By AnnaMarie Koehler-Shepley
As someone who likes to put meaning behind everything he does, Ben Ross was stumped trying to think of meaningful groomsmen gifts for his wedding. As a kid he spent much of his time outdoors, so he knew that he wanted to incorporate an element of nature into the wedding ceremony.
“I’d worked with feathers since I was about eight or nine years old, tying flies and fletching arrows, so I always gravitated back towards feathers as a medium to use,” Ross said. “I just wasn’t sure how.”
One day at his kitchen table, Ross had a bowtie lying around and right next to it, a turkey body feather. The shape, size and tapering of the feather matched the bowtie almost perfectly.
“When I laid the feather down on the bowtie, that was sort of the light bulb moment,” Ross said.
All of Ross’s groomsmen donned the special bowties at his wedding, and a tradition was born.
“The original idea started because I wanted to give a special group of friends a gift that showed them how much they meant to me,” Ross said. “I did that 10 years ago this November coming up, and about five years ago, Jeff and I were sitting around talking and he was like, ‘You know, I think that there’s something special there.’ “
Jeff Plotner, Ross’s college best friend and one of his groomsmen, added his entrepreneurial vision to Ross’s original idea, and together the duo co-founded Brackish. The company’s specialty is hand crafted feather bowties, though it has since expanded to include cufflinks, cummerbunds, and other unique accessories.
“We just started with the idea,” Plotner said. “They were such a conversation starter.”
To get things started, they kicked off with an online 48-hour flash sale to assess the demand for a product like this. The results were overwhelming: 300 bowtie orders in just two days and only a week to fulfill them.
“We weren’t exactly sure how we were going to do that. We had to literally work around the clock,” Plotner said, remembering how they branded boxes on their stovetops with feathers piling all around.
After weeks of making it work from their apartments, a friend offered up his bonus room above the garage (complete with a drum kit) as an upgraded workspace. A few months later, Brackish got its own fulfillment center.
Today, with more than 10,000 square feet of production space, orders piling in, and even some famous clients, you could say that the company has more than overcome this initial challenge.
Among its famous clients are NFL quarterback Cam Newton and actor Bill Murray, who first sported one of the unique bowties at the Oscars and has been wearing them at various occasions since.
“Every time that happens we get surprised,” Plotner said. “It’s really exciting.”
While celebrity appeal is good for business, Ross says that one of his favorite things about the bowties is that they’re made for everyone.
“I think they speak to anyone and everyone,” Ross said. “There’s no one person this is pigeonholed for; it’s all about family friends and a love of the beauty that surrounds us everyday.”
The feathers they use are sourced from free-range farms all over the country, but the bowties themselves are handcrafted in Charleston by a team of about 20 different artisans. Each bowtie takes around four hours to make from start to finish, and they run from about $165 to $275.
“We take a lot of pride in making everything in Charleston. There’s so much originality and character, and it really speaks to how we look at our product: traditional with a modern twist,” Plotner said. “We see Charleston like that as well.”
And while the pair was tight-lipped about exact revenue numbers, they’ve done well enough to give back. Over the last five years, Ross said that they’ve donated more than $50,000 to conservation and protection efforts, schools, research institutions and health care.
“We’re honored to have the ability to do these things,” Ross said.
That’s only one of the perks of the job. The best part, though, Ross says, is waking up everyday and getting to talk business with his best friend.
“Never in my wildest dream did I ever think that I would still be able to do something I’m so passionate about with one of my absolute best friends,” Ross said. “It’s a surreal feeling. I have to pinch myself daily.”