowing events in the same year. The school awards you what’s called the Curtains blazer, which is literally made from the curtains that used to hang in the school’s ancient dining hall and it’s kind of like a burlap. It’s not meant to be made into blazers and it’s emblazoned with the school’s coat of arms and Lions rampant. There are a lot of little, weird stories like that.
Jack: [00:05:58] I think, more generally, one of the coolest things to come out of the book was rediscovering the origin of the blazer. There are two things. One is the origin of the blazer just as a piece of clothing. The other is the origin of the word “blazer.” But the blazer, just as a piece of clothing, comes from the early 19th century when rowers at Oxford and Cambridge started to form these rowing clubs that would compete against each other and they adopted, as sort of a uniform for their teams, these unaligned—what we would now call unconstructed—jackets in their team colors. This was like the hoodie of its time or the windbreaker of its time. It was not a formal thing at all. It was just the opposite. Even today, at Oxford, there are many occasions every week when you have to wear, literally, white tie. So, back then, you were dressed very formally all the time and throwing on this unlined jacket, that was almost like streetwear at the time. But guys started wearing it around college. They started wearing it to social events and it became kind of a status symbol. It was kind of a rebellious thing, but it was kind of a status symbol. Like you would know those guys are the athletes, those guys are kind of the big names on campus.
Jack: [00:07:26] The other thing is the word “blazer,” which comes from one of these early brightly colored jackets at Cambridge, actually, where one of the clubs had bright red jackets that they would wear, blazing red, and they became nicknamed “blazers.” And one of the coolest moments in working on the book was discovering or rediscovering the first known use of the word blazer in writing, which is from 1852 and it’s in this list of uniforms and crews for all the different Cambridge College boat clubs. That is the origin of the blazer.
Richie: [00:08:04] So talk a bit about the Ralph Lauren piece because it sounds like that started to open your mind up into actually where this goes and then we can start talking about, “Okay, now it’s show time to do a brand.”
Jack: [00:08:14] So when I was working on the book—and I really didn’t even have a finished book then—but I showed drafts and some of the pictures to a guy named John Calcagno. He runs accessories at Ralph Lauren and he was very encouraging of this book project. And, for me, it was very encouraging to hear that because he was someone totally outside of the rowing world. He was especially interested in the origin of the blazer, was very complimentary of the photographs and he said “You should show this to Jerry Lauren,” who runs menswear at Ralph Lauren and who is Ralph’s brother. I showed it to Jerry Lauren and he said, “We should do something.” That led, eventually, to us doing a series of launch events with Ralph Lauren when the book finally came out, years later, because it just took that long.
Richie: [00:09:08] Publishing.
Jack: [00:09:08] Well, it wasn’t even the publishing. What took the time was just going to all these places. Like when I started showing this to John, the book was maybe half completed but I still had to go to New Zealand and to South Africa and to a few West Coast schools here in the U.S., and when I could fit it in with my training and with my studies as well. But the book finally came out in 2014 and we did launch events in the Bond Street store, the London flagship for Ralph Lauren, in the Fifth Avenue store, here, the Polo store, which was new—it was like the first event in that store, actually—and then the Boston, Newbury Street store. And they were all amazing, amazing events. And the book itself, when it came out, received a lot of press coverage, especially in menswear press. I mean we were in GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal. And that was kind of my entree into that world.
Richie: [00:10:09] And so when did the first thought pop in your head that this is more than a book and how did it go from there?
Jack: [00:10:16] Well, in the course of doing the book, I saw a lot of vintage blazers. I also just started to accumulate a collection of my own of vintage rowing blazers. I don’t even know how many now rowing blazers [I have], from just clubs that I’ve been a part of or teams that I’ve been on. But I also started to go in—especially in England, you can go into vintage shops and see rowing blazers from the 20s the 30s or even earlier. And I started to collect them. Because I was working on a book about them, it seemed like I should start diving a little deeper and accumulating a little bit of a collection.
