Heartfelt gifts are the ones we cherish the most. Maybe that’s because they are often the hardest to find. It’s rare that you discover an item on a store shelf with the ability to communicate something of depth and lasting meaning to your loved ones, let alone one that can do so over the course of many years.
It was for this reason that, in 2007, Brackish co-founder Ben Ross decided to make gifts for the groomsmen at his wedding. He wanted to create something that could be incorporated into the wedding day attire, and something that his groomsmen would want to continue to wear after the celebration that would remind them of their friendship each time they put it on.
Ben’s first design was a lapel pin incorporating feathers, but after some thought, he feared the lapel pin would be mistaken for a boutonniere and relegated to the keepsake drawer, never to be worn again. As fate would have it, the solution was quite literally right in front of him as he happened to have a bow tie sitting next to a turkey feather on his desk.
“The natural shape, confirmation and tapering of a turkey body feather fits the frame of a bow tie perfectly,” Ben explains. “It’s that triangular shape with the black barring on the edge, and that was the a-ha lightbulb moment when I figured out the turkey feather bow tie was the gift that I was going to give.”
The Past Influences “The Present”
Ben had never made a bow tie before deciding to do so as a gift for his groomsmen. In fact, he had no training in fashion or accessories design. Instead, he was working in hospital development, management and leasing. “I built hospitals,” as Ben puts it.
What Ben had, however, was a lifelong love affair with the great outdoors and a fervent appreciation for the beauty present in nature. “I’ve been running around through the fields, swamps, rivers, lakes and streams of South Carolina all my life,” Ben says with pride. “I’ve been tying flies and fletching arrows since I was about 10 years old. Any time I have a feather in my hand, it’s just second nature [for me] to try to create something out of it.”
Ben’s experience with feathers served him well in making those turkey feather bow ties for his groomsmen. One of those groomsmen—and the eventual “other half” of Brackish, Jeff Plotner—tells of his experiences with the turkey feather bow tie beyond Ben’s wedding.
“When you’re in your 20s, you kind of get on that wedding circuit where all your friends are getting married and you’re going to all these weddings,” says Jeff. “I had the turkey feather bow tie Ben had given me and it became my go-to [tie]. Without fail, I would have six or seven random strangers coming up to me and talking to me about this thing that I was wearing, and that had never happened to me before.”
Those interactions would leave a lasting impression on Jeff.
Brackish is Born
For the next five years, Ben continued to “build hospitals” while making the occasional turkey feather bow tie in his spare time for someone to give as a Father’s Day gift or for other special occasions. Meanwhile, Jeff went to work in sales, and as he evolved in his professional life, he became passionate about starting his own business. After toying around with several ideas, Jeff came back to his experiences with the turkey feather bow tie. People gravitated to it, and the bow tie continued to be a conversation piece every time Jeff wore it.
Eventually, Jeff approached Ben and told him he thought he had created something truly unique and that there was a future in it. He proposed starting a business around heirloom-quality, handmade bow ties. Ben’s response was immediate: “Let’s do it.” And Brackish was born.
“There was a fire in his eyes,” Ben recalls of that conversation with Jeff. “He had determination, he had the vision, he had that fire. He said that he believed in this and that we were going to make this into something really special.”
The next few years were a crash course in entrepreneurship. The Brackish studio began in Jeff’s apartment and then moved to a room above a friend’s garage before settling into its current location on Wallace School Road in Charleston, South Carolina.
Ben chuckles as Jeff reminisces about working out of the room over their buddy’s garage. “We had customers coming to the door and sitting down on the couch with the TV on.”
Brackish Blossoms … Rapidly
In 2012, Brackish decided to run a promotion with the flash sale website Fab. com (think Groupon for more design-oriented products). The promotion would expose Brackish to Fab’s email list of more than 2 million subscribers who would have a limited window of time to make a purchase. For a startup like Brackish, it was a relatively inexpensive way to get their product in front of a lot of people.
“We didn’t sink any money into inventory,” says Jeff. “We just had some photographs taken, wrote the copy, sent it all to [Fab]; they set it all up on their website and blasted it out to millions of their people.”
On launch day, Jeff and Ben sat watching the dashboard set up by Fab to monitor orders as they came in. Not long after the promotion began, they refreshed their browser: eight orders and they thought, “Great!” They refreshed their browser again: 12 orders. Then 16 orders. Then 35 orders. Then 70 orders. In just 48 hours, more than 200 orders were placed from Fab customers. Jeff and Ben were ecstatic, and then the realization set in that, under the terms of their agreement with Fab, they had just seven days to fulfill all the orders. (And remember, they had almost no on-hand inventory at the time.)
“I had to take off work and sit home and make bow ties,” recalls Ben with a chuckle.
“We were trying to figure out how to source boxes, feathers,” Jeff adds. “How to make everything… figuring out all the fulfillment … how to print out everything on a printer… all the little things [we didn’t] think of, but it all adds up. The UPS man was sitting in my condo just waiting on me and I was tearing everything up, getting it all boxed up and ready to go. But we hit the deadline and we got [all the orders] out on time.”
The Fab promotion was the first validation for Brackish that there was enough demand for their products to support a business, but it wouldn’t be the last. Within the next year, both Garden & Gun and Orvis included Brackish bow ties in their holiday gift guides, with Orvis putting Brackish on the front cover of their guide.
Once the word was out, it didn’t take long for celebrities to come calling. A friend of Bill Murray’s gifted him with several Brackish bow ties, one of which he wore on the red carpet at the Oscars in 2014. Several of Murray’s SNL alums purportedly took interest in his bow tie, resulting in several more purchases by high-profile celebrities. Since then, Brackish bow ties have been worn by a veritable Who’s Who of sports, music and entertainment, including Howie Mandel, Ted Danson, Danny DeVito, Terrance Howard, Don Cheadle, Andy Samberg, Blake Lively, The Brothers Osborne, Thomas Rhett, Ne-Yo, Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Brackish has come a long way in the years since Ben made that first batch of turkey feather bow ties for the groomsmen at his wedding. Today, Brackish offers bow ties in dozens of designs along with cummerbunds, thicket pins, cufflinks and bracelets. The company recently launched its first-ever women’s collection, an endeavor that was more than three years in the making.
“[The women’s line] is really a tribute to our mothers and our grandmothers,” says Ben. “It goes back to all of the women who’ve had a huge impact on our lives. It’s a real honor to pay tribute to them.”
In spite of all the success, at Brackish, the more things change, the more they stay the same—and in this case, that’s a very good thing. Each Brackish product is still handmade, one at a time, with an emphasis on quality and craftsmanship that can stand the test of time. The result is stunning items that, when given as gifts, reflect the care and thoughtfulness of the giver. Every conversation started by a Brackish piece reminds its wearer of how special they are to someone.
In addition, respectfully and sustainably repurposing the beauty already present in nature continues to be the single point of inspiration for all Brackish products.
“I think that Mother Nature’s paintbrush is second to none other in the world,” says Ben. “No offense to any artist, but her paintbrush is time-tested and true. It’s been around for millions of years.”
It’s hard to argue with that.