Rowing Blazers’ Jack Carlson is smartening up brands with his umbrella group.
The crowds that gather every year at the Henley Royal Regatta, the annual rowing event in the eponymous town on the River Thames, often feel plucked out of 1982’s The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook by Ann Barr and Peter York. But for US fashion designer Jack Carlson, who co-founded New York brand Rowing Blazers in 2017, these are hallowed grounds: he rowed (and won) here when he was studying archaeology at Oxford University.
Today, Rowing Blazers tailors many of the club looks seen at Henley and similar regattas worldwide. When we meet Carlson in the stewards’ enclosure, he is soon greeting old friends, pointing out star rowers and explaining the meanings behind their colourful jackets. Carlson is a bronze medallist and three-time member of the US national rowing team at the World Championships, so tailoring club blazers is not a sartorial gimmick but a quest that he approaches with encyclopaedic knowledge – but also a dash of subversion as an American outsider with respect for the sport’s history. This approach is now one that Carlson, together with his business partner, David Rosenzweig, is applying to the Blazer Group by discreetly licensing heritage brands from the UK and US.
The idea was sparked when Carlson reissued Princess Diana’s red, white and black sheep jumper in 2020 and tracked down the original creators of the pattern, Joanna Osborne and Sally Muir of Warm & Wonderful. “They have designs that so many different brands knocked off without crediting the source,” says Carlson. “No one gave them credit or paid any royalties. I’m a designer but I’m also an academic and you have to cite your sources. You can’t plagiarise other people’s work.” In 2020, Warm & Wonderful was revived and joined the Blazer Group under a perpetual licence to keep Osborne and Muir involved as creators. Gyles & George, a British knitwear label with a knack for novelty jumpers (also once sported by Princess Diana) soon followed.
Slowly, the Blazer Group is gaining traction. In 2022, Carlson and Rosenzweig were approached by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, widow of legendary tennis player Arthur Ashe, to revive his namesake label as the US answer to heritage tennis brands Lacoste and Fred Perry. With sports sets, caps and knitted gilets, Arthur Ashe now offers a modern twist on classic tennis sportswear, just as Rowing Blazers does for rowing. At the other end of the preppy spectrum, Carlson’s most recent acquisition is Chipp, a traditional US tailoring house that once dressed John F Kennedy.
Carlson intends to bring his winning formula to the Blazer Group, inspired by the world of streetwear, with frequent collaborations, limited-edition drops and a direct-to-consumer mentality. For now, he is happy with its portfolio of dormant heritage brands and organic expansion. “It’s more about helping to tell these brands’ stories on a bigger stage,” he says. “And if history is anything to go by, I’ll soon uncover other brands and do something with them.”
Tips from Jack Carlson:
1. Avoid expansion for expansion’s sake.
2. Keep original creators involved and give them credit.
3. Don’t be afraid of irreverence and shaking up the rules.
Babbel’s CEO tells us how he learned the language of leadership at the app company.
Babbel was the world’s first language-learning app and has proved to be the most popular, selling more than 10 million subscriptions since it was launched in 2007. Founded by Markus Witte and three friends in Berlin, Babbel now employs more than 750 people from some 65 countries in the German capital and New York.
Arne Schepker joined Babbel as CMO in 2015 and is now CEO and managing director, taking the reins from Witte, who remains as executive chairman. Zalando alumnus Schepker tells us why there’s both challenge and opportunity in succeeding a founder as CEO, and how Babbel ensures a value-driven approach to learning.
Tell us about taking over the CEO role from the founder. Does it make it more difficult?
That depends on how the transition works and how the outgoing CEO or founder behaves. Luckily, Markus is one of the best people I’ve ever met in terms of letting go and empowering others. So I was able to slowly integrate into the new role. What also helps at Babbel is that we are participatory and there’s an agile culture, so it’s less top-down authoritarian than other companies.
You have described that period as doing an “advanced internship”. What do you mean?
It was my first time in a CEO role. I was driven by my desire to understand how the business is run across all parts. It was a fantastic learning opportunity, not just because I finally understood how the product and content are created but also because I understood how the coffee machines get cleaned, how the computer arrives at your desk. So it was really end to end.