Jack: [00:10:58] So, in looking at all those vintage blazers and in creating the book and doing research for the book, I started to realize there are certain things that make a blazer a blazer. And I also had in my mind that history and that origin story of how it was really kind of like the hoodie of its generation. It was a casual thing. And, with all those things in mind, and some of the specific construction details—like there’s no vent on a true blazer because it comes from rowing. You need a vent for riding but not for rowing. A true blazer should have patch pockets because it’s supposed to be constructed very simply. It shouldn’t be lined, it shouldn’t have a shoulder pad because you’re supposed to be kind of mobile in it. I mean it was like a warm up jacket, you know. And I realized that no one is really making blazers that speak to those origins anymore, even within the rowing world where this tradition of the blazer carries on—it’s still a very important part of the sport and its traditions—but even within the sport. The Princeton rowing team, until a couple of years ago, was basically buying black suit jackets at, I don’t know, T.J. Maxx or something and having a guy sew orange ribbon on to the trim. And, for me, I was kind of like “Well, that’s not really how a rowing blazer’s supposed to be.”
Jack: [00:12:29] So that’s kind of how it began, is with me saying “Well, how can we bring the blazer back to its origins? How can we tell that story, not just through the book, but also through clothing? Through actually making blazers the way they’re supposed to be made?” And it was very sad for me to see that a lot of these rowing clubs that used to have their blazers made in a very traditional way are now buying jackets from China and just like—
Richie: [00:12:58] Why? Do you think it was just a cost thing or…?
Jack: [00:13:01] Yeah, I mean, I think in large part, it is. There’s also—one of the most traditional tailors, really, who was making blazers for a lot of rowing clubs, especially in the UK, was called AE Clothier and, I don’t know the entire story, but, basically, the guy who was running it and who had run it for many years, for decades, passed away. And I think people tried to sort of keep it going but, without him there, it just kind of fell off or the business stopped.
Richie: [00:13:34] Yeah, fizzled.
Jack: [00:13:34] And then people had to find alternatives or just stop getting blazers for their clubs. And I love this tradition in the sport. I also just love the vintage blazers, the way they were made, a lot of the little details, a lot of the little traditions. Things like, in the Dutch rowing clubs, the cross-stitching under the lapels. You would stitch your initials or your year that you had the jacket. Those are in clubs where the jacket is passed down from one rower or to another. I love all these little, quirky aspects of the rowing blazer—really what makes a blazer a blazer—and I wanted to bring that to life.
Richie: [00:14:14] When was this? What year was this?
Jack: [00:14:16] Well, the book came out, here in this country, in fall of 2014. I basically had the launch event at Ralph Lauren and then flew straight back to England to finish my Ph.D., which I was supposed to have already finished but I had a couple of distractions. I had also raced at the World Championships that preceding summer and definitely did not get as much academic work done that summer as I thought I would. So I hightailed it back to England. I basically locked myself in a room for like three months and just finished the thing and then moved back here. And in spring of 2015, I sort of started, in earnest, this project of trying to figure out how to make blazers in this really authentic way.
Jack: [00:15:03] I thought I was retired from the sport of rowing also, at least at the elite level, at that point, too. While working on my Ph.D., I ate a lot of pizza and I was really not in any kind of shape to be an international caliber athlete at all. But I, unexpectedly, got asked to come back onto the team in spring of 2015. And my business partner, a guy named, David Rosenzweig, [with whom] I had started to chat about this project—he was very enthusiastic. He comes from much more of a fashion background than I do, but I started chatting with him about possibly working together and turning this thing into a brand in spring of 2015, before I got asked to come back onto the U.S. team. I basically went to David and said, “Look man, we gotta keep this as a very part-time, back-burner project for a little while because I think I’m going to go back onto the national team and I think there’s a good opportunity here. I think maybe we can get a medal at the World Championships,” which I had never done. And he said, “No problem, man. You should do that.” We were training in Boston that summer and we started to figure it out. We started to make some samples. We made more samples. The samples got better. They got closer to the original. At the same time, I was trying to burn those pizzas off that I ate while working on my Ph.D.
Jack: [00:16:30] And, eventually, I raced at the World Championships in 2015. We got a bronze medal which was an amazing experience for me, kind of made the whole thing worthwhile. But then, actually, we did so well that I was then asked to stay for another year because the Olympics were only a year away and to try out for the 2016 squad. So, again, I had to say, “David, this might have to be a side project for a little bit longer.” 2015, 2016, I trained in Princeton and then a little bit in San Diego. When I was in Princeton, though, it was very easy to come back and forth to New York or for David to come down to Princeton. When I was in San Diego, David would come out there. We’d meet in our West Coast offices which was In-N-Out burger in Chula Vista, California, and we’d spread out the latest samples. Yeah, it was that kind of a process.
