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Is menswear's ego too big for criticism?
This topic needs much more discussion, and in a more detailed way than this, which I wrote in one draft and then walked away from. But hopefully it’s a start.
“Post Malone is probably a nice guy. I don’t need criticism to enact vengeance on people. Nothing is personal in criticism. It’s art. You’re doing art. I think that’s this weird misunderstanding now, because everything has become this me, me, me, personal, like, this is my brain, this is my brand. All that bullshit. Criticism’s art and culture. That’s a thousands-of-years-old tradition. It’s one that’s probably broken down on the rocks right now, but like I said, I assume Post Malone is a pretty nice guy.”
It’s kind of funny that I’ve ended up in, or at least that I’ve ended up being perceived as being in, an adversarial relationship with Rowing Blazers, the neo-prep brand founded by Jack Carlson in 2017. The perception isn’t baseless, of course -- I have fun, from my great distance, puncturing some of the ego I see surrounding Doctor Jack Carlson and Rowing Blazers in general, and I also have legitimate points that I think are worth making about brand rhetoric vs. corporate reality, the ideologies and cultural context underpinning their clothing, and how they market and who they’re marketing to. This isn’t going to be an essay about those things, though they may creep in on the periphery. Instead, I’d like to talk about something very important to me -- the ability of a community to support nuance in criticism.
By “nuance,” I don’t mean that criticism is always couched in centrist or balanced language, making sure it’s evenhanded and objective. Instead, I mean that criticism, even (especially) negative criticism, can come from a place of love for the community, and even for the specific object of the criticism itself. Because while my issues with Rowing Blazers are probably pretty well known to anyone who’s followed me on Instagram for a while, my affection for much of what they do most likely isn’t. This isn’t because I haven’t talked about it -- in fact, pretty much every time I’ve criticized Rowing Blazers, I’ve prefaced those points, followed them, or both with the statement that I own some of their stuff and think their mission is a positive one -- but because criticism in menswear, especially on Instagram, tends to be heard in two ways. First, by those being criticized, it’s heard as “trolling,” or as coming from “haters,” a kneejerk defensive position designed to insulate oneself from any criticism, legitimate or otherwise, by lumping it all in as personal attacks.
For many in menswear, criticism is only heard when it’s part of a “dialogue,” couched in terms friendly to everyone, with a positive spin. Otherwise, the critic is accused of being “negative,” or “tearing down” rather than “building up.” When I criticized Aaron Levine for his “Let’s all spread love, it’s easy” response to the Atlanta shootings, he reached out to me, saying, “Don’t just criticize, teach.” But when I tried to extend the conversation, sharing more details of how I would try to respond in his place and why, he ultimately wasn’t able to engage, falling back on his own belief in his anti-racism rather than being curious or asking questions about how his statement had come across to those who didn’t think exactly like himself. Similarly, when I pointed out in a mildly sarcastic way that Rowing Blazers, despite trumpeting a charity initiative to benefit AAPI, showcased no meaningful Asian representation on their social media, they summarily blocked me, ending what could have been a constructive dialogue before it even began. Second, criticism is received by many like John Cena picking up a chair -- as the promise of exciting spectacle. It’s a fact that I get immediate rewards via DMs or likes for bolder, meaner takes rather than subtler, more balanced ones, because people like a fight. It’s why crowds applaud baseball managers for throwing a base or kicking dirt during a game. I like causing a stir as much as the next person, but I’m also aware that kneejerk applause for owning Jack Carlson in an Instagram story doesn’t further the actual conversation any more than him blocking me does.
Since Rowing Blazers began in 2017, I’ve bought their J. Press x Rowing Blazers t-shirt with the Shaggy Dog label, two of their ties, their croquet belt, their Bishop madras suit, a navy terry cloth blazer, a short-sleeved fun shirt, and one of their striped blazers (I’ll let you add up that total cost -- I don’t want to think about it). The t-shirt was my first Rowing Blazers purchase, and I was so excited to have it -- blown-up labels are a really cool design idea to me (I’ve wanted to make my own tote bags with blown-up, hand-drawn J. Press, Brooks, Chipp, etc. shirt labels for a long time) and Rowing Blazers was an exciting new brand that was doing really cool things with representation and the deconstruction of “prep” as an idea. Rowing Blazers wasn’t a guilty pleasure, it was a pleasure, and much of that pleasure remains. I was happy to buy a striped blazer recently, and I was just as excited to open the box and try it on as I was opening that t-shirt several years ago. But it’s also true that over time, my take on Rowing Blazers has become more nuanced. I worry about their transparency about manufacturing (they still don’t indicate places of manufacture other than France, Portugal, England, and other blue-chip countries, even though they still sell products made in other, less P.R.-friendly locations), I think that the quality of their products doesn’t always live up to the price, and I think their high and mighty rhetoric about changing the meaning of “preppy” is both overblown in general and blind to its own specific shortcomings. Rowing Blazers is, ultimately, a brand for people like me -- relatively affluent, young, interested in more than just Take Ivy, happy to make gestures towards sartorial history while also wanting to virtue signal my hipness and inclusivity. Rowing Blazers has certainly expanded the idea of what the preppy consumer can look like, but it hasn’t expanded the idea of how much the preppy consumer has to pay, and it reinforces as many ideas of exclusivity (based on education, based on travel, based on leisure and luxury, based on class, based on conventional beauty standards and body sizes) as it pushes against. Pointing these criticisms out doesn’t automatically make me a troll or a hater. And buying Rowing Blazers clothes while I make those criticisms doesn’t make me a hypocrite.
What I am is interested and curious, and willing to follow up my interest and curiosity by doing research and looking into the things I care about. I also think Rowing Blazers has enormous potential to be a positive force, not only in the provincial backwater of Ivy but in the larger menswear and womenswear landscape. I don’t think it’s wrong for consumers to hold brands to a standard and ding them when they fail to reach it, especially when that standard will make the whole community a better, stronger place. But I especially believe that, whether consumers are interested in it or not, any strong community needs critics -- not in the sense of negativity, but in the sense of critical, analytical thinkers who are willing to ask hard questions for the consumer, and to make sense of the landscape as they see it. Menswear is full of podcasts and newsletters and influencers, but most of them are dependent on the largesse of tastemakers and brands -- for interview time, for gifts, for reposts. To quickly return to Aaron Levine as an example -- both the recent Put This On interview and Blamo! episode on Levine were incredibly positive and shockingly uninterested not only in any criticism of Aaron, but even in pushing Aaron beyond the normal P.R. platitudes into something resembling original thought.
Positivity has its place, and the best place for it is on a spectrum, balanced by other viewpoints and ideas. Menswear doesn’t have this to any meaningful degree, and it’s suffering for it. Often, when I tackle the issues with a Fred Castleberry or a Jack Carlson (whether I do it flippantly, via memes or jokes, or more seriously via a longer post or newsletter piece), I get DMs telling me to focus on the positives, to just ignore the bad stuff, to not let these people “live rent free in my brain.” My reaction is always, first, why pretend the bad stuff doesn’t exist? Why shut off that curiosity faucet and walk away from understanding how all the pieces fit together, rather than just pretending half the pieces aren’t even there? And, second, if the issues are important -- and the issues that come up when we think about Rowing Blazers, or Castleberry, or Levine are important -- what’s wrong with giving them some free real estate? We don’t have to retreat into a victim mentality, anxious that anything less than full-throated positivity will doom eternally embattled menswear forever, and we don’t have to circle the wagons to protect Jack Carlson from criticism. Because by rushing to protect menswear and its movers and shakers, we may just be removing whatever strength it has left.