Collier & Robinson: Adding to Henley’s Splendour

For the last 15 years, rowing club blazers have been made in the town that is rowing’s spiritual home.

13 April 2017

Tim Koch has been discovering more about his club blazer:

When hay-scented meadows with oarsmen are crowded –
Whose bright tinted blazers gay toilettes outvie –
When sunshine is hot and the sky is unclouded,
O, Henley is splendid in lovely July!

Joseph Ashby-Sherry, Henley in July (1884).

During the 30 years that I have been visiting the world’s most famous rowing regatta, it has undoubtedly always been splendid in July (and June), even during those English summers when the sunshine and the sky refused to contribute much to the fun. However, in the last 15 years the splendour of scene in Henley Royal Regatta’s Stewards’ Enclosure has become increasingly colourful and even more gay (in the 1884 sense). Credit for this can largely go to a company located a few minutes walk from Stewards’, Collier & Robinson (C&R). In 2002, it started to design and produce ‘bright tinted blazers’ in the town whose annual regatta had become the last outpost for the wearing of the ‘club boating jacket’ en masse. C&R’s success since then has resulted in the ubiquitous blue blazer losing its dominance at Henley, withering against the increasing onslaught of the colourful club blazer.

Some of these club specific garments are thoughtfully tasteful and conservative, perhaps inspired by history and tradition, while some are deliberately tasteless and clashing, seemingly inspired by the interbreeding of a rather louche parrot and a particularly vulgar peacock. Initially, this meant that the Henley male could bear more colourful plumage than the female of the species, but this is no longer the case as nowadays increasing numbers of Collier & Robinson’s customers are women.

An example of one of the more deliberately tasteless designs that Collier & Robinson have been asked to produce. Rowing photographer, Hamish Roots, models the so-called ‘Royal Zambezi Sculling Club’ blazer, which is available to anyone who has rowed at least 100km on the Zambezi.
At the opposite end of the taste spectrum, Hear The Boat Sing’s editor-in-chief, Göran R Buckhorn, at home in Connecticut, wearing one of the lovely blazers that C&R made for Malmö Rowing Club in his native Sweden.

Until fairly recently, the rowing blazer was predominantly worn by those from the older universities, some private schools and a few Grand Old Clubs. Now, it may be the case that any rowing club that does not have its own blazer design is the exception. As an article by Graham Downing in The Field put it:

White, piped, striped or downright dazzling, the rowing blazer speaks of loyalty to one’s crew or club, to the history and traditions of the sport and of warm days glimpsed through a Pimm’s-induced haze while one cheers the efforts of the competing crews…

Although later adopted as a uniform dress item for schools and for clubs from many different sports, the blazer’s origins are with rowing. In modern times, we are used to seeing athletic clothing adopted for everyday use (often by the most unathletic of people) but it is rowing that provides two of the earliest examples of sportswear influencing mainstream fashion. HTBS has previously written about how the early coarse woollen versions of ‘sweatpants’ that were invented by rowers influenced the tailoring of men’s trousers for many years. Further, there are now two incarnations of the flannel ‘boating coats’ or ‘rowing jackets’ in distinctive club designs that amateur oarsmen wore in the early 19th century as a way of keeping warm while on the water but soon adopted as a ‘leisure garment’ to wear on land. There is the tailored classic blue blazer used for a wide range of semi-formal, academic and commercial activities, and there is the unstructured coloured ‘club blazer’ with contrasting trim and embroidered insignia, no longer worn afloat but donned for rowing related social and sporting occasions.

Taurus Boat Club, here having won Henley’s Britannia Challenge Cup in 2013, celebrate wearing more C&R creations. On the right is their coxswain, Jack Carlson, author of “Rowing Blazers”, a wonderful book of photographs of the eponymous garments in which 136 of the club blazers pictured are from Collier and Robinson.

As to the name, ‘blazer’, Jack Carlson’s research found that:

It was one (club’s) brightly coloured (jackets) that introduced the word ‘blazer’ into the English vocabulary: the vivid scarlet boating coats of Lady Margaret Boat Club at St John’s College, Cambridge, were nicknamed ‘blazers’ on account of their blazing red hue. The first-known use of the word to refer to an article of clothing appears in the ‘Cambridge University General Almanack and Register’ for 1852….. These descriptions generally refer to boating jackets as flannel ‘coats’ or ‘over-jerseys’, except for Lady Margaret’s which is described as a red ‘blazer’….. It was not until the 1870 edition that the Almanack and Register began to refer to other colleges’ boating coats as blazers…. By the 1880s…. the term entered the mainstream lexicon but gradually lost its specific association with the sport of rowing.

Symbolically, since the start of 2016, Collier & Robinson have made the ‘blazing blazers’ for Lady Margaret Boat Club.

A four from New College, Oxford, 1860. A wonderful example of early boating jackets. They are buttoned to the neck or worn with high waistcoats (US: vests) because shirt fronts were regarded as underwear and were not to be exposed in public, whatever the temperature. From the Thomas E. Weil Collection, River and Rowing Museum.