Sixteen years into its journey, how much has Babbel stayed true to its founding principles and how much has it had to evolve?
The product and the business have pivoted multiple times. We didn’t invent language learning but we invented online language learning. We were the first company and the first product that allowed you to learn a language online with modern digital methods. Sixteen years ago, that was still the time of books and CD-ROMs. We turned a whole industry, a whole learning journey, online. We became the first language-learning app and now there are hundreds. There are several studies showing the efficacy of online learning. And we’re taking the next step and moving from self-study to what we call blended learning, mixing methods. It’s ever evolving.
Is it important that Babbel is a complement to established learning practices, rather than working in opposition?
Absolutely. We have hundreds of live teachers or tutors on the Babbel Live platform. We strongly believe that there’s always a role for the human being to play in the learning journey.
Babbel has made a subscription-based model work consistently. How hard was that?
We’re good at hiding the difficulties. One important part is that the subscription model is attuned to how learners perceive their learning journey. Learners who come to us are motivated. They know that it won’t be a two-week thing. It will take time and they’re going to put effort in. And you need to invest a bit of money. The subscription makes sense because you’ll be partnering with Babbel for the next three, six or 12 months. It’s easier to commit to a longer journey.
What is in the pipeline?
First of all, we need to get the blended learning right and personalise the journey for our learners. That’s definitely task number one. Will we create new language courses over time? Yes. Is it super difficult? Actually, no. For example, we created free courses for Ukrainians who were displaced by the war to learn German, English and Polish. It is a fantastic advantage that technology has over traditional media or anything offline. A teacher can’t multiply but we can multiply across the world, no problem.
To learn more from business owners around the world, listen to Monocle Radio’s weekly programme, ‘The Entrepreneurs’ – and subscribe to the podcast.
In otherwise-frenzied Jakarta, the new headquarters of manufacturing firm Tigermandiri stands in calm contrast to its chaotic surrounds. The serene nine-storey building was designed by architects Laszlo Csutoras and Melissa Liando, the Sydney-based founders of Csutoras and Liando. The multidisciplinary practice’s commercial work demonstrates an acute understanding of the positive effects that a thoughtfully designed workplace has on workers and their wellbeing. “With most of our projects, we design everything from the structure to the interior and the objects,” says Liando. “It becomes a bespoke space that shows the character of its occupants.”
Csutoras and Liando start their workplace designs with the simple step of speaking to the employees. “When we design an office we ask how people go about their day,” says Liando, who uses this information to understand the office’s daily rhythm and functions, and the movement of the staff. “We spend a lot of time thinking about ergonomics,” adds Csutoras. “The little office details, such as the distances between elements and making sure that people don’t bump into each other.”
This perspective is apparent at Tigermandiri’s headquarters. On the first floor, a café provides space for pre-work coffee catch-ups. Upstairs there is a large communal canteen that can be repurposed for company meetings and functions, while the remaining floors are given over to easily reconfigurable office space and meeting rooms that eschew panoptic open-plan spaces. “We tried to vary the intimacy,” says Liando. “It’s great to have large open offices but sometimes you need privacy.” Many of the spaces are finished with terrazzo walls and floors, as well as custom furniture such as desks and canteen tables – all designed by Liando.
For the Tigermandiri project, Csutoras and Liando also considered the external environment’s effects on the workers inside, creating a façade that has terrazzo slabs hanging over the windows. This form provides passive protection from Jakarta’s temperamental sun and rain, while allowing in natural light. The building is freestanding in order to invite more light into the interiors and lessen the office’s ecological footprint by creating room for a garden and ensuring that rainwater can infiltrate and replenish the water table.
“When we design an office we ask how people go about their day”
The result is a structure that has an ageless quality, despite only being finished recently. “We wanted to make something solid, durable, permanent and quite simple in design,” says Csutoras. “This feels like an office building that belongs to Jakarta.” The Tigermandiri employees feel a sense of ownership too. “Once the space was complete, we went to see how it was being used and hear what the people who were working there had to say about their new office,” says Liando. The positive feedback was emphatic. “They told us that they felt proud that they worked here now.”
