How Did an American Rowing Brand Make the Year's Best Football Kit?

Murray Clark
·6-min read
Photo credit: Rowing Blazers
Photo credit: Rowing Blazers

From Esquire

Old money is always legal tender. If you have it in Sloane Square, or the Hamptons, or the Cotswolds, you don't need to visit a stony-faced agent of (bureau de) change to exchange it for a local currency: it's a currency all on its own. It spends all the same abroad, too. Old money is down the back of throney armchairs in Parisian hotel lobbies, and in the leather-bound check presenters of Upper East Side restaurants and, seemingly, at a surplus in the deep pockets of prep 2.0: an ongoing menswear Thing that has seen various riffs on the Nineties trust fund kid. Rowing Blazers has a lot to do with its growth.

Photo credit: Rowing Blazers x Umbro
Photo credit: Rowing Blazers x Umbro

A brand that began as a coffee table book (featuring the blazers of various Oxbridge rowing teams) has slowly morphed into a cult label; one that's poured colour and casualness into the stuff of minor European aristos at major institutes of higher education. Rowing Blazers made that sort of 'prep' fun again. And, given the global spending power of old money, it worked on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond; a redux of our Lady Di's grailiest knits was a hit among hype kids of all passports, a collab with Fila revived the skiwear of Italian one percenters, and the bread and Le Beurre Bordier of Rowing Blazers – varsity sweats, rugby shirts and technicolour chinos – sells steadily throughout the year. But what happens when Rowing Blazers casts its eye to a sport that ostensibly has little clout on American soil? What happens when that sport is beloved by the people beyond the halls of Oxbridge (which, coincidentally, is most people)?

It's a question answered by Rowing Blazers' latest collab with Umbro: the vaunted English sportswear label whose logo is stamped on everything from five-a-side water bottles to the 1990 England team's away strip. Proper football men who still wish it was the mid-Nineties love Umbro, as do the menswearheads who dress like proper football men from the mid-Nineties.

Rowing Blazers' founder Jack Carlson is no stranger to this world. An American partly raised in the UK, only to return in later life to study at Oxford, he's acutely aware of football and the quasi-religious place it holds in British life. Thus, Rowing Blazers, which is based upon what he succinctly describes as "sporty nostalgia", has an understanding of football. It has something intelligible to say. "I've been wanting to do something with football for a while now, and we actually sold a lot of vintage kits in our New York store," he says over the phone from New York. "It's been running through our DNA for a while now, and Umbro was the ideal partner to do this with. It's the British football kit brand, but I also think about Umbro and its cultural icons. I think about Oasis and Mick Jagger and Tina Turner and Prince William. I think, for me, that's just as important."

The 12-piece collection is comprised of shirts, matching shorts, and track and coach jackets – staples all firmly within Cantona's locker. This couldn't be anymore Nineties-Noughties football if it tried, harking back to a golden era when players partied and WAGs got perfume deals. That said, the Rowing Blazers x Umbro collab isn't a total retread – Blackburn Rovers didn't win the Premier League in candy stripes. These are the preppy patterns you'll find in actual rowing blazers (the collection also features plaid, alongside tartan and Carlson's favourite, a sublimated zig zag).

Photo credit: Rowing Blazers
Photo credit: Rowing Blazers

This friendly match-up between ivy and football leagues sounds like a bad fit on paper. But it works – and that's probably because Carlson's brand came at it from a distance. Across the pond, no one knows the difference between Henley Regatta and Dulwich Hamlet. "For us Americans, people don't really have that nuanced perspective on football versus rugby," he says. "Those are just British sports. It's kind of the same for rowing, too. So because of that, you look at it and it's so Rowing Blazers and it's so Umbro. That's what makes it the perfect collab in way, and it's really wearable."

Photo credit: Rowing Blazers
Photo credit: Rowing Blazers

Rowing Blazers, then, is unshackled by the ingrained codes and conventions of football. It has an understanding but not a deep buy-in, allowing the brand to experiment. Carlson freely admits that he doesn't know all that much about the daily affairs of the Premiership. But he does know an Umbro kit in situ.

That gives reason to believe that Rowing Blazers has also unshackled Umbro too, in a way. You can have a football kit in tartan and still have it look like a football kit. You can see Americans make sense of an inherently British brand and sport – and it's becoming less of a niche over there too. "My favourite bar in New York, Edward's in Tribeca, is just a neighbourhood restaurant for brunch and a quick dinner or whatever, but they have a massive screen in there and they're playing World Cup qualifiers. It is becoming way more popular."

You can also do new things with prep. While its roots are blue-blooded, Carlson doesn't believe it to be moored to the elite enclaves of the American northeast (or the British landed gentry). "I get asked about prep 2.0 all the time, and as a result, I think about it a lot," he says. "We've now been around for a long enough time that I can say that, to some extent, we're helping to redefine how people talk about 'prep' in air quotes. We want to make the rules a little less rigid." Which is probably why Rowing Blazers has bookended its Umbro collab with old school brands like Sperry and new school New York label Noah. "It all looks very natural, and I only like to do collabs that have a real sense of purpose. We'd never go out – well, never say never – but I wouldn't be rushing out to make football jerseys. If we're gonna do that, let's do it with Umbro. That's the iconic British football jersey."

In menswear terms then, old money isn't in short supply – nor is it solely reserved to Sloane Square, or the Hamptons, or the Cotswolds. Rowing Blazers, and Umbro, have opened the doors to the bank, and given old money a new, friendlier, cooler sheen. Everyone is welcome to cash in.

Available from rowingblazers.com today, priced from £70

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