Ben Ross did not set out to be the “original feather bow tie guy in the United States” when he first decided to use turkey feathers to create a unique fashion accessory.
He was just trying to come up with a gift for his groomsmen.
“Twelve years ago, I was getting married to my wonderful Mary Ann, and I wanted to give a gift to my family and friends that they couldn’t go buy, something that showed them how much I loved them and how much they’d impacted my life, how much they meant to me,” said Ross, co-founder of Brackish, a local company that makes nationally popular bow ties out of bird feathers.
Ross, an A.C. Flora High School graduate, wanted to incorporate his love of nature into the ceremony. “I happened to lay a turkey feather beside a bow tie and that was the light bulb moment, when the natural shape, conformation and tapering of that feather fit the bow tie so perfectly. That was the ‘aha’ moment of a turkey feather bow tie.”
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And unknowingly, the start of a company that would eventually employee more than 50 people, change the careers of Ross and his best friend Jeff Plotner, earn them a trip to the White House and produce bow ties that would be worn at NFL and NASCAR news conferences, on the red carpet and the stage of the Oscars.
It all started with a turkey feather.
Ross gave those first turkey feather bow ties to his groomsmen, one of whom was Plotner. About six years after the wedding, Plotner told Ross he needed to turn what had become a hobby into a business because unfailingly, whenever Plotner wore his turkey feather bow tie, people would ask him where they could get one.
“Through his drive, determination and vision, Jeff and I launched Brackish,” Ross says. “It was a company that was never meant to be a company. It was just meant to be a good gift to special people, family and friends.”
Combining the Midlands and the coast
Ross was born and raised in Forest Acres, and Plotner on St. Simons Island, Georgia. The two met as students at Wofford College.
Both are proud of their native communities, and devoted to their family and friends. They wanted to use that devotion to put purpose and meaning behind their company, starting with its name.
“I’m the freshwater and he’s the saltwater, and when you mix the two, you get brackish water,” Ross says. “We put that same thought and purpose and meaning behind everything we do, from the names of our ties to the packaging reflecting Brackish.”
The ties are packaged in pine boxes (representing Columbia) with burlap bags (representing the saltwater oyster bags). Each bow tie’s name is a special meaning to the founders. For example, the Mill Pond is named for one of Ross’s favorite restaurants in Boykin, where he celebrated his 30th birthday. The Edisto was named after the island, where Ross spent a lot of time in his youth. The Codell was in honor of a trip Ross and Plotner took with friends in college to the Kentucky Derby.
“Nature is at the heart of everything we do,” Ross says. “We respectfully repurpose the beauty of Mother Nature. At the core of everything we do is family and friends.”
No bird or animal is ever harmed for a Brackish product, Ross said. The company gets feathers from throughout the United States, buying feathers that would have been thrown away.
“Some of the funnest things we do is go out and talk to farmers,” Ross says, many of whom are initially bemused at the idea of selling feathers they once trashed.
First retailer to sell the ties
On Thursday, Oct. 18, Brackish will unveil a new tie named “The Lancaster,” named for Perry Lancaster, store manager at Brittons in Columbia, the first retail location to sell Brackish bow ties.
It will be Brackish Bow Tie Day at Brittons, with a trunk show from noon to 7 p.m. and an official proclamation declaring it “Brackish Bow Tie Day.”
The Lancaster, made with pheasant, peacock and guinea feathers, was designed by Brackish’s custom designer, Thomas McElwee, and Lancaster.
“As Ben and I took a leap of faith when launching Brackish, Perry Lancaster did also when he sought out our designs and agreed to carry our product in his store,” Plotner said. “It was in this moment that we realized our business could be much more than we ever imagined.”
Lancaster knew he wanted to sell Brackish bow ties as soon as he saw a customer wearing one. Now Brittons will be the first specialty store to ever have a custom bow tie, Lancaster says.
“It’s just such a unique and different accessory piece for a wardrobe,” Lancaster says. “I am always, always searching, every time I go to New York, to find unique and different items. What is so ironic about this product, is that it’s here in Columbia.
“Ben is an artist. He is the original feather bow tie guy in the United States.”
Ross doesn’t see himself that way.
“I never have looked at myself as an artist,” Ross says. “I look at myself as someone who has a heartfelt gift that came from a lot of family and friends.