Richie: [00:17:22] What was your order?
Jack: [00:17:22] You know, I was really on a very strict diet. I would really, actually, have french fries and a Coke and, sometimes I would have a milkshake. More than anything, I think I just needed the salt and the sugar to just keep myself going a little bit. We’d have training in the morning. I would then bike for two hours on a stationary bike. Then I’d go to In-N-Out, go back to the training center, bike for one to two hours, then have practice again and then bike for, again, like one or two hours in the evening and then I’d have dinner which would be my only real meal because I had to stay under 120 pounds. So that was a pretty crazy chapter in my life.
Richie: [00:18:04] So what was the actual task at that point? Was it—you talked about sampling—but is it just building the pillars of the brand? Or what were you and David working on over that year, year-and-a-half period?
Jack: [00:18:15] It was a lot of production-oriented stuff. I really wanted to make it here because I wanted to work one-on-one with the people who are actually going to be making the garments. And I spent a lot of time, when we were training in Princeton—I would come up here every Wednesday afternoon. We were training seven days a week, which was also kind of ridiculous and also is just, frankly, is not good training. I mean I think, even since the Victorian period, most people have known that you should take a day off every week but the U.S. coaches at the time didn’t realize that. But we would have one afternoon a week off, which was Wednesday afternoon. So I would come up here and I would spend a lot of time with the people who were actually sewing the blazers and I would show them my vintage blazers and we would go over a lot, really one-on-one.
Jack: [00:19:10] So that was really important to me, to make it here. And we still are making here. We’re still actually using the same workshop that we started with and they’ve grown with us which has been amazing. I mean, they’ve hired many more people. They’ve moved to bigger space. That’s been a really cool and rewarding aspect of this.
Jack: [00:19:31] But, at the time, when I was training and working on this with David on my Wednesday afternoons, we were figuring out how we’re making it. We were also figuring out, what else should we make? Is this going to just be blazers? And I always thought, from the beginning, “Well, no. We should make some other cool things as well.” Like I have some vintage Oxford shirts. I thought, “This is something else that no one is really doing.” I felt [that this was] totally the right way and it definitely fits into that same world as the blazer. “We should do that.” Eventually, it’s led to other things. We ended up launching with blazers, Oxford shirts, ties, hats, a few other accessories. Now we have—rugby shirts is a really important part of what we do, t-shirts, sweatshirts. We’re about to start trousers.
Jack: [00:20:26] But, at the time, we were figuring out, what should the line look like? Is it going to just be classics? Are we going to have some things that come and go? Figuring out things like, are we going to do a lot of wholesale? Where do we want to see this? Do we want to just have it be on our site? Do we want to, at some point, open a store? You know, we thought a lot about, do we want to be in other stores? If we’re in other stores, what would they be?
Jack: [00:20:52] And, actually, it was really interesting. Before we went on the air, we were talking about my Japan trip that I just came back from. One of the really amazing things, and I literally remember sitting in In-N-Out burger and chatting with David about this and saying, “Well, we really view this as a direct-to-consumer brand. We really view this as an ecommerce brand, primarily. But if you were going to be in any stores what would you be in?” And we both, without looking each other’s papers, wrote down some stores. And we were like, “They can be anywhere in the world, but where would you want to be?” And we both, independently, without looking at each other’s papers, had both written all of these Japanese stores. And we wrote Beams and we wrote United Arrows. And it was amazing that we were, literally, on the same page. And then it’s also been amazing that, here we are, six months after launching, and we’re in those stores. And there is a lot of luck and just chance and whatever for that happening. But it’s cool to flashback to that moment.
Richie: [00:21:59] Definitely. So, yeah. Let’s work our way up to that, basically. So you talked a bit about what products you wanted to launch with but what was the launch plan, in terms of how do we release this to the world? And then how did it go?
Jack: [00:22:09] Yeah. Well, there’s a little chapter, I guess, between when I was training—
Richie: [00:22:13] Yeah, how’d the Olympics go, by the way?