The much-maligned office-complex concept is being rethought.
There is no less romanticised facility than the business park; it features on few postcards, inspires no songs. It’s no coincidence that one of the biggest TV comedy phenomena of our time is The Office, which depicts business parks as veritable greenhouses of ennui, the will to live of their inmates ebbing beneath the hum and flicker of fluorescent strip-lighting. It does not have to be like this.
“Where ‘business parks’ are concerned, the first word is right but the second word is wrong,” says architect Andrew Mcmullan, founder of London-based Mcmullan Studio. “We didn’t pay enough attention to the spaces between the buildings and they’re just as important.” Mcmullan Studio is working on its vision for a new kind of business park with Hatchery at Preston Farm in rural southeast England. The refurbished dairy farm will be a haven enfolded by rolling green hills but within walking distance of a railway station that’s a 45-minute journey from central London. It will also be integrated into the community rather than merely attached to it. Ramblers will be encouraged to meander through the premises. “Business parks are usually quite intimidating places, especially out of hours,” says Mcmullan. “A farm, by contrast, has a certain higgledy-piggledyness.”
Several broadly similar projects have been steered by international design practice Scott Brownrigg. CEO Darren Comber believes that the thinking on office parks has evolved considerably since the first one was opened at Mountain Brook, Alabama in 1955. “The original attraction was that you could drive to them,” he says. “They were buildings with car parks. At 5 Foundation Park [in Maidenhead, a commuter town west of London], we took the car park to the edges so that the buildings face greenery, not asphalt.”
Comber sees Foundation Park as a model for how the business park can, and should, change with the times. “It’s going to have rooftop spaces, garden areas, cafés, gyms, a pop-up cinema,” he says. “It’s no good having a fabulous building if people don’t want to be there.” Maidenhead is down the road from Slough, the desolate setting for the original iteration of a certain TV show. “The Office,” says Comber, a little defensively, “is about working practices, not the setting.”
The top office chair is undisputed but there are contenders to the throne.
Designers don’t agree on much but prod them on the topic of the best seat for working and the answer is almost always the same: the Soft Pad by Charles and Ray Eames. Funnily enough, this office chair, which is widely regarded as the best in the world (and now made by Vitra for the European market and Herman Miller in the US), was not originally designed for work.
In the late 1950s, the Eames were approached by designer Alexander Girard with a problem: there were no outdoor chairs modern enough for the patio of an Eero Saarinen house that he was decorating. The duo promptly took up the challenge and developed a chair design with a padded fabric that was stretched out over a cast aluminium frame. It was put into production and quickly found far more success as a workplace perch than in its intended patio setting. In 1969, the Soft Pad was launched, a version of the design that features leather cushions, castors and a seat tilting mechanism. In the eyes of many, no better office chair has been made since.
Jochen Eisenbrand, chief curator at Germany’s Vitra Design Museum, agrees. He can see new iterations of the Soft Pad being assembled on his way to the canteen at Vitra’s campus near the Swiss border, and recently got one for his home office. “It’s a very engineered chair but it doesn’t look that way,” he says.
The stretched leather gives slightly, which makes a large difference after sitting on it for eight hours. But while the Eames certainly thought hard about the human body, the Soft Pad came before the whole category of high-tech, adjustable office chairs was born.
“Vitra’s Soft Pad is a very engineered chair but it doesn’t look that way”
“The ones that came later might offer more in terms of ergonomics but they start looking like machines,” says Eisenbrand, emphasising that, despite its age, the Eames’ Soft Pad remains the gold standard. “I don’t see anything revolutionary about new technologies or materials that would legitimise a completely new chair. I just want to sit and that’s it.”
Alternatives to the Soft Pad office chair
The Soft Pad is our pick of the office chairs but those on the hunt for a little variety might want to consider these other designs.
Created in 1976 by British designer Frederick Scott and launched three years later for office-furniture manufacturer Hille, the Supporto has become a classic. Its popularity stems from its ergonomic design and cast aluminium back, which offers sturdy support while still having a striking appearance.
