Jack Carlson's background is in rowing (he was so good he was on the US national team), but he's found a new calling in gear. The self-described “streetwear omnivore” built a brand mixing the worlds of preppy style with youthful sportswear, offering everything from hardy, colorful rugby shirts to patchwork Barbour collabs and cheeky send-ups of finance bro style.
This all is represented best at the Rowing Blazers flagship store in SoHo, which has been closed due to Covid-19. But now Carlson is using his brand as a platform not just to combat coronavirus through making masks from leftover fabric, but also a way to stand up against racism and acknowledge the influence Black culture has had on taking prep style to a whole new level.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Jian DeLeon: How has Rowing Blazers been affected by Covid-19?
Jack Carlson: It's been a whirlwind few months. COVID-19 obviously affected us in a major way. We have one store, and it's a pretty key part of our business. We had to close it very early on, but right away we wanted to do something to give back. I wanted to make masks from the beginning, but it's a little complicated. Unlike some of the designers that immediately were like: “We're going to make masks,” we don't own our own factories. But thankfully, we were able to get some of the manufacturers that we work with back into the Garment District and start making masks. We've donated thousands of masks to a food bank. The masks we're making are made out of leftover scraps of suit and blazer fabrics. It's because we're getting to use these leftovers scraps of fabric.
JD: Now the focus is on two diseases: Covid-19 and racism. You've also become more vocal about the Black Lives Matter movement.
JC: It's more than little awkward for me to speak about any of this as a white guy. I don't know if you saw the photo that Highsnob asked me to send over for this, but to use a Vampire Weekend quote, I look unbearably white.
JD: Well, the fact of the matter is you're exactly the type of person that should be talking about this. But also with Rowing Blazers and preppy style, there are ways it's been subverted in street culture and Black culture.
JC: One of the coolest things that was a sub-movement of the #menswear days was Black Ivy.
JD: Right, that Street Etiquette editorial.
JC: Exactly! There were so many great people that were involved in that. Street Etiquette, Brooklyn Circus, Fred. Castleberry with those great photos. It was a little bit of an influence on what we're doing too.
JD: One of the other big influences for prep style is The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Carlton Banks of course being. the traditionalist, but there's that memorable scene where Will flips his school blazer inside-out to show off the paisley. I feel like that's what you want to channel, taking the stuffiness out of the uniform.
JC: Oh dude, you already know Fresh Prince is a huge influence on me. Black culture has been a huge influence on me in many ways. I think people can look at Rowing Blazers and if they just hear the name, if they're not that familiar with the brand and what we do, they might be like: “Oh, this is like the whitest brand ever.” In some ways, it's not really for me to even respond to that, because who am I to say anything about it? I am the creative director of the brand; I am a white guy. All I can really say is how much Black culture and Black icons really have impacted me and are a huge inspiration and influence to me.
JD: In what ways are you challenging yourself to give back to that community? You've given a platform to Black-owned brands like Death to Tennis and Saint Ivory.
JC: The Black community is a super important integral part of the Rowing Blazers brand. Hopefully anybody who's ever been to one of our events sees that and understands that. Obviously I come from a background in the sport of rowing — which is a very not diverse sport.
JD: That informed the Noah collaboration right? It benefited an organization helping make the sport more inclusive.
JC: The Noah collab that we did benefited an amazing organization called ROW New York, which among other things, is really helping to make the sport a lot more diverse. It's an organization I'm still very involved with and they're doing great things.
JD: What other ways are you looking at how your brand and how you as an individual can help push this message of social justice forward in 2020 and beyond?
JC: We did what's a very minor thing in the grand scheme of things, but we decided we wanted to donate a hundred percent of our proceeds from over the weekend to the NAACP. But it's definitely a good opportunity for us to think more about some of those efforts that we're doing to work with Black artists, to engage with the Black community, and to do more internally in our own sort of company culture. We're a small company; we're not some big corporation or anything, but we want to have more black voices within our company and in positions of leadership. So that's a goal of mine for this coming year as well.
I think we are a diverse group, but we can always be doing more. Right now the vibe is not about me; it's not about Rowing Blazers; it's not about fashion in general. It's not about any of that. It's really about bringing serious social change in this country. It's a good time for me to get a little more involved politically, take action, and put my money where my mouth is. So that's where my head is at right now.
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