How This Online Retailer Is Turning Hemp Into a Fashion Statement

What’s not to love about hemp? Within 100 days, it can grow to produce as many as 50,000 commercial products; it’s antimicrobial, antibacterial, hypo-allergenic, thermo-regulating, naturally pest-resistant and UV-resistant. It’s four times stronger and four times more water-absorbent than cotton; yields 250 percent more fibers than cotton and 600 percent more fibers than flax. Unlike cotton, hemp fibers soften with every wash, improving its quality over time, and hemp even has the same net static charge as human skin. And it's not better than just cotton, either — everything wood can do, hemp can do far better; and everything plastic can do, hemp can do infinitely better. In short, hemp’s the Marvel superhero of sustainable materials.

From improving soil quality to helping reduce the pesticides in our waters, hemp checks all the boxes for utility, but there’s still a lingering, critical question: Is hemp fashionable?

Tragically, the answer is, no. Indeed, hemp is many splendid things, but fashionable is hardly one of them. Earth-Day-tee-shirt-fashionable, yes, but Paris catwalk? Non. Sure, Viktor & Rolf just made a splash with their green couture gown reading "Amsterdam" across the chest, which became an instantaneous weed meme, but to me, there wasn’t much substance to their message. Once again, high fashion seems to be satisfied with stoner provocations instead of sustainable progress — which would require actually manufacturing their clothing out of hemp.

The real problem is that hemp cannot be in fashion if it’s not a viable textile commodity. And until the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill this past December, our Sustainable Superhero had been deemed a Schedule 1 drug ever since the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, while prior to that, hemp farming had been in decline since FDR signed the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937 (which was the same year DuPont patented nylon).  

So for the better half of the past century, these policies — supported by lobbyists in the wood industry and nascent synthetics industry — communicated to the American public that hemp was, effectively, the same as heroin (another Schedule I substance). True to the classic dramatic arc, which always demands that a superhero’s real-life alter-ego is properly degraded, hemp has been denied its due respect, relegated to the status of felon fiber, and in the process, America’s hemp mills had shuttered.

Aside from these practical issues, hemp fashion became a contradiction in terms beyond, simply, its legal status. Labeled the fabric of pot-heads and hippies, hemp acquired a reputation as a crude, unstructured, even dingy fabric — how could it have possibly ever graced the pages of Vogue? The stigmatization of cannabis was so thorough and so deeply rooted, that even the most environmentally-friendly fiber on the planet became untouchable.

As a consequence, today, we are a nation with precious few hemp farmers and even fewer hemp mills. And that's why US retail sales of hemp products reached an estimated all-time high of $688 million in 2016, with the vast majority of those products having been imported — the ultimate green textile is inevitably trailed by an ugly carbon footprint. Seizing the golden opportunity of the wide-open hemp market within an increasingly crowded cannabis industry, Canada’s powerhouse Canopy Growth has just announced that it’s investing $500 million in US hemp — a sharp increase from their previously announced $100 million — in a deal promising that New York State will receive the lion’s share of that total investment.

Notably, this deal was made possible by the strong support of Senator Chuck Schumer and the newly pro-pot governor, Andrew Cuomo. Talk about fashionably late, New York has not exactly been a weed-forward state when it comes to legalizing adult use and its tepid medical program, but that’s exactly why hemp might prove to be the gateway fiber. In one fell swoop, hemp production could revitalize New York's many rusted-out industrial towns, while simultaneously making hemp-based fabric viable (and practical) for New York City’s fashion industry. Really, how could hemp not be a central tenet of Governor Cuomo’s so-called Green New Deal?  

Hemp’s time is coming, and as the rightful kingpin of the sustainable fashion movement, hemp could really help fashion clean up its act. And fashion really needs to clean up its act, desperately — it’s one of the most polluting industries in the world today, arguably second only to Big Oil.

On the bright side, small, independent, forward-thinking international brands like Italy’s Opera Campi, Northern California's Rawganique, Australia’s The Hemp Temple, and Los Angeles-based Seeker are designing beautifully cut and impeccably made garments, putting the hippie-dippy hemp stereotype to rest with style and grace.