Created by Argentina-born Emilio Ambasz, the Vertebra was designed to respond and adapt to the movements of the user’s body. It was first produced in the 1970s for Italian brand Castelli. Ambasz’s aim was to integrate the human body with the form of the chair.
Designed in 2014 by Germany’s Konstantin Grcic for Vitra, the Allstar strikes a balance between cosiness and corporate chic. Equally suited to a home office or downtown headquarters, its rounded form is a calming presence in fast-paced working environments.
After building boats and creating off-road vehicles, the world of clothing design might seem a more straightforward task. But for Jasper Smith (pictured), founder of British marine adventure company Arksen, both are about facilitating exploration, whether on the high seas or the city streets.
The all-seasons capsule wardrobe, Arksen Labs, consists of quilted jackets, puffers and fleeces made in Portugal and was created with longevity in mind. “I was on a trip to Greenland and saw the ice caps melting at a terrifying speed,” says Smith. “When you’re so close to nature, you need clothes that feel connected to how they are made.”
For Smith, adventuring is close to his heart. As a teenager he sailed a yacht from Sydney to Alaska, while he was born on a boat in London’s Battersea neighbourhood. The Arksen boats that he builds, from the explorer vessel Arksen 85 to the smaller Arksen 28 day boat, are engineered to be robust and to facilitate marine research or the journeys of adventurous sailors. The company’s overland division, meanwhile, customises Land Rovers into the ultimate off-road vehicles for expeditions into the wilderness. This history lends credibility to Arksen Labs.
“Clothing enables you to experience something,” says Smith. “Arksen Labs has been designed to be worn in your everyday, cosmopolitan life, as well as on the top of the mountain or in the Arctic. It’s not high fashion; it’s functional.” The clothes are well-crafted basics that can be layered according to the weather and made using 95 per cent-recycled fabric. The autumn/winter 2023 collection features insulating jackets, waterproof shells for rainy days and puffers made with recycled down. Discreet logos are paired with fabrics in neutral colours that will see the pieces last for decades to come and not feel too “of the moment”.
“There’s joy in starting from scratch, from your own experience,” says Smith. “It’s been incredibly rewarding to create a range that checks all your boxes.” This knack for designing – or improving on – the items that the founder comes into contact with might be the key to navigating between different industries, from boat-building to clothes.
Ultimately, Smith believes that any concept can be tested by a simple question: whether or not an idea can stand on its own, without a charismatic founder or face behind a brand to hold it up. “A strong concept is one that every person on your team can get behind,” he says. “It makes working cohesively together on a common mission or goal a lot easier.”
Japanese audio-equipment specialist Zoom is seeing its sales volume soar.
Shunsuke Kudo, 44, is the model of the modern CEO. His attire is smart casual, while a guitar is propped up against the wall of his Tokyo office and a turntable is on standby to play his favourite ska tracks. Kudo used to be in a band but gave up on dreams of stardom to focus on his day job as an engineer at Zoom (no relation to the video-conferencing app), a Japanese maker of recording devices and music pedals. This year he was put in charge of the company that he joined 21 years ago and is steering it through a period of growth.
While many businesses hung on through the pandemic, Zoom thrived. Its unusually broad appeal is key to its success: podcasters love its user-friendly portable recorders, while film professionals swear by its equipment. When sound engineer Chris Munro needed to capture audio during high-speed car chases and helicopter stunts for 2018’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout, he used Zoom’s F8n field recorder. Few companies try harder to make state-of-the-art technology accessible to everyone.
Zoom was established 40 years ago by a small group who had worked for Korg, the Japanese synthesiser-maker. “The idea was to create something to stimulate the musical instrument industry,” says Kudo. “But they struggled to make money for the first 10 years.” The team struck gold in 1990 with an effects pedal for electric guitars. “It was our Walkman moment – nobody had made a pedal that small before.”
Music is central to the company’s DNA and most of its engineers are musicians. “When we develop a new product, we know what’s needed,” says Kudo. “That experience is important. Science graduates might know all about the technical side but they won’t necessarily have the right spirit.”
