On a fateful day in 2012, Columbia native and A.C. Flora graduate Ben Ross and business partner Jeff Plotner walked into Brittons on Devine Street to introduce Perry Lancaster to their new company, Brackish, and its innovative line of men’s bow ties fashioned from feathers. The long-time retail pro was quick to get on board. “It was the most unusual accessory item I’d ever seen, so I bought a few,” he says. “They sold immediately.”
For Ben and Jeff, that moment, their first sale to a brick-and-mortal retail outlet, was a validation that Ben’s idea to upgrade black tie wear with feathered bow ties was a good one. “Other retailers had literally laughed at us when we presented our ties to them and told us they’d never catch on,” he says. “Perry’s decision to carry our ties changed everything. We suddenly had credibility. Now we’re selling in 593 retailers worldwide.”
Perry wasn’t Brackish’s only early adopter. Actor Bill Murray wore Brackish bow ties to two movie premiers as well as to the 2014 Emmy Awards, where, as a presenter, his peacock feather bow tie was such a hit that GQ Magazine called it a “red carpet finishing touch that worked.”
The short version of Brackish’s origin story reads almost like a retail fairy tale. Ben crafted his first feather bow ties in 2007 as heartfelt gifts for his groomsmen. Four years later, one of those groomsmen, Jeff Plotner, suggested that others might like to wear the ties, and Brackish was born. The long story, though, is one of friendship, craft, love of nature, creativity, and, above all, determination.
Brackish’s roots go all the way to Ben’s childhood, when he found himself fascinated by the feathers he collected while spending time outside with his father. He was so captivated that by the time he turned 10, he had started tying his own flyfishing flies. “They weren’t very good, but they’d catch a bass or a bream,” he says with a laugh. “I really enjoyed it.” A few years later, Ben met archery legend Owen Jeffery and began fletching arrows for bow hunting and target practice.
At some point after college while searching for a perfect groomsman’s gift, while working with a turkey body feather, Ben recalls noticing that the silhouette of the feather perfectly matched that of a bow tie. “Its natural shape, conformation, and edge lines tapered perfectly to the center knot,” he says. “I enjoy not blending in, and I like to make a statement, so it occurred to me that a bow tie made from feathers would make the perfect gift and that every time they wore it, they would remember how much I love them and how much they mean to me.”
Ben credits his mother for giving him not only his keen eye for design but also the patience to spend hours working feathers into wearable works of art. “She taught me to find beauty in the details,” Ben says. “When we arranged flowers, she’d say that every arrangement needed a thriller, a filler, and a spiller. I took that same philosophy to the bow ties, orienting and layering them so that their beauty and iridescence could shine through.”
It didn’t take long before Ben had begun to use different feathers to create bow tie-shaped mosaics, and when he saw one he liked to work them into a tie. “For the next three or four years, I made a few ties here and there for friends,” he says. “I sometimes would give them a coordinating hat pin as well. I actually made the hat pins first but realized that they’d probably only be worn as part of a black-tie outfit, whereas bow ties were more flexible. They looked as good with a blazer and jeans as with a tuxedo.”
Jeff was the one who saw the ties’ potential. “He told me that every time he wore the bow tie I’d made him, people would stop him and ask him where he’d gotten it,” says Ben. “He was so sure about the potential success of the ties that he quit law school to follow this idea.”
Ben says that from the very beginning, their company and what it created had meaning. “We didn’t want to just make things to sell. We wanted to have a purpose.” To that end, Ben and Jeff named their company Brackish because it represented each of them. “I’m from Columbia, which is inland with fresh water; Jeff is from coastal Georgia, which has salt water,” says Ben. “Fresh and salt water together is called brackish. It fit.”
According to Ben, the first thing Jeff did after the two formalized their partnership was to convince him to stop giving away the hat pins. “He said, ‘Ben, that’s our second product,’” says Ben with a laugh. “He realized they could be lapel pins that people could wear instead of boutonnieres. I hadn’t thought about it that way. His mind works differently from mine. He has a vision of what we can be.”