Jack: [00:22:15] Well, I did not make the Olympic team. So I found out in May of 2016 that I would not be on the team for Rio. That was obviously a pretty tough pill to swallow, but it was actually nice to have this project that I could throw myself into. And my girlfriend, who is now part of our team as well and has been, really, since the summer of 2016, she was in a similar position. She was a national champion rower herself. She found out, right around the same time that I did, that she was not going to be on the team for Rio. And we kind of looked at each other and said, “Well, what do we do now?” She said, “Well, let’s go to New York and let’s throw ourselves at Rowing Blazers.”
Jack: [00:23:05] That was kind of a cool moment though, to come to New York, to really throw ourselves right into it. And that kicked off, really, like a year or ten months or so, of being full time working on this. Like, beyond full time. We went from my side project while I was training to my 18 hours a day of running around New York City and trying to build this and trying to create a brand. So that leads us to May of 2017 when the brand finally launched. We flipped the switch for the website. We had a party at the Explorers Club which, by virtue of being an archaeologist, I get to be a member of. But we had a party at the Explorers Club and the site went live late May of 2017 and that was a really amazing and also really scary moment.
Richie: [00:23:56] And so it launched entirely online, to start with?
Jack: [00:23:58] We launched entirely online to start with and we had always had the idea that it would be, principally, an ecommerce brand. Now, since then, we’ve done a couple of pop-ups—one in New York in October and then one in Boston in December. We also, as I mentioned, have ended up working with some third-party retailers, primarily in Japan, where there seems to be a very deep appreciation for authenticity, for the story behind what we’re doing and I think those stores can tell the brand’s story really well. That’s always one thing that has concerned me is, any time you put the brand in someone else’s store, you’re really putting it in their hands of how they tell the story, what they’re putting it next to and it might not reflect your vision. I feel very comfortable with the Japanese stores that they can tell that story the right way and that they will position the brand in the right way.
Jack: [00:24:57] But, yeah, it was a great moment. I mean, you literally press a button online and the website goes live. And I remember thinking, “Is anybody going to buy this?” I mean, we didn’t even have digital marketing. We had an Instagram account and Facebook page and we had had some press. And we press a button and I said to Keziah Beall, my girlfriend, who—she gets the notifications when someone buys something, I was like, “Did anybody buy something yet?” She said, “Well, no but it’s also only been live for 38 seconds.” So it was also like a Tuesday at like 11:00am or something. And, I was very freaked out and I was like, “Well, how about now? Did anybody buy something?” She said, “No, but it’s only been a little over two minutes.” And then I remember, a few minutes later, she goes, “Oh my god, someone bought something!” And I’m thinking, of course, and maybe I’m just kind of a cynic or pessimist or whatever, but I was like, “Was it one of our moms?”
Richie: [00:25:59] Yeah.
Jack: [00:26:00] And she’s like, “No. It’s someone in Rancho Cucamonga, California. And they bought the Croquet striped blazer.” That’s what we call the very loud multi-stripe blazer, which we thought we were making just kind of as a press piece.
Richie: [00:26:15] Yeah. It looks like a circus tent kind of, right?
Jack: [00:26:17] It does a little bit, but it’s been very, very popular. That was the first thing we sold too. That was such a cool moment.
Richie: [00:26:24] So I want to talk about the aesthetic a bit because, I think, when you hear the story of heritage, to me, what comes to mind is Ralph Lauren Rugby or like a very classical kind of interpretation of continuing on, again, this aesthetic that has existed for centuries at this point. But there’s something kind of twisted about it—but not in a bad way, in an actually really interesting way—which is you’re starting to bring in elements of streetwear and modernism. And, even just going on the website, it’s probably the most specifically merchandised website I’ve ever been on and that’s really awesome that the aesthetic, I think, carries through with such specificity. I’m curious, how did that evolve as you were building it up, in terms of, were you saying, “Hey, let’s go full heritage, let’s honor this to a T. Or, how do we modernize this and go closer to a Supreme or something like that?” Or how did that all develop and how has it developed? Because I think there are not a lot of brands today where you would see something and go, “Oh, that is that company.” But you’re working on that level where it doesn’t just fit into the ether of grayness, but it’s so specific that it’s very interesting.