Effects pedals continue to be a key part of Zoom’s business but the output has diversified to include a range of recording devices, digital mixers and samplers. The firm is led by its engineers, who make up half the staff of 100 and thrive on solving creative problems. The recording side of the business began in the mid-2000s. “Our idea was to make recorders for musicians but people were attaching our recorders to cameras and using them for film-making so we started adding features that would appeal to that market,” says Kudo. Podcasting has added another dimension. “We talked to podcasters to see what they liked and didn’t like about the equipment,” he adds. “For them speed was important, so we’ve improved the hardware of our portable recorders so that recordings can go straight to a smartphone.”
In the in-house studio, engineers work to replicate digitally the sound of benchmark amps. “When we’re testing our guitar pedals, we rent vintage amps to compare the sound,” says Kudo. A Roland Jazz Chorus 120, a classic amp from 1975, sits on one side. “When I joined it was hard to reproduce that vintage sound, but processors are more powerful now. We can emulate sounds very precisely.” The old amps are still the holy grail but digital is getting closer.
“When I joined it was hard to reproduce that vintage sound but processors are more powerful now”
Zoom had sales of ¥13bn (€83m) in 2022 and is looking to hit ¥18bn (€115m). Its core products include the H4N four-track recorder (nearly one million sold) and the H1N handy recorder (nearly two million). “When we launched our ¥14,000 (€89) recorder, it was a game-changer. Many small production companies and schools started buying them.”
While Zoom’s business is well established in Japan, Europe and the US, Kudo (pictured) sees room for growth in China and Southeast Asia. He also knows he must persuade some audiophiles that high-quality equipment doesn’t have to be expensive. “Once they try the products, they get it.”
Kudo understands that Zoom needs to cut through the technical jargon to reach a bigger market. “Our strength is offering professional sound at an affordable price,” he says. “And also making our equipment simple. It’s easier to assemble in the factory and very easy to use.”
Alan Fuerstman on why collaboration is important in leadership.
founder, chairman and ceo
Alan Fuerstman has come a long way from his student days when he worked part-time as a doorman at a New Jersey Marriott. When Monocle meets him, he’s in the sun-drenched lobby of one of his own hotels, Montage Laguna Beach. Now CEO of Montage International, he is as convivial and down-to-earth as he presumably was all those years ago in his first job in the business.
“I never planned to get into it,” says Fuerstman. “I was a political science major.” But the hotel industry soon got under his skin. “I got hooked along the way because it is about people, it’s always changing and it’s dynamic. I’ve never tired of it.”
Fuerstman applied many of those foundational lessons in hospitality from his days as a doorman when he was starting his own company. Today Montage International encompasses several brands, including Montage and Pendry that has a $5.5bn (€5.2bn) portfolio of luxury residential properties. The latest of these is Pendry Newport Beach, a members’ club and hotel in Orange County, California.
As well as being a successful hotelier, Fuerstman is a married father of four. He co-founded Pendry with his eldest son, Michael, who uncovered a slightly more youthful take on luxury than his father’s Montage brand. “Some of the best input comes from my family,” says Fuerstman. “It’s all very intergenerational now, so everyone brings ideas and opinions. That has helped us to evolve.”
When are you at your desk?
I don’t have a desk. I have a more informal dining-room table that acts like a desk, but mostly I work from anywhere and everywhere. Usually, I’ve read my emails by 06.00.
What’s the best way to prepare for leadership: with an mba or on the job?
I’m an advocate of a good liberal arts education. It will instil the ability to express oneself, write clearly and have a natural curiosity. Those skills are a good background for our industry. The rest can be taught on the job.
Do you prefer to be liked or respected?
To be liked and not respected would mean poor leadership, so I’d say respected, but there is no reason that you cannot be both.
Are decisions better taken by one person?
Collaboration is important in leadership. Seek out the resources of people who add tremendous value to the decision-making process.
How would you describe your management style?
I don’t like to micromanage. I allocate my time to the things where I can add value. Part of my job is to motivate my employees to be on the highest level. So, if we drop the ball, I don’t rest until I know that the situation has been resolved. After looking into it, I’m comfortable letting our professionals handle it.
What does your support team look like?
