Owners Ben Ross (left) and Jeff Plotner said they owe their whole business to Charleston’s people and landscape | Photos by Ruta Smith

Birds of a feather

Ben Ross first crafted bow ties out of turkey feathers for the groomsmen in his 2007 wedding. Impressed by the craftsmanship and care put into the wearable gift, groomsman Jeff Plotner pitched a business idea to Ross: Why not make more of these things? Five years after those first designs, Brackish Bow Ties was born. 

“I saw the potential at my dining room table,” Ross said. “But Jeff had the foresight to develop Brackish into what it is today.” 

The company dropped the “bow ties” from its brand this past year, after its collection evolved to offer much more than just menswear. A women’s line, launched in late 2019, features earrings, bracelets and necklaces.

Brackish’s women’s line, in particular, will be highlighted at this year’s Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (SEWE) with two brand-new styles launching at the four-day fest from Thursday through Sunday. 

According to Plotner and Ross, the company’s latest collection helped carry them through the pandemic when bow tie sales plummeted. 

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, large gatherings across the Lowcountry and worldwide came to a screeching halt. 

“There could not have been a thing more tailor-made to shut us down,” Plotner said.

All those custom, carefully crafted bow ties had nowhere to go — no one to wear them to weddings or galas. 

“It’s just a blow we never saw coming,” Ross said. Fortunately, the company’s women’s line was still marketable, even in the midst of a shutdown.

Getting through the pandemic

“You either press ‘panic’ or find a way through,” he said. With the help of a federal disaster recovery loan, Brackish found a way through, managing to keep all its employees despite the worldwide shutdown.

And the company went beyond just existing during the pandemic — it pitched in to help, too.

With access to materials and sewing machines, Brackish’s artisans decided to join the nationwide effort to make masks for front-line workers. 

“There was obviously a mask shortage, so we started making masks,” Plotner said. “Our team, located all over the area, were at their homes stitching these things. I’d drive my car around every day, dropping off bags of fabric, collecting the masks when they were finished.” 

During the beginning of the pandemic Brackish even offered a free mask with the purchase of a product, in addition to the 2,000 free masks given to front-line workers.

In May 2020, Ross and Plotner were invited to the White House to be recognized, along with other small businesses combating the coronavirus, for their mask-making efforts. Ross spoke at the visit in the Rose Garden: “We are all in this together, and if we can help support our front-line workers, that’s the least we can do right now.”

Speaking about the White House visit a year and a half later, Ross and Plotner still marvel at the fact that it was actually Brackish’s second time visiting the White House; they first traveled to Pennsylvania Avenue in 2018 as part of a “Made in America” product showcase. 

“The accolades and recognition are something we all share and enjoy together,” Ross said. “The mask [initiative] came from our artisans’ hearts.”

Thanks for local artisans … and birds

Ross and Plotner are quick to sing the praises of Brackish’s artisans and the company’s large support staff. 

“We wouldn’t be anywhere without the City of Charleston,” he said. “All the magic happens in our Brackish studio. I would put our artisans working with feathers, a team that Jeff assembled, against anyone in the world.”

Working out of the company’s West Ashley space, the artisans start with a simple layering technique created by Ross over a decade ago to craft bow tie designs with Lowcountry-centric names like “Chuck-town,” “Rice” and “Edisto.” Some names are a direct nod to the feathers featured, such as “Guinea” and “Pheasant.” 

As for where the feathers come from? Bird farms, of course.

Ross laughs, remembering his first time visiting a turkey farm and asking the farmer if he could have the feathers of birds headed to market. 

“We develop relationships with farmers, who at first don’t believe us,” Ross said. “These guys would be skeptical about letting us onto their property, but by the end of the conversation, I’m on their front porch with the whole family, drinking sweet tea.”

Ross heads out to exotic bird farms, too, where birds kept in excellent conditions usually molt twice a year. Brackish purchases those feathers, stuffed into large bags.

Continuing challenges and surprises

As surprising as the existence of exotic bird farms is the success of Brackish, pandemic be damned. And while 2020 brought the company its greatest challenges to date, Ross promises that every day of work features surprises, good and bad.

“We navigate them the best we can,” he said. “We’re a medium-sized business … Well maybe a small-medium, medium-sized business at this point. You gotta take your licks and keep on kicking.”

One of Plotner’s favorite surprises continues to be the types of customers who purchase Brackish products, especially the bow ties.

“They were adopted by a lot more segments of people than we thought [would be interested],” he said. “It’s a testament to Ben coming up with something so original and organic. When you do things that way, good things tend to happen.”

Brackish’s name first appeared in national news outlets in 2014, when Bill Murray wore a bow tie to the Oscars. “When you see Bill Murray wearing Brackish — that was a great surprise in the history of the company,” Plotner said. “That was a needle-mover.”

Since then, the signature bow tie has been donned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Cam Newton, Tony Shaloub and more. You can find Brackish’s bow ties in every Neiman Marcus store now, too, which Plotner says has opened the company up to a completely different customer base. “When you do original work, people will find you and appreciate that,” he said. 

And while the guys said they couldn’t have imagined a decade ago they’d be here today, they’re feeling pretty confident about the next 10 years. As Ross said: “The sky’s the limit.”

Connelly Hardaway is a freelance writer and former Charleston City Paper arts editor. She lives in North Charleston with her husband, son and two dogs. 

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