The South has endured many stereotypes when it comes to fashion. But the true Southern man has evolved far beyond the overalls and straw hat look projected by such shows as “Hee Haw” in the 1960s and ’70s. Ask folks around the country to describe Charleston and, inevitably, the word “classy” is going to be in the conversation.
Charlestonian Ben Ross takes that characterization seriously, believing that a basic tenet of being a Southern gentleman is to project elegance and attention to detail. That belief spawned a personalized groomsmen’s gift, which evolved into a haberdashery, Brackish Bowties, that is now celebrating its fifth anniversary.
“The journey [of Brackish Bowties] is the best part, but it has been amazing to work side by side with Ben and to be part of his vision,” said Brackish Chief Executive Officer Jeff Plotner, a groomsman at Ross’s 2007 wedding who received one of the first turkey feather bow ties that Ross made as a wedding party gift. “I didn’t think too much of it at first, [but] every time I wore my bow tie to other events I had random strangers walk up to me and ask me about it.”
After receiving numerous compliments on his handmade bow ties, Ross began making bow ties for friends and family—that is, until Plotner approached him with the idea that his friend’s passion could be an actual business. By 2012, Brackish was born. Ross and Plotner quickly realized they were not alone in their pursuit of distinctive style and refusal to settle for ordinary accessories, so the friends set out to scale Ross’s original concept into a production base of artisans tasked with creating one-of-a-kind, sustainable works of art. And just like the original bow tie, the feathers tell the story.
“We try to focus on all natural colors found in feathers because there’s no way humans can replicate the natural beauty,” Plotner said. “Ben is always saying, ‘You can never do better than Mother Nature’s paintbrush,’ and he proves it time and again.”
Loyal customers of Brackish know they have a limited edition of designs crafted for each season. While the team has expanded their production crew to a circle of 50 craftsmen, it is far from a mass-produced product. Most of the ties are priced just under $200 and each addition to a collection has its own unique inspiration.
The spring collection includes the Archibald, a pheasant feather–based bow tie of orange and deep red layered over green and brown, with a hand-stitched, black grosgrain center wrap. It is a tribute to Archibald Rutledge, South Carolina’s first poet laureate who captured the beauty of Southern plantations in his prose.
Then there’s the Audubon, a vibrant mix of white, black, and burnt orange tones, named after frontiersman and painter John James Audubon. His gift for capturing the amazing birds of the South with his brush spawned generations of passionate nature observation and conservation enthusiasts.
“We come up with the ties, but from there, our customers show us where to take this business next,” Plotner said. “We take their feedback and home in on the products that are important to them and that unlock their personal style. Customers have been so overwhelmingly positive. They appreciate that attention to detail is at our core.”
“We started this with the notion that if we execute on that attention to detail, customers will notice and tell friends and we’ve been very fortunate that word of mouth has paid off.”
The duo is always very proactive on social media, alerting fans to new releases and using the platform to garner new inspirations and suggestions for upcoming collections. This interaction in particular has paid off with the new Heartland bow tie. The company posted a photo of the patriotic design this past Memorial Day and was inundated with orders afterward.
Clients have also taken note of the company’s dedication to an ideal and the hard work they contribute to carry out the meticulous craftsmanship Brackish Bowties is known for in every piece created.
Ross and Plotner met as athletes at Wofford College in 1997. Ross played baseball, Plotner soccer, but the pair quickly recognized kindred souls when seeing each other’s practice regimen. That friendship has been tested by the rigors of a business partnership, but Plotner said it all comes down to a belief in each other. “Without that trust, a business partnership is doomed,” Plotner said. “We are always thinking of how to evolve the business, what products to tackle next. Ben likes to bring me and other friends out to his hunt club to get away from it all, but we inevitably end up talking about the business because we are both that driven.”
As popular as the bow ties have become, Brackish has expanded into other accessories over the last couple years.
Pins to complement the bow ties have become extremely popular, worn as a lapel pin, brooch, or hat accent. Once again, it begins and ends with nature. Ross forages through wild plum thicket branches in the South Carolina midlands to find limbs that are cured, trimmed, and then paired with feathers.
Cummerbunds, cuff links, studs, and men’s and women’s loafers have also been added to the Brackish catalog. The loafers are a collaboration with fellow entrepreneurs such as Res Ipsa that combine high-end footwear with the signature Brackish feather accents.
As the company looks to its next five years, Plotner says the key is to always stay true to the personalized interactions and thought behind every piece that made Ross stand out from the day he gave the bow ties to his groomsmen at his wedding.
“You can’t replicate that connection with the customer in mass production. Each bow tie has a story, and every customer connects with the passion and the individual attention we give to each client’s unique style,” Plotner said. As much as bow ties are associated with men, Ross and Plotner have discovered an equally passionate female customer base and look to cultivate that in the coming years.
“We have some product extension plans in mind for the next five years as well as expanding into the women’s category,” Plotner said. “We are so grateful for where we are after five years, but realize we’ll need to continue the hard work to achieve our next set of goals.”