One example is the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, which attracts thousands of outdoor enthusiasts to Charleston each year for three days of seminars, demonstrations, and shopping. “Jeff knew we had to be there and that we had to have a great showing, with five or six fantastic designs on hand,” says Ben. “It was a lot of work, but it made the impression that we needed.”
Soon after SEWE and the Bill Murray endorsement, Ben says that Brackish really began to take off. “Stylists began to call, and soon other celebrities — including Blake Lively, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Ted Danson — had been photographed wearing our ties. It was mind blowing. They could have worn ties made by any designer in the world, and they chose ours.”
As Jeff continued to expand distribution, Ben came up with new products, including pocket squares, which launched in 2016, and three years later a women’s line of products, which Ben says saved the company during COVID-19. “No one was going out, so no one needed black-tie accessories, but women still wanted to wear jewelry,” he says. “Those sales kept us afloat during the pandemic.” And where the company could have laid off those idle staff members who had nothing to sew during the height of the pandemic, Brackish redeployed them from sewing feathers to stitching masks for first responders. They made and distributed so many that the company was honored by the President in a Rose Garden ceremony in September of 2020.
Though Brackish’s early products were made with only natural feathers, Ben says that the decision to add dyed feathers to their lineup allowed them expand the color possibilities for the women’s line and also launch the collegiate collection, which features ties, earrings, pins, and cufflinks in hues that celebrate specific schools. “Mother Nature has an incredible paintbrush, which you can see in the gorgeous colors in peacock, guinea, quail, and other feathers,” says Ben. “But for the collegiate line, we needed specific shades, so we made the decision to use dyed feathers.”
Regardless of whether the feathers will be dyed or used in their natural state, all are acquired in a humane fashion, either from free-range birds being used for food or from birds that have dropped feathers naturally through the process of molt. In fact, as Ben explains, since mistreating birds creates imperfections in the feathers, it pays for farmers to raise their birds in comfortable, uncrowded environments. “Farmers were shocked at first that we wanted to purchase something that they’d been throwing away,” says Ben. “But they got on board pretty quickly when they realized it was a new revenue stream.”
Once the feathers have been obtained, they’re sorted and catalogued. When it’s time to create a product, feathers are hand-trimmed then layered on a base to form a pattern that’s both beautiful and durable. In all, each piece takes eight people between four and five hours to produce.
Ben says that while he and Jeff run the company, he credits the employee team for Brackish’s success. “I don’t think we could have launched Brackish in any state other than South Carolina,” he says. “This state is full of amazingly talented individuals whom I am honored to work alongside, and with Jeff’s incredible eye for talent, we’ve found the best of the best for Brackish. Their ideas are amazing, and their workmanship and work ethic are second to none.”
He says that the pocket squares are a great example of the team’s innovative spirit. “On the early prototype version of the pocket square, I attached the feathers to a piece of plastic that was firm enough to support the feathers but pliable enough that it could be trimmed to fit any pocket,” Ben says. “The team improved it by replacing the plastic with stiff fabric that could be folded instead of needing to be trimmed. It made the product so much more useful because it now fit into more than one jacket.”
Next up in the product line will be new earrings and bracelets, as well as belts, hats, and purses. “We do realize that a person only needs a certain number of bow ties,” Ben says with a laugh. “So we’re expanding the product line. We might even create items for the home.” To keep track of his ideas, Ben keeps a notebook with him at all times. In it are thousands of notes, sketches, and fully fleshed-out ideas for everything from a feather chandelier to lampshades covered in stunning feathers. “You never know what will inspire you,” he says. “I get so many ideas that I find I have to pump the brakes sometimes. I guess it all comes down to the fact that I never get tired of looking at feathers. People often ask me what’s next for Brackish. I always tell them to stay tuned because we deal in feathers and the sky isn’t the limit; it’s where we soar.”