Fashion

The Founder of Rowing Blazers Is Challenging You to a Game of Foosball

Vintage sportswear gets a modern-day (and colorful) twist at this SoHo storefront.
Reading time 9 minutes

Let's face it; not all pop-up shops are created equal. This one by Rowing Blazers, for example, has got a little something (or few things) extra: a ping-pong table, a foosball table (with prizes) and a location in the center of the universe, or as most people like to call it, Soho. 

We spoke to founder and World Medalist rower Jack Carlson about his take on the sportswear trend, his love of vintage, and the heated foosball games that go down in his pop-up shop.

Who is the Rowing Blazers customer and how does he spend his summer?

The Rowing Blazers customer really runs the gamut: we have kids who are in the city all summer and playing pick-up basketball, skateboarding and bopping around Soho for fun. We have jet-setters who are back and forth to Europe but drop in when they’re in the city. There’s the Nantucket and Hamptons crowd, of course, who’s in town a few days most weeks anyway. Long-suffering finance Yuppies sentenced to spend at least all of June and July in Manhattan. And artists and musicians who beat to their own drum no matter what season it is.

That’s part of the fun of having the store: getting to see this great cross-section of people who are our customers. At the opening party, we had Ivy League rowers, streetwear kids, bankers, and rappers. We’re a preppy brand that does some things that are a little more street. Or are we? It’s just supposed to be authentic and feel good. And it’s supposed to be inclusive. We really are the official blazer supplier for all these fancy clubs and schools. But there’s nothing elitist about our brand.

The pop up is only around for three months until mid-September — how did the idea come about to have a summer pop up?

The timing was really the product of finding the right space. We did a pop up on Rivington Street in the autumn, not far from our current pop up at 161 Grand Street. It was very successful for us; so since then, I’ve been lowkey looking for the right spot in that neighborhood. This space, the old Odin store, is a dream come true. It’s on the corner; all-glass front, and in the perfect neighborhood. So I took it, knowing that no matter what time of year it was, we were going to make it great.

Can you talk about the brands that will also be selling in the space? 

The space at 161 Grand is big — very big. So from the beginning, I had this idea of bringing in some other brands to join us in the space. Brands that might at first seem very different from us, but that, on some deeper level, actually have a lot in common with us. The first person I called was Eric Emanuel. He makes old-school basketball shorts. He actually makes his shorts right across the street from where we make our blazers in New York City. Bieber, Post Malone, Sheck Wes — all these celebrities wear his stuff all time. It might seem, on the surface, that he comes from a very different world, but Eric and I are both obsessed with vintage sportswear and obsessed with doing it the right way. We also make everything in New York City, so we are automatically going to bond over that with all its craziness.

Death To Tennis is coming in for the second month. DTT is very different from Eric Emanuel, and also very different from us. It’s a much more contemporary, black-and-white vibe. It’s more fashion. But we share a kind of cult following in Japan. Tracksmith and Hillflint are coming in for our final month. Tracksmith is a performance running brand with an old-school, Ivy aesthetic; while Hillflint makes collegiate and NBA-licensed cashmere sweaters. There’s a crossover with the sportswear and collegiate inspiration, but at the same time, these are categories (performance apparel and cashmere knits) that we don’t do at all.

So I think this rotating roster of brands sharing the space with us makes it fun and keeps things fresh over the three months. It lets people discover new things, and hopefully put things from different brands together in new and interesting ways. We should all be cultural omnivores these days.

Sportswear is having an endless moment right now, how does Rowing Blazers fit into the trend?

Almost everything we do is inspired by vintage sportswear. Inspired is not the right word actually, because we painstakingly recreate so many little details and techniques with obsessive accuracy. For example, we have a rugby shirt we made with Sports D’Epoque in France: it has a skull and crossbones on it with a narrow red and white hoop stripe; a band collar; and working cuffs. These aren’t random details; nor are they chosen just for aesthetic reasons. These are all features of the original rugby shirt: the unique jerseys worn at Rugby School when kids there started to play their special “rugby rules” version of football (soccer).

Likewise, our blazers are not meant to be worn only with dress shirts and ties: they can be casual, almost rebellious. And this comes from the origin of the blazer as sportswear. Blazers started as warm-up jackets for rowers at Oxford and Cambridge. Guys starting wearing them in daily life too; they were kind of like the hoodies of their time. They were unlined in the back (which is much harder to do these days, because it means the interior seams have to be beautifully finished); they had a very specific three-roll-two silhouette and button stance. They had patch pockets, but with a hidden stitch. I’m crazy about all these details that come from the blazer’s roots in sportswear.

One of our most popular categories is our polo shirt. We didn’t make polos originally. But when we made blazers for the Yale polo team, they showed us a vintage polo jersey from the early 80s. It was beautiful: a navy pique with a hand-sewn diagonal satin stripe. It’s not so easy to do this properly, because the satin is woven and the pique is a knit. If you’re not extremely careful with the sewing, there can be a lot of puckering and wrinkles where the stripe is sewn on. We were able to recreate their polo, and have since then come out with a wide range of colors of polos, each with a simple but elegant diagonal satin stripe.

For me, this perfectly sums up how what we are doing ties into this sportswear trend. We obsessively recreated a piece of vintage sportswear. But the result doesn’t look costumey or retro: it actually looks modern, clean, and cool.

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The store has a “clubhouse” vibe — why was it important for you to create a pop up that is not only a store, but a hangout?

Rowing Blazers is primarily an online, e-commerce brand. So part of the idea here was to give us a real, experiential home. Not just somewhere to shop, but a place where people can come and soak in what the brand is really all about. We have a very engaged online following; now there’s a spiritual home for that community. It also just fits with the brand’s sporting and Oxbridge vibe for our pop up to be something of a clubhouse - but one that is youthful, not stuffy, and open to all.

Little Italy/Soho is the location of the pop-up. Can you tell us why you chose this location?

I just love this area. We are on a corner, which is perfect, and the all-glass frontage is ideal for letting people look inside and catch the vibe even if they are walking past after hours. We’re really right at the nexus of Soho, Nolita, Little Italy, and Chinatown. For me, that’s perfect, because like the location, the brand can’t be easily categorized either. We have some of my other favorite men’s stores in the city close by too: a couple blocks in one direction is Drake’s, which specializes in ties and suits; a couple blocks in another direction is Noah, which is also doing a preppy-meets-streetwear kind of thing in its own way; and then a couple blocks east is Aimé Leon Dore - which has more of a basketball and hip-hop, old school NYC vibe combined with great creative direction. I think our brand metaphorically fits somewhere in the nexus of these three very different shops — so it’s cool that we are literally in the middle of them too.

Can you tell us why you decided to keep production in the U.S.? 

It really started because I am pretty obsessive, and wanted to work one-on-one directly with the people seeing the clothes. And I still do that. And when you do that, after a while, you get to know the people and you develop a relationship with them. And I think that’s important. There is also something magical about making clothes in New York.

Not everything we do is made in New York. Some of our things are made in France and Great Britain. But in every case, there’s something rewarding about doing things the right way: not having to chase after the lowest cost of goods at the expense of quality.

What should shoppers look out for when checking out the Rowing Blazers pop up?

Aside from the polos, blazers, dad hats, and rugbies, we also have a pretty incredible selection of vintage watches curated by my friend Eric Wind. He has some amazing Rolexes and Heuers, all displayed in this great vintage glass case. We also have a little canteen, complete with a vintage Coke vending machine. And of course, ping pong and a mahogany foosball table: we’ve had some heated matches. The first customer to beat any of our staff each day gets 10% off.

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