The King of Collaborations
The King of Collaborations
Lessons in style and adapting with Jack Carlson of Rowing Blazers
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, I'm sure you've heard of Rowing Blazers. With its irreverent approach to East Coast prep, mixed with a strong shot of British sensibility and '90s cool kid aesthetics, the brand has been taking over inspiration boards since 2017.
The success of the brand is twofold. The first being their continued (and impressive) output of capsule collections and collaborations. The second being the singular vision and taste of its founder, Jack Carlson. In fact, it could be argued that these two are one in the same.
To understand Rowing Blazers, we must first understand Carlson. Only a cat has had more lives than this guy. His childhood was split between Boston and England, followed by an undergrad degree from Georgetown before returning to England for a doctoral degree in archaeology at Oxford University's Brasenose College. After Oxford, he went on to work as a field archaeologist in Italy with a brief stint at the College of Arms thrown in there, too, for good measure.
While this résumé would be exhaustive for anyone, Carlson's athletic career was equally—if not more—impressive. Jack began his rowing career at Georgetown and continued on as a coxswain while at Oxford. His abilities to guide his teammates would lead to many memorable competitions, including various World Championships and the famous Henley Royal Regatta, the annual rowing event held on the Thames. Remembering that time, Jack says, “You learn a lot about what you're capable of.” Well, from afar, Jack seems capable of almost anything.
In 2014, Jack wrote a book highlighting the sartorial history of the rowing sport, aptly titled Rowing Blazers. This would ultimately be the jumping off point for the brand we know today. It's easy to say that Jack's achievements with the Rowing Blazers label comes solely from his drive and intelligence, but there's a deeper layer to the success of the brand.
Carlson has an almost preternatural sensitivity to symbols, cultural relevance and nostalgia. It can be seen from his career as an archeologist to his interest in heraldry to his time in the old world, almost genteel-sounding, sport of rowing. All of this ultimately is what has catapulted his brand to worldwide cult status. To tie the personality of the brand to Jack's own history is one thing, but to dissect the success of Rowing Blazers, we have to go one step further.
More and more, brands are canny to the fact that collaborations make good business sense. Not only is it relatively easy to throw a logo of one brand onto an existing design of another, but it generates quick buzz to refresh sales as you automatically double the customer base. But for Rowing Blazers, that's always been the business model for the brand-to produce an organic flow of collaborations and capsule collections that all add, piece by piece, to the overarching brand identity of Rowing Blazers.
This was a decision made very early on for Carlson. While the company does have its core proprietary line, which gained attention early on in 2017 and 2018 (think of their croquet-striped pieces that have been a hit for years), much of the fanfare around the brand comes from its continual output of capsule collections that people want to wear. It isn't a simple co-branding opportunity for either Rowing Blazers or its collaborator; instead, each collection released is a wholly unique set of garments and accessories built from the ground-up which highlights the collaborator's brand.
For Carlson, it's not about half-assing it for the sake of putting new SKUs in their shop. But to make the products from brands he loves in the best way possible. He puts it this way, “I could go out there and source the material and make my own wax jacket, or I could go right to the people that make the best wax jackets and ask them to work with us. I don't want to just make a product, I want to make the best product with the best people.”
Rowing Blazers' success in the collaboration sphere came early for the brand. Having launched only in 2017, by 2018 they had secured menswear legends like J. Crew, J. Press, Noah and British wunderkind Luke Edward Hall for capsule lines. These successful launches would help to garner further attention, more collaborations, and solidify Rowing Blazers as a success. In the last three years as the brand has taken off, Rowing Blazers can count Barbour, the NBA, Sperry and Harry's New York Bar as collabs. And maybe the biggest attention right now comes from their latest partnership with Seiko, which sold out in about a week.
But it isn't just brand behemoths which make up the composite of Rowing Blazers' identity, but ones that have an emotional response for Carlson. Jack, having grown up in the 1990's between the U.S. and England, uses his own cultural references as a jumping-off point for collaborations as well. For instance, there was a Sonic the Hedgehog collab earlier this year. Last year, we saw Babar, King of the Elephants, emblazoned across polos, crewnecks and baseball caps. And most notably (and Instagram-worthy) of all might just be Princess Diana's iconic black sheep sweater from Warm & Wonderful, which Rowing Blazers brought back to life after nearly 40 years since its first release.
“Ultimately,” he says, “it's a pretty fluid process. It just has to feel right for the brand and for me and it has to be organic. That's really important when we're looking at what to do next.” And while brands often reach out to him these days to tee up a collaboration, Carlson isn't opposed to making the first call himself (for example, with Babar, he cold called the Canadian television network, Nelvana, who owned the license for the cartoon elephant). The main thing is to continue to reinvent and challenge traditional notions of prep while still elevating the brand through the lens of Jack's own interests and personal taste. While each collaboration has been a success, I recently asked Carlson if he still had a dream collaboration in mind. To Jack, each partnership has been a dream because, as he puts it, these partnerships “have legitimized my own dream of the brand.”
Each collaboration has ultimately fit itself into the mosaic, the tapestry, the gestalt of Rowing Blazers. And while we'll just have to wait to see what collab drops next, I can assure you, no matter what it is, it's only going to enhance the brand and highlight the big tent approach to design, which makes any collaboration—from a Sega character to a Japanese watch brand—feel totally natural and completely at home with Rowing Blazers.