Jack: [00:27:22] Thank you. Yeah, that means a lot. That’s always so nice to hear. And we worked very hard on the website too, just among other things. We thought, when you don’t have a store, how do you give a sense of what the world is? How do you give the customer an experience?
Richie: [00:27:40] Not just like, “Hi, I’m on Shopify,” and it feels like every other website.
Jack: [00:27:44] So we worked very, very hard at that. But, to talk a little bit about the vibe of the brand in general, you know, the way I view it is, we want to be operating on a level that is very deep and that is very meaningful and that’s very, very true and authentic as well. And it’s interesting, you bring up Ralph and you bring up Rugby and obviously I’m a big fan of both those brands—Rugby which doesn’t exist anymore and, of course, Ralph, which is a huge empire.
Richie: [00:28:16] Does still exist.
Jack: [00:28:19] Definitely still exists. But I will say about Ralph’s World, in some ways, it doesn’t have the authenticity, it doesn’t have the depth of meaning. It looks great. It looks amazing, but I will go in there and I’ll see a shirt that has a big embroidered coat of arms on it—and this was real, this happened—I saw this shirt and I was like, “Oh my god, that’s the coat of arms of my college that I went to at Oxford. It’s the coat of arms of Brasenose College, but with like one thing changed the tiniest bit.” It kind of rubs me the wrong way a little bit. Or, in a way, it’s like the clothing itself, it looks really good—
Richie: [00:29:01] But it’s surface-y. It’s layered on.
Jack: [00:29:05] Well, yeah. It just doesn’t have that depth of meaning. And this is not a knock at all. But it’s just something that I wanted to be doing very differently. It’s, of course, something too that I had done a lot of research into the origin and the history of the blazer and all these traditions related to the blazer. I mean, I similarly obsess over—even though I haven’t written a book yet—about all these cool stories and quirky traditions related to, like, club ties or school ties or rugby shirts or Oxford shirts or, you know, whatever it might be. I kind of obsess over it and I really want to do it in a way that is very true and that has a lot of depth of meaning. So, one example I always give is our blazers actually don’t have crossed oars on the pocket or some kind of—
Richie: [00:30:03] On the nose.
Jack: [00:30:04] RB monogram or a crown or—we just don’t do that. A Ralph blazer probably would have some kind of crest-y looking thing that has RL. Maybe it even has a Latin motto. But does the person buying it or does, maybe even the person who designed it, know what the Latin means? Probably not. We don’t put crossed oars or things on the pocket. We, actually, we have Latin underneath the lapel where you can’t see it that’s cross-stitched in this really traditional way and what it means and why it’s there, it all has a story behind it. But a lot of people, like yourself, pick up on this sense that there is actually more authenticity to it. There’s actually more meaning to it.
Richie: [00:30:57] Talk about the customer in a sense, in terms of—I’m guessing this starts with, again, the people [who] have affinity for the sport, and so forth— but how does that depth of meaning evolve or grow and manifest as you probably move a little further away, over time, from the person that literally is rowing that much, or so forth?
Jack: [00:31:17] Part of the vibe of the brand, too—it’s not just creating these things in a really authentic and meaningful way. But then a really important part of the brand is taking them into the world, also in a real way, that’s not costume-y and that’s not contrived. So, if you look at the way we shoot our campaigns and if you like the way we style our clothing, it’s not in a contrived a way. It’s not like, “Oh, you have to wear this blazer with wide-leg flannel pants and a white shirt with a pin in the collar.” It’s like, you can wear that blazer with a hoodie or you can wear it with a rugby shirt underneath it.
Richie: [00:32:01] And you’re bringing it back to where it started, right? In terms of casual?
Jack: [00:32:04] Exactly. That’s also why it’s also not contrived in the other direction of like, “Oh, these guys are trying to take the blazer and bring it into a world that it’s not supposed to be in.” I don’t think anybody reacts that way. I think the customer, just generally speaking, is very smart and if you start to do something that’s kind of BS, they’ll be able to tell. It is interesting to see that people get it. People get the way we style this even though it is so heritage. It is such an overused word, but it is really authentic. I mean Ralph uses the word authentic all the time so it’s kind of, in some ways, lost some of its meaning.