Quintessential of the trend toward fashionable hemp, is online retailer Svn Space, co-founded by Megan Villa, a veteran visual storyteller with more than 13 years of experience in global sports marketing for Billabong and as editor-in-chief of Herewith, a women’s surf lifestyle magazine. Last fall, Svn Space shot their first fashion editorial at East Fork Cultivars’ picture-perfect Oregon hemp farm, and has been touring the United States ever since, holding CBD pop-up shops to educate fashionable consumers on the benefits of hemp from coast to coast. For the lowdown on our sustainable savior, Civilized spoke with Villa about the dark past, bright future, and the ongoing Catch-22 of #hempfashion.

SVN Space has been hosting pop-ups across the US, using them as educational opportunities. What information do you hope to share through your pop-ups?

We have created an event series called Hempanna, where we have different hemp brands (CBD, beauty, apparel) selling their products. The beauty is that the consumers can actually speak to the owners or representatives of these brands, ask questions, sample and buy their products. There are so many questions that people have about hemp and CBD, so we created these events so they can have those one-on-one experiences.

We also have a panel discussion at each Hempanna event. The last two have focused on CBD — primarily covering the basics and allowing attendees to ask questions of the experts. We are looking to expand these types of panel discussions to other aspects of the hemp plant since there are so many other uses outside of CBD. We actually just did a pop-up with Prism in Long Beach and had the founder of  Backbeat Rags (a sustainable clothing brand out of LA that utilizes hemp in their collections) on the panel, which was very educational.

There’s so much confusion about what hemp is, exactly, so, before we talk about fashion, let’s start with Hemp 101.

We shot our upcoming fashion editorial at East Fork Cultivars, and when I met them, I found it very interesting that they refer to their high-CBD hemp as “Craft Hemp.” I thought this terminology is perfect for describing the differences among marijuana (high THC cannabis), craft hemp (high CBD hemp) and industrial hemp (grown more for industrial use), since they are all so similar yet different.

What do you think comes to mind for most people when they hear “hemp fashion”? And, alternately, what do you think should actually come to mind?

I think that a lot of people still stereotype hemp fashion with being itchy, scratchy, rough, burlap, and hippie. But in actuality, most hemp fabrics can mimic the look and feel of other fabrics we love, like cotton and linen. Most hemp fashion pieces are blended with other fabrics, which is primarily due to cost (hemp can be very expensive). But 100 percent hemp fabrics can be extremely luxurious — super soft, gauzy, cotton-like fabric, and super durable canvas and linen-like fabric that just get better and softer with every wash.  

Hemp is so expensive, it’s cost-prohibitive for many young designers, who may be more likely to experiment with “new” fabrics (nevermind that humanity has used hemp for about the past 8,000 years). Are there any designers working with hemp today who are bringing artistry, craftsmanship, and creative vision to hemp, and who deserve to be taken seriously as high fashion?

Hemp can actually be fashionable, but I think that it hasn’t been used very much because it is so expensive. New York-based fashion brand Mara Hoffman has started incorporating hemp fabric into her collections; she is really helping to elevate hemp in fashion. We have a profile on her and also shot a lot of her hemp pieces in our editorial shoot at East Fork Cultivars. As more fashion brands start to incorporate hemp into their collections, the more people will realize that hemp can be fashionable. You can utilize hemp fabric in the same ways that you can utilize other fabrics.

Who or what most excites you about hemp fashion here and now?

I am really excited about the opportunities in hemp fashion. There still are not many fashion brands using hemp, although it is slowly growing. As noted, I love that Mara Hoffman is helping to pave the way. She is a highly influential designer who has shifted her business model towards more sustainable fashion — so I am hoping that other brands take notice and follow her lead. I see this as a huge opportunity, especially for conscious fashion. The recent passage of the Farm Bill will open up so many opportunities for hemp. I believe there will be a lot of innovation with hemp fabrics and with everyone wanting more transparent or earth-friendly products, hemp fashion is the perfect fit.

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