“But I never would consider myself an artist, I still really don’t. I followed my heart with this idea, and I think if you follow that, you’re always going to be led to the right place.”
Customers who wear his colorful and unique bow ties, none of which use dyes or colors (“This is Mother Nature’s paintbrush,” Ross says) disagrees with Ross’ artist disclaimer.
“I like them for what they are, wearable works of art,” says Hobart Trotter, the customer who introduced Lancaster to Brackish’s bow ties. “But I like them for personal reasons as well. Ben Ross and his family have been a part of my family’s lives since he was a boy. I was lucky enough to see one of the ties he made for his groomsmen and told him I had to have one.
“This was one of the originals that he made with his own hands.”
Ross still designs some of the bow ties, but Brackish now employs artisans who also design and make the product in their Charleston office. There is no assembly line production — each tie, and other products, are individually handmade.
The company makes about 30,000 bow ties a year.
Ross still lives and works in Forest Acres, making the trip to Charleston when needed. Plotner lives in Charleston.
“Jeff loves running the business side of things, but he wants me to be as creative as possible,” Ross says. “He encourages me to go out there and be creative but just do it the best way possible. He’s been instrumental in encouraging me and to make it the best it can possibly be.”
Ross is charged with coming up with Brackish’s products, which include cumberbunds, plum thicket pins, pocket squares, cuff links, studs and perhaps their most unique item, burr pins, made from the base of the deer’s naturally shed antlers.
“It started out being such a small operation at my dining room table making every single one of them myself,” says Ross, who would come home and create Brackish products after working his full-time job in medical property management development. He began working full-time for Brackish in 2015.
“It’s always really special when I see anybody wear any of our products and a surreal moment anytime I see one of the bow ties that we’ve designed out there, whether it’s with a celebrity or with just somebody like me.”
Celebrities, White House visit
And there have been celebrities. Bill Murray was the first, wearing a Brackish bow tie when he was a presenter at the Oscars in 2014. Since then, celebrities such as Blake Lively, Terrence Howard, Don Cheadle, Cam Newton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have been seen at public events wearing Brackish bow ties. Click on Brackish celebrities to see these and more.
“What a surreal experience when you see someone of that caliber, an actress or entertainer or driver or celebrity, wear your stuff at an event,” Ross says.
He’s just as wowed when he sees “people like me” wearing Brackish bow ties, or when men like Brian St. John use them in their weddings. St. John and his wife, Asheley, became Brackish fans after seeing one of the bow ties in Clemson shortly after their engagement. They knew then Brian St. John would wear one in their wedding.
“From there, it just made sense to incorporate ties for the rest of the groomsmen,” St. John says. “It was a great way to tie it all together, but a great piece that each could wear for years to come.”
Asheley St. John incorporated similar feathers into the ring bearer’s corsages and the floral arrangements. “The ties are southern and classy, and we thought it was an elegant touch,” Brian St. John says.
These are stories that thrill Ross as much as seeing celebrities wearing his creations.
“It’s such an honor on their special day they choose to wear or give as groomsmen gifts because it’s kind of a continuation of my original thought,” Ross says.
Speaking of honors, Brackish Bow Ties was asked to represent South Carolina at the Made in America Showcase at the White House in July. They met an assortment of politicians, got their photo taken with Vice President Mike Pence and gave Pence and President Donald Trump bow ties.
“What a real honor to represent South Carolina,” Ross says, adding it was one of the top four moments in his life after marrying Mary Ann and the birth of his sons, Benson, 6, and Laken, 3.
“It’s just been a special special ride, one that I’m honored to be a part of,” Ross says. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think feathers and something that was a hobby, a pastime of mine — playing with feathers, fetching arrows, tying flies, when I was 10 years old, would ever evolve into a full-time business employing 50-plus people and contributing to a lot of wonderful days and memories in other peoples lives.”
Brackish Bow Tie Day
Brackish Bow Ties will unveil a new tie named “The Lancaster,” named for Perry Lancaster, store manager at Brittons in Columbia, on Thursday, Oct. 18. Brittons, at 2818 Devine St., was the first retail location to sell Brackish bow ties. On Thursday, a trunk show will be held from noon to 7 p.m.
Want to buy a Brackish Bow Tie or see a complete line of Brackish products? Go to www.brackishbowties.co