Jack Carlson

Founder of Rowing Blazers

Jack Carlson is the founder and creative director of the brand Rowing Blazers. Before launching the label, he earned a doctorate in archaeology at Oxford and worked as a field archaeologist in Italy. He was also on the national rowing team, and represented the U.S. at three World Championships. He won a bronze medal at the 2015 World Championships and also won the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta and the Head of the Charles Regatta.

Since starting Rowing Blazers in 2017, Jack has collaborated with brands ranging from J. Crew to the NBA, and from Seiko to Barbour, creating collections that combine a love and knowledge of classic, vintage, British and American sportswear, with a taste for streetwear and a penchant for doing things the right way. The brand is known for its ethical production, producing most of its collections in Portugal, the United States, and the United Kingdom; and also for giving back to the community: Rowing Blazers has partnered with charities ranging from the NAACP to The Social Change Fund.

Outside of his work with the brand, Jack has also been an outspoken advocate for making the sport of rowing more diverse and more accessible and volunteers for organizations dedicated to this cause.

Where did the idea for Rowing Blazers come from?

I was racing at a rowing event called Henley Royal Regatta in England. It’s kind of like the Wimbledon of rowing. It’s very traditional, and all of the competitors, when they aren’t competing, and all of the spectators, wear traditional club blazers in bright colors, or crazy stripes, or with embroidered emblems on the pockets. I met rowers from all over the world, and I learned about the stories and traditions behind their blazers. I thought: someone should write a book about these blazers. They brought together so many of my interests: menswear and clothing in general; history; and sport.

A few years later, I decided I would write the book. It was a side project for me, and I thought it would be fairly niche: really just for the rowing community. But when the book came out, it took off in the fashion and menswear communities in a way I never could have imagined. That success gave me the idea and the motivation to start my own brand. The two main pillars of the brand I wanted to start were authenticity and irreverence. I also wanted to create a brand that brought together my love of the classics and of vintage clothing with some of the things I loved about streetwear: the unexpected collaborations, the frequent product drops. Just as importantly, I wanted to create a brand that was making things using traditional, sometimes even “old fashioned” techniques, in places and workshops that were dedicated to ethical manufacturing, human wellbeing, and minimizing waste and other environmental impacts. I’m a vegetarian, so I also wanted to make sure we avoided materials like fur, angora, shearling, and so on.

In coming up with the idea for the brand, I also wanted to create a brand that had a strong sense of community, and that gave back to the community and to charitable causes. I wanted that to be something the brand does regularly; to be part of Rowing Blazers’ DNA. I’m proud to say in the four years since the brand began, Rowing Blazers has partnered with a wide variety of local, national, and international charitable organizations, with a particular focus on youth access to sports and social justice.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I spend a lot of my day on calls: Zoom calls and Google meetings, looking at new designs, planning photoshoots, talking with collaborators and partners, and so on. I feel very fortunate to work with an amazing team. The Rowing Blazers’ team is second to none in terms of its creativity and passion. It’s also very diverse, and so is our company’s leadership. This is something I’m particularly proud of, and which I think is important for our success: people might not realize it, but about half of Rowing Blazers’ leadership team are women, and large proportions are BIPOC and LGBTQIA+.

When I’m not on Zoom calls with our team and with our partners, I like to work somewhere with ambient noise: in cafes or restaurants. It somehow helps me focus. Lately, I’ve been trying to make sure I spend at least a couple of hours everyday outdoors, no matter what the weather, running, walking, or doing some other kind of activity. I think that’s so important for my productivity and focus too.

How do you bring ideas to life?

At Rowing Blazers, I take so much of my inspiration from the past: from vintage clothing, but also from my own past: my childhood in England and Massachusetts, growing up in the ‘90s, my time at Oxford and working as an archaeologist in Italy. All of these things form a base from which I build. To me, I try to bring these inspirations to life with a sense of authenticity (to me, this means doing our homework, and being rigorous in what we create); a sense of irreverence (to me, this means never being 100% literal, but having fun and being a little tongue-in-cheek, a little subversive); and creating whatever we are creating in an ethical, thoughtful way.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I think people are increasingly becoming “cultural omnivores.” They are curious and thoughtful about a wide range of worlds and movements and tastes. They aren’t as easily pigeonholed into the categories and labels that the media and big corporations like them to fit into. I like this and it excites me, because it resonates with me, and because Rowing Blazers itself has such diverse, eclectic inspirations.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I don’t know if it’s a habit exactly, but I have very high standards for myself and for anything we put out into the world. If it’s not excellent and interesting and well executed, what’s the point? I think I take these high standards with me from being in elite sport for so long. Rowing races at the World Championships can come down to hundredths of a second. There isn’t much room for error or for giving anything less than your best. I think this is one of the things that has helped make the company so successful in such a short period of time.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would tell my younger self that everyone is just figuring it out as they go. There’s no playbook for starting and building a successful clothing brand, for example.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

House of Gucci was a good movie!

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I just always come back to who we are as a company and what we stand for. I think about this everyday, and it guides so many of our important decisions. It’s what has informed so many of Rowing Blazers’ charitable partnerships; and it’s also guided the brand collaborations and partnerships we do; and, of course, it’s guided how and where we make our products, and the kinds of materials we use. I think if you don’t keep your values in the front of your mind, you might lose track of who you are. It would be very easy for us to find cheaper ways of making our products for example. This could enable us to sell more of them, and to offer them at a lower retail price to our customers. But we don’t do that. Quality is too important to us; the people making our products are too important to us; and the planet is too important to us.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Collaborating. We do a lot of collaborations with a wide range of brands and businesses, big and small, young and old. Our collaboration partners include the NBA, but they also include my favorite pizza place in New York: John’s of Bleecker Street. They include old-school heritage brands like Sperry and Barbour, but they also include young streetwear brands like Noah and Eric Emanuel. What they all have in common is that Rowing Blazers has an organic connection to each of them.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I’ve had to overcome lots of failures and challenges as an entrepreneur. I knew almost nothing about the apparel industry when I had the idea of starting the brand, and I’ve had to learn on the job for the past five years. Fortunately, I’ve had great partners and a great team who have made the learning curve much easier. But there have still been countless times when products don’t come out how they are supposed to; when things are late; when problems occur that you never even could have imagined: we once had a technical glitch where, for about 20 minutes, nearly everything on our site was $39 – including blazers and jackets that are supposed to be closer to $1000. Some people got a really great deal that day! All you can do to overcome these things is move forward and learn from your mistakes.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Time travel! Don’t know how it would work, but I bet people would pay a lot of money for it.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

The best $100 you can spend is eating a nice meal with great company. It doesn’t need to be fancy. But going somewhere with a good atmosphere, eating good food, not looking at your phone, and just catching up with friends is the best way you can spend an evening and a little money.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Lately, I’ve been trying to avoid software and web services as much as possible, in favor of just talking with people or meeting people over calls – or in person. I guess you could say Zoom or Google meets. But I try to avoid anything much fancier than that.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Shoe Dog. It resonates with me because it is a book filled with unexpected challenges, and how scrappy you might need to be to overcome them.

What is your favorite quote?

Aut viam inveniam, aut faciam: I shall either find a way, or I shall make one.

Key Learnings:

  • Stay true to your values. There might be easier or cheaper ways to do things, but without your values, you don’t have a brand.
  • Hold yourself to the highest standards you can. If you’re not doing great work, why do it?
  • Work with a diverse range of people and partners, both within your organization and externally.