Richie: [00:32:48] It’s become inauthentic as a word.
Jack: [00:32:51] Right. But what we are doing is actually authentic. But we can then style it in a way that’s very modern and that’s very real and relevant to now. And so that leads into your question now about the customer. We have a few different customers. We have a customer that is a little bit more—I kind of hate the word because, again, it’s become almost meaningless but—preppy. But we have a customer that’s a little bit more traditional, a little bit more Ivy style.
Richie: [00:33:26] Yeah.
Jack: [00:33:26] Any of these terms is so loaded but a little bit more, yeah, East Coast traditional. Yeah, I think that’s, in some ways, the obvious or low-hanging fruit for the brand. But then, what’s very interesting, is we have a much more fashion forward customer who is into maybe streetwear but maybe not just like a total hype beast but we’ll be aware of those things and we’ll incorporate them into his wardrobe. More than anything, they really appreciate the authenticity, the real authenticity of it. They appreciate the story behind it as well. Maybe they’ve never seen rowing or had no idea of this story of how the blazer originated, before seeing the brand, but it speaks to them because it’s true. There are several other customers. Those are probably the two main ones.
Jack: [00:34:28] We definitely have a more mature customer, as well, who is probably more into tailored clothing. Maybe they’re into Italian tailoring but they want something that’s a little bit more colorful or a little bit more Anglo-American in their wardrobe and they view us as the authentic label to do that. And then we have a Japanese customer or an international customer as well.
Richie: [00:34:55] Very cool. So, given you’re starting with such a potent concentration of authenticity and history and heritage and all these things, how do you think about scaling this, in terms of, how big do you want this to get? How do you get there without diluting these core elements of it? And I’m sure maybe the history of Ralph or Rugby or whatever can somewhat inform adjustments to that trajectory.
Jack: [00:35:20] Yeah. I mean, I think it’s really important to not dilute any of what we’re doing and to not try to get out of touch with how we started. One thing that’s very good is that things like blazers, and rugby shirts even, these are things that are timeless and also, in some ways, seasonless. Even though we do some things a little bit more on the traditional fashion calendar, because we work with these stores in Japan, we can add new product and take away product as we like. That’s one of the nice things about being a direct-to-consumer brand.
Jack: [00:36:01] But a lot of what we do, and really our core products—blazer, Oxford button-down shirt, rugby shirt, we’ll be starting to do some polo shirts as well: A) they’re all totally in keeping with the brand and the way we’re doing them is totally in keeping with the brand. Like when we started doing t-shirts and sweatshirts, which we’ve only done very limited, we did those as a collaboration with this company in Germany, Merz b. Schwanen. And the reason we wanted to work with them was that they create all their t-shirts and sweatshirts using vintage loopwheelers, using all vintage equipment and yet, the way their product looks, it could be styled in a very modern way as well. But there was total synergy, to use a buzzword. There was total sympathy for the way that they were doing things. And I think, again, that did very, very well for us. The customer realizes that. The customer is very smart. The customer gets all of that.
Richie: [00:37:11] Yeah.
Jack: [00:37:12] So I think the important thing is to not ever lose touch, to not try to do too many different things. I think we will start to do more sort of casual things like sweatshirts. And, you know, rugby shirts has become a big thing for us but we will always be doing it in a way that’s really consistent with the brand, not just aesthetically, but in the way it’s made, where it’s made, how it’s made. I think that’s really the recipe. None of these things are going out of style anytime soon because, in a way, they’re sort of beyond that.
Richie: [00:37:48] Another really interesting thing, I think, is, if you look at the landscape today of a lot of these younger brands coming out of the gate and a lot of older, heritage brands trying to figure out what is their path ahead, in a lot of cases, a heritage becomes a liability for these companies, both from an aesthetic perspective, sure, but also from internal operations, agility perspective. And I really can’t think of any other real brands, again, that have come to fruition in the last five or so years, that have, I would say so flagrantly, put a stake in the ground on heritage. Because it’s paradoxical, right, to start a new brand that looks to the past and form the future and so forth. I guess, one, how do you look at the heritage in terms of asset versus liability and how do you continue to modernize that? And, almost, what advice would you have for companies that sit on these amazing archives and history and proof of excellence and all that, but are trying to figure out how do they become part of the conversation today that has seemingly moved past them?