As someone interested in both rowing history and men’s classic clothing, it was with great excitement that I went to Collier & Robinson’s design studio and workshop off Greys Road, Henley, to speak to Creative Director, co-founder and driving force, Kristie Shemilt. She met Mark, the man who was to become her husband, at Henley Regatta in 2000. Mark is Henley born and bred and has many friends in the rowing community. He had the idea that rowing blazers should be made in the town whose name is synonymous with the sport, while Kristie had a background of both business management and fashion designing and pattern making. It was clearly a match made in Heaven – and in Henley.

Kristie Shemilt, hard at work in a corner of the C&R workshop.

I began by asking Kristie if she felt proud when she surveyed the crowds at Henley Regatta and saw so many of her products. ‘Of course,’ she replied, ‘we feel very fortunate to be able to carry on a tradition and make the blazers only a few hundred yards down the road’. Kristie is also keen to emphasise that all the fabric used is from mills in Yorkshire. The designs on the cloth, the lining and the edging are woven and not printed (the latter is an inferior method which would probably have to be done abroad) and all the blazers are custom-made from scratch. C&R encourages prospective customers to contact them in plenty of time, but every year the optimistic and the disorganised, having viewed the many possible styling options on Collier’s website, phone up a week before Henley with their orders, clearly oblivious to the fact that each blazer takes five hours to make and most of the material has to be especially woven.

Some dazzling material is laid out for cutting.

C&R now has more than 300 clubs on its books and Kristie is naturally delighted that demand seems to increase year-on-year. Some of it is fuelled by orders from non-rowing groups and clubs and some is the result of increasing business from abroad, notably American colleges and clubs including Princeton, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Stanford, California Rowing Club, St Paul’s School and Phillips Academy Andover. Other foreign orders have come from Hong Kong, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands.

I wondered if Jack’s book (to which C&R gave a lot of help) had been good for business and Kristie agreed that it certainly lifted the profile of the club blazer and made it more fashionable, particularly among the young.

Jo, C&R’s production manager, with a woven ‘tiger print’ material for the Nottingham University Alumni blazer lining.

Kristie holds that part of Collier and Robinson’s success is due to the fact that they respond to customer demands. As an example, nowadays about 40 per cent of the blazers they produce are for women and it was found that many want the more feminine, short, tailored ‘bolero’ style jacket, not the traditional ‘boxy’ men’s blazer. The exceptions to this are some female umpires who found the longer, less fitted jackets better for standing in a launch and waving flags. Similarly, the committee members of Henley Women’s Regatta generally wanted their newly designed short blazer to be a loose cut, making it comfortable for sitting in while doing administrative tasks. However, it is not only women who want something different from the traditional. C&R have responded to a demand from some young men who want their blazer made following the current fashion of slim cut and short fitting jackets.

Seamstress, Marzena, with some of the bolts of cloth that she has to turn into blazers.

I was curious if C&R blazers were tailored to compensate for the fact that rowers can be odd shapes, overdeveloped in places and often lopsided. Kristie said that in the early days she did, for example, try to build up a shoulder pad for someone who had rowed on one side for too long but found that this created more problems than it was worth, spoiling the look of the garment. On the subject of size, a coxswain and a heavyweight are usually charged the same – but there is a surcharge for chests over 48 inches.

Collier and Robinson’s workshop walls are hung with the tools of the trade – and some nice pieces of rowing history.

When asked about her favourite blazer design, Kristie was reluctant to commit to naming one, but eventually confessed a surprising liking for the all brown of Rhode Island’s Brown University. More traditionally, she admires the classic design for Marlow Rowing Club, cream with cardinal (deep red) trim and gold wire crest. As to the bright orange of Lea Rowing Club, Kristie says that it is ‘something that everyone has their own opinion on…’ 

The Marlow Rowing Club blazer, one of Kristie’s favourites, as modelled by their 2013 Fawley Challenge Cup winners.

To conclude, I asked a topical question, would Collier & Robinson ever cut costs by moving production abroad? Kristie was emphatic:

No, no…. I like to be in control and see what’s going on and make sure that I’m happy with it…. that the fabric is right…. if it’s woven in Indonesia and then sent to Thailand to be made up, you don’t see it until it’s finished….. Here, people can come in for a fitting or adjustments… You have to be a perfectionist for something like this… you have to keep on top of quality and, if it’s done overseas, how can you manage that……? We enjoy what we do, we must, because it’s labour intensive and you have to get things right.

Kristie casts a critical eye over a completed Thames Rowing Club blazer.

A television news report on C&R can be viewed on YouTube as can a great piece on Jack’s bookCollier & Robinson can be contacted on +44 (0)1491 413939 or via www.collierandrobinson.co.uk  Remember, it is less than twelve weeks to Henley!

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