By Tim Newcomb
On the 25th anniversary of the stadium named in the legend’s honor, a new brand from from Rowing Blazers founder Jack Carlson and Kith alum Karl-Raphael Blanchard celebrates athlete and icon Arthur Ashe
Tennis legend Arthur Ashe has a story worth remembering and a legacy worth celebrating far beyond the world’s largest tennis stadium that bears his name. A new brand aims to do just that.
Ashe, the three-time major winner in the 1960s and 1970s, was the first Black man to represent the United States at the Davis Cup when he did so in 1963 and then went on to become the first Black man to win the US Open (1968), the Australian Open (1970), and Wimbledon (1975). He was also the first Black man to play in apartheid-era South Africa, in 1973. During and following his inspiring tennis career he proved a passionate activist, scholar, and health-related advocate before passing away in 1993.
Now a new tennis lifestyle and apparel brand, aptly named Arthur Ashe, gives a fresh voice to Ashe’s achievements and causes.
“Arthur Ashe is, to me, one of the greatest American athletes of the 20th century,” says Jack Carlson, the founder of Rowing Blazers and creative director of the Arthur Ashe brand, “not just for his success in tennis, and his success was obviously very formidable, but he probably sits alongside Muhammad Ali as one of the most significant athletes in terms of using their platform to stand up for and speak about other matters.”
Ashe’s unique place in American sports history deserves a larger platform. Tennis lifestyle brands from other countries come dedicated to the legacies of players, from the chic Rene Lacoste of France to the crisp Fred Perry in Great Britain. “We don’t have an American equivalent of that, and who is better, for the United States and for the 21st century, than Arthur Ashe?” says Carlson. “No one, to my mind. Arthur has aspects to his life and career that make this particularly special.”
Fittingly, the Arthur Ashe brand launches in conjunction with the start of the 2022 US Open, as the tournament celebrates the 25th anniversary of the stadium named in his honor.
The collection isn’t a one-off event. When Carlson was approached by Ashe’s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, and Ashe’s former teammate, close friend and legendary agent Donald Dell, about the concept, it was a simple answer for Carlson.
“I’ve been a fan of Arthur Ashe for a very long time,” he says. “Beyond his tennis and his activism, Ashe also had an incredible sense of style. This is something I’ve been passionate about for a long time, and it is not something that just kind of came out of nowhere or I was contracted to do. I am working on it because I have been a student of Arthur Ashe and his legacy and style for a while, and this is something I want to see exist in the world.”
The initial collection—much of it inspired by the red, white, and navy he wore as a player, and later captain, of the U.S. Davis Cup team, as well as the black, green, and gold of the Nelson Mandela-led ANC party in South Africa—kicks off a brand that has a focus on both tennis style and philanthropy.
Portions of the proceeds from sales will support not only the Ashe estate but also two key organizations, the Arthur Ashe Legacy Fund at UCLA, which seeks to amplify Ashe’s commitment to social, political, and health-related causes, and the Social Change Fund United, started by NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade to support critical issues impacting the Black community.
The new brand launches with a pop-up shop on Rivington Street in New York City from Aug. 26 through Sept. 4, and the brand has partnered with the Arthur Ashe Legacy Fund to remake the fund’s booth inside the grounds at the US Open.
“The whole look is going to be brand-new, and our merchandise will have a presence there,” says Karl-Raphael Blanchard, Arthur Ashe brand director. “We want to keep that momentum going and have a presence at the Open [in the future], honoring Arthur Ashe.”
Carlson says he used historical research to study Ashe’s style, which evolved from a preppy, clean-cut look into something a little flashier and “a little more ’70s.” Ashe himself was a fan of style, so Carlson is excited to explore not only the eras of Ashe, but the man’s personal evolution and interests. However, this won’t be just a remaking of what Ashe once wore.
“We wanted this to be a little more robust, a little more relevant and substantive than that,” Carlson says. “There are certainly key pieces he has worn in his career we need to riff on, but the point of the brand is to create something for today that plays upon Arthur’s sense of style and adapt it to the present day.” Expect to see a mix of everything from the tennis polo to the tracksuit. And Jeanne has approved the direction and design along the way.
Inspired by the Ashe quote “Clothes and manners do not make the man; but when he is made, they greatly improve his appearance,” Carlson says the fact that Ashe was a clotheshorse but understood that style was not the be-all and end-all allows for exploration.
As the team crafts new collections for 2023 and beyond, the sources of inspiration remain strong, whether it’s the blue and gold of UCLA, the purple and green of Wimbledon, the ANC or Davis Cup colors, or even camouflage to highlight his role as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and head coach of the West Point tennis team. And they’ll pop out surprises, too, such as bright orange pieces inspired by an Ashe-adorned Wheaties box.
Blanchard says the legacy brand hopes to be timeless while pushing the boundaries of what it means to be in our time now. Yes, they want classic heritage pieces, but they also want to adopt a streetwear mentality that embraces collaborations and drops with unexpected twists. “Arthur Ashe stands for more than a player,” Blanchard says. “He was in the community as an educator, a leader. Having a role model like that and having his name be a household name everywhere is exactly what we need.”
Using this love of style and creation of a modern interpretation, Carlson believes Arthur Ashe, the brand, can not only honor and celebrate Ashe’s legacy but also bring the man to new generations. “There is a side of the brand that is clothes and fashion inspired by Arthur Ashe’s incredible sense of style,” Carlson says. “There is a substantive side of the brand as well that is telling the story of who Arthur Ashe was and bringing that to a new generation. The opportunity to use the brand as a platform to bring his story to a new group of people is very special.”
*In partnership with Arthur Ashe
Tim Newcomb covers sneakers, gear, and stadiums from the Pacific Northwest, where he has written regularly for Sports Illustrated, Time, Popular Mechanics, Wired, and more.