Prep is dead; long live prep. Prep is back. Prep never left. Prep is evolving, and by the way, you shouldn’t call it “prep” anymore. Or, anyway, so says the dozens of writers and influencers captivated by the rise of the “old-money aesthetic”; the TikTokers documenting their “dark academia”-inspired wardrobes; the runways once again filled with plaid and corduroy and classic tailoring; and finally Jack Carlson, co-founder of popular prep-meets-streetwear brand Rowing Blazers, on the brink of dropping its latest collaboration with Target, which launches on September 23.
The Target of it all is the sticking point: a supposedly “preppy” brand—inspired in part by the uber-aspirational culture of professional rowers (hello, Winklevoss twins)—is partnering with a mass-market retailer keen on delivering designer brands to the broadest possible audience. It’s a concept that goes against the hierarchical ethos of prep, or what writer Maggie Bullock calls the “leisure uniform of the establishment” in her book The Kingdom of Prep: The Inside Story of the Rise and (Near) Fall of J. Crew. As New Yorker writer Hua Hsu writes in his fantastic analysis of the book, “What’s complicated about the mass-marketing of social aspiration, though, is that it’s more about belonging to a group than about standing out as an individual.”
Here, then, is where Rowing Blazers has triumphed at toeing the line. The company operates as its own sort of insider club, dropping frequent collaborations (with a fascinating range of brands such as Gucci, Seiko, Hunter, Winnie the Pooh, and Babar the Elephant) that its ardent fans gobble up; those same fans are then encouraged to take the clothes home and remix them. That’s a streetwear sensibility, and one that has served Rowing Blazers well.
“I think so many brands aim to be exclusive, or they have such strict brand guidelines that ‘This is what we do and this is what fits in and this is what doesn’t,’” Carlson tells me. “They end up—for obvious reasons, and maybe that’s what they want—alienating most people, basically.” He continues, “With Rowing Blazers, it’s been a very different process…and because we have all of these eclectic references and we haven’t had, frankly, ‘These are the strict guidelines of what we do and what we don’t do,’ it’s created a real community. So many brands will say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re like a community.’ I think at Rowing Blazers, it’s real.”
The Target drop, which features more than 100 pieces across multiple categories, including kids’ and pets’, comes at a zeitgeist-y moment in Rowing Blazers’ already zeitgeist-y rise. Mass culture is saturated with prep influences: Popular series like Gossip Girl, Elite, Wednesday, Young Royals, Succession, and The Crown—each only the latest in a long Hollywood history of prep-inspired projects—are embedding themselves in our wardrobes, changing our vocabulary (“quiet luxury” trended for weeks with the release of Succession’s third season), and repositioning our tastes.
Rowing Blazers has had the good fortune of inadvertently releasing the right products at the right time, as Carlson’s happy to acknowledge. The brand dropped its now-infamous Princess Diana black sheep sweater in 2020, capitalizing on a nascent idolization buoyed by phenomena such as The Crown, Spencer, and Hailey Bieber’s Diana-inspired photograph collection for Vogue. And only days after Pete Davidson shot a campaign with Rowing Blazers in October 2021, his relationship with Kim Kardashian went public—bolstering both his own status and the brand’s.
Two years later, Rowing Blazers is, “somehow,” Carlson says, “part of the zeitgeist. I’d like to think, on some level, we’re helping to create it a little bit, too.” That’s the aim of the new Target collection, part of Target’s now hugely successful ongoing designer collaborative. The drop includes the all-important double-breasted blazers; traditional striped rugby polos; collared shirts and fleeces and accessories adorned with the Rowing Blazers rose motif; plaid trousers and mini skirts; customizable crewneck sweatshirts; bright outerwear in yellows and oranges; and dozens of other signature products. The best part: Most items will remain under $30, “a much more accessible price point than Rowing Blazers would normally be able to hit,” Carlson says, and sizes will run from XXS to 5X.
Available later this month on Target.com and in select Target stores, the capsule represents the culmination of Carlson’s long mission to redefine “prep,” beginning when he was himself a championship rower. “I remember I would see ads for other brands when I was in high school or in college,” he tells me. “And the ad is these eight white guys with perfect hair and perfect jawlines in this rowing boat wearing suits with the perfect tie that’s puffing out just so. And I always found that to be very off-putting and just kind of cringe-worthy, for lack of a better way of putting it. But I liked the clothes.”
As he continues, he refers to the Rowing Blazers style as “American collegiate,” not “prep.” Either way, he’s eager to emphasize this “sort of aesthetic has been due for a renaissance for a while,” and he’s happy it’s getting one. “I think we’ve been part of that at Rowing Blazers, but this [Target collection] will take it just to another level.”
This post will be updated.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture writer at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE.