There’s lots of good moos for Woody Jackson these days. Sales of his $15 cow aprons have really been cooking. So have his $7 cow coffee mugs, his $15 Red-White-and-Moo T-shirts (an American flag starred with 50 cows), his life-size cow cutouts (at $360, “the closest thing to having a real cow in the house,” he says), his cow boxer shorts, cow shoulder bags, cow dinnerware and cow stationery. Between the more than 1,000 retail stores he supplies and his own Holy Cow, Inc., catalog, Jackson is selling $2 million in cow gear annually and seems to be in a position to milk the cow biz for years.
As you can imagine, all this has left the 40-year-old cowman quite contented. At Jackson’s Holy Cow factory in Middlebury, Vt., his staff has jumped from seven to 14 in the past year, and his cramped office now boasts six computers and 10 multiline phones along with an autographed photograph of model Elle MacPherson (she’s crazy about his cow kerchiefs). Designs of his ubiquitous black-and-white bovines are protected by copyright, and Jackson is now creating holstein hybrids: Kanga-moos, Flamincows and prehistoric Cowasaurs.
His biggest cash cow, however, has been the design that grazes on promotional T-shirts for Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc., the chic and popular Vermont ice-cream company. Co-owner Ben Cohen first spotted one of Jackson’s cow shirts in a shop in 1983. The gentle holstein “was an image that went with our ice cream,” says Cohen, who quickly licensed rights to the design. “We were just beginning to expand our market into urban areas, and it was just right for ‘that little touch of country in the city.’ ” It was pretty good for Jackson, too. This year, he says, he’ll collect about $50,000 in royalties from Ben & Jerry’s alone.
That is more moolah than he ever expected to see when he was growing up in suburban Chatham, N.J. Jackson’s father, a Manhattan tax lawyer, and his mother, a former ski instructor, reared a family of five that included two pairs of fraternal twins, Woody (given name: William Russell) and sister Barclay being one set. He attended Vermont’s Middlebury College and after graduation joined up with some college buddies in a Vermont farm commune where “we did odd jobs for other farmers—haying, working in orchards and, of course, milking cows.” When the commune disbanded after two years, he decided to pack off to Yale and begin some postgraduate studies in fine arts.
There, while working toward a master’s degree, he staged an exhibition of life-size plywood cow cutouts based on photographs and paintings he had done in the country. By the time he arrived in New York a year later to launch an assault on the art world, he had a herd of 25 cutouts in tow. To his surprise, “people started buying them.”
Apart from his cow-art sales, Jackson had little luck in the city and in 1983 moved back to Vermont. Living in a cabin with no electricity or plumbing, he began putting cow designs on T-shirts to sell in local shops. The day Ben Cohen saw one, Jackson was sprung from his $2,000-a-year income bracket and put in financial clover.
Now the artist owns the 19th-century clapboard colonial in Addison, Vt., that housed his old commune, and he has remodeled it into plush 10-room quarters for his family: wife Rebecca Gooch Jackson, 34; her daughter, Kelsey, 9, from a first marriage; and their two sons, Björn, 3, and Leif, 2. (“Björn was named for a friend,” explains Woody. “Leif, just because it goes with Björn.”) Hardly a committed captain of industry, Jackson spends most evenings at home with the family, practices Buddhist meditation and plays in a local soccer league.
Each weekday morning, though, he climbs into his 1986 Nissan pickup for the 15-minute drive to Holy Cow HQ. Cud be the bovine boom will last a long time, as he obviously believes. But should it come to pass, as rumor has it, that the next trendy animal will be the chicken, Jackson is ready. Rolling off the assembly line now are hand-painted holstein eggs.
—Dan Chu, Martha K. Babcock in Middlebury