Jack: [00:38:44] Yeah, it’s funny. Without naming any names, I’m actually helping some heritage brands now figure that out. These are amazing brands with great stories behind them where their average customer might be 65.
Richie: [00:39:05] Right.
Jack: [00:39:05] That’s just not really a recipe for longevity or success for the business.
Richie: [00:39:11] Yeah.
Jack: [00:39:11] But I think a lot of it has to do with the way that product is marketed. And I don’t just mean the way it’s presented, but just the way you’re setting up your strategy to actually bring the product to the consumer. And if you look at a lot of heritage brands, where the average customer is a lot older, they’re kind of doing things backwards. Like they’re making a lot of product and then hoping people buy it or find it and then, if they don’t, then they have to mark things down.
Richie: [00:39:49] And liquidate it.
Jack: [00:39:49] And then things end up being on sale and then people realize, “Well, this stuff is often on sales so I should just wait and buy it when it’s on sale.” And then you just get in this vicious circle that is hard to get out of. And then, if you look at streetwear, it’s totally the opposite. They’re intentionally making way fewer of a thing then they know there’s going to be demand for.
Jack: [00:40:16] What we’ve tried to do, to some extent, is to take some lessons from streetwear. If you look at our products, there’s nothing that’s that inherently streetwear about a replica England rugby shirt or a blazer with navy and cream stripes. But we’ve tried to take some of those same lessons, those same approaches of being able to drop product and like, “Okay, we only made this many of this shirt. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.” And that’s been working very, very well for us.
Jack: [00:40:52] And when I’m working with some of these heritage brands, that’s always the starting place a little bit is you sit down and you’re like, “So have you guys ever heard of a brand called Supreme?” And actually like 90% of these people are like, “No. What’s that?” I mean, it’s really true.
Richie: [00:41:13] Yeah. It’s like these punks have been doing this correctly for 23 years at this point while you were, you know—
Jack: [00:41:19] That’s the weird thing, yeah.
Richie: [00:41:21] Yeah.
Jack: [00:41:21] And I think that model and some of those lessons are starting to filter into other worlds, to more traditional-looking clothing, to brands that are not—at least not if you look at their product—”street.” I look at Noah, for example, started by Brendon [Babenzien], who was at Supreme for a long time. I look to them as a little bit of a bellwether and I think they’re very smart, clearly very successful—but successful, not just because of Brendon, but successful because they’re smart about how they’re doing things. A lot of these heritage brands have a lot of great brand equity, in a way, that they could be capitalizing on if they just did things a little bit smarter, if they took some of the lessons from much younger—both in terms of the life of the brand and also in terms of who the customer is—much younger brands.
Richie: [00:42:20] I feel like also that the way you’re approaching the scarcity in the heritage side could lead to a really interesting—almost along the lines Supreme—secondary market opportunity down the road also, as the trading and the passing on that happened historically with these, but that’s actually part of what this becomes.
Jack: [00:42:40] Exactly. Scarcity is no secret, but some of these heritage brands that we’re talking about need to almost learn some of those lessons. You look at Ralph. I don’t consider Ralph to be a heritage brand and they’re not in the category that we’re kind of talking about. But what’s been the coolest, and I would imagine some of the most successful projects that Ralph has done recently, it’s the Stadium ’92—
Richie: [00:43:11] Yeah, we just we just spent a lot of time writing about those.
Jack: [00:43:13] Yeah. Snow Beach.
Richie: [00:43:13] Yep. The Archive Revivals.
Jack: [00:43:17] Exactly. Ralph is now getting to a point where he can go back to his own archives and that actually is authentic.
Richie: [00:43:25] Yep.
Jack: [00:43:25] It’s authentic referencing himself but it actually has some story to it. It’s like, “Oh, Snow Beach was in this music video and this person wore it and there’s a story there.” And it’s being done with some sense of scarcity as well. It just shows that people are starting to adapt a little bit to this new landscape.
Richie: [00:43:53] What’s been the cheapest and most expensive lesson you’ve learned building the company?
