Polymathic Audio No. 4: Jack Carlson

The mission of Polymathic Audio is to tell the stories of leaders and executives who identify as deep generalists, individuals who maintain a vast-yet-deepening understanding of multiple disciplines. It’s less a podcast on personal brands, banter, or promotion. It’s more a masterclass on how to take an idea from zero to one. To that end, this next guest is a quiet example of this phenomenon.

By the age of 13, he published a book on British heraldry that is still sold in museums. A nomad of sorts, he landed in a small preparatory school in urban Boston where he quickly picked up rowing as a sport. A unnatural fit for the 5’10” athlete, he’d go on to become a member of Georgetown’s lightweight men’s team and eventually become the 110 lb coxswain of the U.S. National Team (a weight loss feat that even he cannot comprehend). While at Georgetown, he studied in a select program that prepared leaders for government service, foreign and domestic.

A bronze medalist, he came home to teach classics and philosophy at an elite preparatory school before leaving academia, altogether, to build a direct-to-consumer brand from scratch. In the midst of all of this, he’d go on to earn his PhD in archaeology from Oxford University while rowing for the institution’s fabled boat house. In a build up that sounds like a prequel to Indiana Jones, the guest’s latest venture is one that combines his experiences like a collection of oils on a canvas.

Jack Carlson is the enigmatic founder of Rowing Blazers, a brand that bends fashion genres – attracting new audiences to classical wares. To Carlson, he’s building the next great American brand. From streetwear aficionados to champions of the Head of The Charles regatta, they’re finding themselves on the canvas that Carlson and COO David Rosenzwieg have painted over the last four years with the help of Jack’s girlfriend (and national collegiate rowing champion) Keziah Bell.

In a article for Esquire, Ben Boskovitch writes:

Of late, no one has been doing collabs more excitingly than the coolest name in prep right now, Rowing Blazers. In the past year, the brand has put together some seriously envy-inspiring team-ups, including, but not limited to, a capsule collection with streetwear cult brand Noah, a sweater I still dream about in collaboration with Prep Mount Rushmore brand J.Press, perhaps the coolest damn bar merch I’ve ever seen, and a mind-changing execution of the sometimes polarizing Nantucket Red.

The products are designed to appeal to a psychographic of consumers rather than a demographic of them. You won’t find the racial or socioeconomic exclusivity seen in brands like Kiel James Patrick, for instance. Instead, Carlson collects his experiences (many of which are covered in this episode) and finds common bonds where other retailers tend to find differences. As a result, you have a preppy brand that appears to welcome streetwear fans, skaters, and even lame dads (like yours truly).

What’s most surprising about Rowing Blazers‘ growing appeal is that the founder had no fashion experience. Yet, Carlson and his small team source a number of fabrics to piece together new styles that are generally manufactured in the United States. The complexity of this operation is tremendous. The passion and devotion to each product reflects the time and effort spent on perfecting each “drop” or brand collaboration. In GQ magazine, Samuel Hine addresses the elephant in the room:

Carlson is an unlikely entrant in the N.Y.C. men’s fashion scene, precisely because he does have an uber-prep résumé. When we meet for breakfast at The Odeon, he is wearing a Tintin sweatshirt, Noah x Rowing Blazers sweatpants, and Sperry sneakers from a forthcoming collab. Thirty-one years old, he has the slight build of a former coxswain and a boyish laugh—a quick ha-ha—like he’s just told a dirty joke in the steam room at the Racquet Club. Carlson attended Georgetown and then Oxford, where he got a PhD in archaeology while racing for the university’s storied boat club. He did three stints on the U.S. national rowing team, coxing a boat to a bronze-medal finish at the 2015 world championships.

Jack’s education was that of a deep generalist and it shows. He is an extraordinary talent that seems to be building a brand that will last. His perspectives on how and why he  chose the retail industry to innovate is worth your time.

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