I look for complementary skill sets. I don’t want people who are clones of each other; I want people who challenge the status quo. You can accomplish a lot more when you have the right combination of people. We work with some of the best and brightest in the industry – and they are original thinkers too.
“I don’t want people who are clones of each other. I want people who challenge the status quo”
What technology do you carry on a trip?
I use an iPad with a keyboard. It does everything that I need.
Do you read management books?
I’m not a not a voracious reader of management books but two that have stayed in my mind are Jim Collins’s Good to Great and Stephen R Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Do you socialise with your team after work?
We spend time together, yes. If socialising implies drinking then not so much, but we’ll have dinners occasionally.
A whippet writes...
Every day starts off the same: the faffing, the outfit changing, the rushed slurping of coffee. I wonder why humans can’t focus their time and energy on growing a fur coat that will see them through rain, shine or snow the way that mine does. I’ve tried to calculate how much time could be saved if it weren’t for this reliance on showering and getting dressed every morning.
At the office I greet my 50 closest friends, who are always delighted to see me. Sometimes, it can be exhausting to consistently put my best paw forward for my legions of adoring fans but I would be nowhere without them. Besides, some studies show that pet-friendly workplaces have a general mood-enhancing effect.
Some weeks the office politics and gossip are more exciting than others and if there is one piece of advice that I have for humankind is that having a very short memory does wonders for letting go of grudges.
Modernity has also forced upon us a particularly sedentary lifestyle that must be energetically resisted. I never have lunch at my desk and make a ritual of stepping out. I recommend taking your human for a walk at least three times a day to keep them active. Stretching the legs is good for productivity – and to be honest, I often need to relieve myself and the occasional carpet mishap is not lightly forgiven.
Lastly, as an office dog, I have my heroes. Bo and Sunny, the presidential pets of the Obama family, did a sterling job of uplifting the national mood in the US throughout their tenure in The White House. The next inhabitant, Donald Trump, raised eyebrows as the first US president in a century without a pet (not even a cat, rabbit or parakeet). Alexander the Great, who showed entrepreneurial spirit in spades, even named a city in India after his beloved dog, Peritas, a steadfast companion on his military exploits. Even the greatest leaders need to be buoyed by some unconditional love sometimes.
Go Lucky’s Thierry Chow on achieving office feng shui.
As the daughter of one of Hong Kong’s renowned feng shui masters, Thierry Chow grew up seeing how ingrained the practice was in daily life; no company opens a new office in the city without consulting a feng-shui expert first. After studying illustration at university, Chow founded feng-shui consultancy Go Lucky, combining tradition with modern design principles and using more accessible language to appeal to younger customers. Here, she highlights five ways to spruce up the workplace with some help from the ancient Chinese tradition.
1. The concept
Feng shui is all about understanding your environment. Be it nature, your home, your office space – it’s simply knowing that your environment can affect you. Sometimes you’re in a place and you really don’t want to stay for long – that’s when you know something needs to change.
Sit in an area with enough sunlight but not too much. Ensure that your desk isn’t facing a door with people walking past all the time. Open-concept offices are great but you still need to think of individual privacy. If it is like a maze, with too many doors and hallways, then you will feel like you’re in The Shining.
You want your office space to be warm and bright. If it’s too white, it’s not good because that represents the moonlight; if it’s too warm, it’s the sunlight, which you can also have too much of. We recommend warmer colours because that’s the energy of fire – and it gives you a little bit of life energy.
4. Interior decoration
Be careful to not keep anything with a hidden message in the office, such as books that talk about something negative. Beware of mirrors; they multiply whatever they reflect. A mirror might face a window and reflect a hospital or cemetery outside, bringing that into the space. Windows are very important. In Hong Kong, they put bars on windows and it can make you feel very claustrophobic.
5. The five elements
The equilibrium of the five elements [of Chinese medicine: wood, fire, earth, metal and water] is important. In office terms, fire is the lighting and things that exude energy. Plants are the wood element, so make sure you have plants. Earth is things like ceramics, soil and crystals. For water, the most popular office feature is a fish tank, because water contains life energy. Get goldfish because of the colour; they resemble money.