Jack: [00:43:56] The cheapest lesson is just to be really careful and really slow about how you do things. To really take the time to literally QC everything that you’re doing and everything that’s going out into the world with your name on it. And I say it’s the cheapest lesson because, thankfully, I think we were pretty on the ball and we did avoid what could have been much more costly mistakes. Situations—no matter how good the people who are making your product are, they will make mistakes from time to time. And if you can be on the ball and catch something before it goes out the door, before it lands in a customer’s hand, before it lands in a store halfway around the world with your label on it, with your name on it and something is screwed up about the product. That’s a cheap way to learn that lesson is to get it before it goes out the door.
Richie: [00:45:02] Yup.
Jack: [00:45:03] I think, in some ways, the most expensive lesson has been that sometimes you can’t do everything yourself. And I mean that not just about as one person but sometimes you need to bring more people onto the team. Or if there are tasks that your time is not best spent doing those tasks, maybe you should pass that basketball. It’s certainly been very much a startup vibe. I think sometimes people see the website and how clean it is and—
Richie: [00:45:38] Sure.
Jack: [00:45:38] And they think, “Wow, this is a major company.” People don’t realize sometimes that we started seven months ago. But I can tell you, behind the curtain, it’s a lot of me and my girlfriend and David running around the city, delivering grow grain to our factory or, even worse, sticking barcodes on things. And that’s been, I say an expensive lesson, because all of us, our time is pretty valuable. And, in many cases, I find myself doing things where my time should probably, even for the sake of the company—it’s not that I’m above putting barcodes stickers on things— but it’s like I should be designing this new thing or like directing this photo shoot so we have more new content for the site. Your time is very valuable and that’s why that’s an expensive lesson.
Richie: [00:46:38] Talk about the female side of this because there seems to be a lot of just—it’s a very kind of male-driven side. But is there an opportunity or how does this translate over to that side? Or does it not?
Jack: [00:46:50] No, it does. It’s already starting to. We had, when we were in the process of developing, and really like in the last couple of months before we launched, we had a lot of women saying, “Well, you should really do women. Can you make me a special women’s blazer? More like a women’s fit.” And we also had a lot of women saying, “Well I would wear this just like the men’s blazer.” But we ended up, basically just for our friends and even then our friends’ friends, making women’s blazers, like women’s versions of our men’s collection for them. And they’re happy to pay extra because they know we’re just making one offs. But that led us to scratch our heads and say, “Well, maybe we should have women’s as just part of the site.” So we quickly made a few styles, basically, of women’s blazers in time for launch. And that’s grown to be a pretty significant part of what we do.
Jack: [00:47:54] I view us, principally, as a menswear brand but it’s been cool to see that side of things develop and, actually, I just came back from Tokyo. One of the primary reasons I was there was we were launching in a store called Journal Standard L’Essage, which is a women’s store that bought all women’s versions of our men’s blazers. They also bought our Oxford shirts and sweatshirts and a few other things all just in size—extra small.
Richie: [00:48:22] Very cool.
Jack: [00:48:22] And launched it as basically a full-blown women’s collection in their store. And it did amazingly well. Many of things sold out in a day or in two days. So there definitely is a women’s side of this that we’re just kind of scratching the surface of.
Richie: [00:48:39] Yeah. And then next year or two, what’s on the horizon that you’re super excited about?
Jack: [00:48:43] We are in the process of developing a couple of more product categories that will be launching soon. Trousers is definitely one and taking our fit for the blazer and doing that in other jackets—corduroy, tweed for fall and things like madras and seersucker for spring. And that’s a response to people emailing us or sending us Instagram messages saying “This jacket fits me so well. I would love this in seersucker. I’d love this corduroy.” So I’m psyched about that.
Richie: [00:49:15] Awesome, man. Thanks so much for talking.
Jack: [00:49:16] Thank you so much.
Richie: [00:49:25] Thanks for listening to the Loose Threads Podcast. You can read full transcripts of the podcast and join the newsletter at LooseThreads.com. Feel free to leave a review on iTunes. We always appreciate it. This episode was edited by George Drake Jr. My thanks to him for his time on it. We have a great roster of upcoming guests, including Micky Onvural of Bonobos, Brian Watkins of Rep the Squad and Sarah Nakintu of Kintu. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon.