Jack Carlson has an unconventional résumé for a dealmaker. He has a Ph.D. in archaeology from Oxford University, was a coxswain on the U.S. national rowing team, and is the author of “A Humorous Guide to Heraldry” and “Rowing Blazers,” a coffee-table book about the “authentic striped, piped, trimmed and badged” jackets worn by oarsman around the world.
He drew on these unusual interests when he launched the Rowing Blazers brand in 2017 as a tight collection of men’s sport coats, shirts and ties.
Since then, Carlson has grown Rowing Blazers into a business with a following of updated preppy fans who buy the company’s distinct product and buzzy collaborations with everyone from Sperry Top-Sider and Fila to Noah, Eric Emanuel and even John’s Pizza. Estimated to have volume of between $10 million and $25 million, the company has achieved a compounded annual growth rate of 70 percent since 2018 and sales are projected to grow about 50 percent this year over last.
Now Carlson is digging deeper into the fashion business with the creation of the Blazer Group, a brand platform and design house that has been quietly signing long-term or perpetual licenses for little-known or dormant heritage labels. So far this includes British brands Warm & Wonderful and Gyles & George — both favorites of the late Princess Diana — as well as the lifestyle brand Arthur Ashe, founded by the late American tennis icon.
“It happened naturally and organically,” Carlson told WWD. “We don’t have deep enough pockets to buy big businesses that are up and running. These are brands that still existed, but weren’t really doing much.”
In 2020 when Rowing Blazers was looking for inspiration for its first women’s collection, Carlson homed in on Princess Diana because of the way she pulled off menswear-inspired pieces mixed with athletic and nonathletic styles.
That led him to reach out to Joanna Osborne and Sally Muir, who had designed the Black Sheep sweater Diana made famous in the early ’80s. “Other brands had copied the sweater,” Carlson said, “but they never paid Joanna and Sally a royalty.” He asked if they’d be interested in collaborating to reintroduce the sweater — and to his surprise, they agreed.
“The sheep sweater was so successful as a collaboration with Rowing Blazers that it made sense to build upon that and relaunch Warm & Wonderful as a brand in its own right,” he said.
Since the relaunch there have been pop-up shops in Liberty of London and Le Bon Marché in Paris, a collaboration with Globetrotter and another in the cards for later this year with Hunter Boots, Carlson said.
“That turned into a perpetual license,” he said of Warm & Wonderful, adding that the founders are still involved in the business and he speaks to them regularly to ensure the designs he’s creating “are in line with the vision they had when they set out. I consider myself their partner and the torchbearer of the brand they started.”
Carlson followed a similar path with Gyles & George, another British brand founded by the late George Hostler, an artist and sculptor, and Gyles Brandreth, a former member of Parliament and a U.K. television star. The brand was the originator of the novelty sweater, Carlson said, including a pink “I’m a Luxury” piece also made famous by Princess Diana.
After getting in touch with Brandreth, who had allowed the label to go dormant, Carlson got the green light to create a Gyles & George x Rowing Blazers collection and he still works closely with the cofounder on the creative and design of the collection.
The partnership with Arthur Ashe took a slightly different path. Carlson said he was approached by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, the athlete’s widow, and his former manager Donald Dell about reviving the brand and he set out to create a brand “worthy of his legacy,” Carlson said.
He designed a collection that launched last summer right before the U.S. Open. Like Rowing Blazers, the Arthur Ashe collection is “nostalgic and relevant, sporty and colorful,” and has a philanthropic bent with a portion of the proceeds going to the Arthur Ashe Legacy Fund at UCLA, Ashe’s alma mater, and the Social Change Fund United, a nonprofit organization that supports issues impacting the Black community. That turned into him acquiring the license for the label.
“France has Lacoste and Britain has Fred Perry,” Carlson said. “Who better to be the American version than Arthur Ashe? Tennis is growing and becoming more diverse, so it’s perfect for right now.”
With all these brands, there is a common thread running through them that fits squarely into Carlson’s wheelhouse — and that’s their legacy.
“I like studying things from the past with an almost obsessive attention to detail, and presenting them in a way that is authentic but approachable — even irreverent,” Carlson explained. “My method is equally heavy on historical research and humor.”
He said he developed the idea for the Blazer Group during a trek to Antarctica and the South Pole earlier this year. “There’s nothing to look at but ice and no one to talk to when you’re pulling a sled,” he said, leaving him plenty of time to reflect while he was “off the grid.”
He got to thinking about New Guards Group, a brand incubator owned by Farfetch Ltd. whose stable includes Off-White and Heron Preston, and sought to create a smaller version by amassing a group of nostalgic brands with a subversive undercurrent. “For me, it’s about owning the story,” he said. “And the appeal with these brands is the history and the stories and being able to tell those stories to a much wider audience.”
Carlson remains the majority owner of Blazer Group and Rowing Blazers but he does have investors, including the private equity firm KarpReilly, which holds a minority stake, as well as the Winklevoss twins.
Carlson also continues to work closely with his cofounder, David Rosenzweig, who started menswear at Perry Ellis in the ’80s and served as president of Sonia Rykiel before teaming up with Carlson for Rowing Blazers.
Carlson admits that his skills land more on the creative than the business side so he brought in Scott Geftman, a Wharton-educated executive who had worked for The Sage Group, as president in the summer of 2021.
With the other brands in the Blazer Group, Carlson will follow the same playbook that has worked so well for Rowing Blazers — a formula more often seen in streetwear with frequent collaborations and limited-edition product drops targeted to the culturally relevant trendsetters of today. “I take this preppy world and mash it up with the philosophy of streetwear,” he said.
With both Warm & Wonderful and Gyles & George, Carlson believes their reach can “go way beyond one hero product.” And the Arthur Ashe collection is “just getting started.”
Although the brands are not wholesaled right now, “that may change,” Carlson said, especially for Arthur Ashe, which “lends itself to a broader distribution. We’re having conversations now with major retailers in the U.S.”
Until the distribution changes, all of the brands will continue to be sold on the Rowing Blazers website as well as in its store on New York’s Lower East Side. “And we could explore opening single-brand retail stores for the other brands as well,” he said.
With the creation of the Blazer Group, will Carlson be bringing any other brands into the fold?
Although he declined to identify the company, he’s in the final stages of making one more acquisition, with a deal expected to be completed by the end of the month. That brand, too, is currently dormant but has a similar history. “The common thread running through all these brands is that they’re historic and irreverent with an Anglo-American aesthetic,” he said.
Once that deal is finalized though, Carlson may take a breather for a while as he focuses on building what he has acquired. “There are a few other brands I have on my radar, but we have a fairly full plate now,” he said.
Carlson revealed the formation of the Blazer Group at a dinner at the Explorers Club in New York Wednesday night, where he also celebrated his safe return from the South Pole.