This Earth Day, Saturday April 22, 2023 marks the TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARY of Vital Hemp! Thank you for supporting us all these years.
As a little twenty-year gift, please enjoy 20% off everything on the site through midnight Monday April 24th. Use code: HEMPIN20.
On my first day in business, I stood in an Earth Day booth and peddled hemp clothing to the public, confident they would love it as much as I did, and happy, knowing those threads were good for Mama Earth.
This Saturday, I’m celebrating by doing much the same thing. I’ll be setting up a small booth of hemp clothing at a lovely gathering in Topanga Canyon. So if you happen to be in the LA area, get a ticket and come celebrate life with us!!!
Here’s the story: twenty years ago, on Earth Day, I gathered some boxes of hemp clothing that were in the garage of my flat in Los Feliz. I loaded them--along with some used racks, hangers, and a Vital Hemptations banner I painted on hemp fabric--into the van of a man who responded to my ad for a “Man with a Van” on Craigslist. We headed to Santa Monica, where three days before I had secured a booth for the first Earth Day celebration on the Promenade. Some of you know this story….
With my freshly-minted Ph.D., I was lecturing in Film History at Loyola Marymount University at the time. I took a road trip to Berkeley to bid farewell to my best friend, Lincoln Shlensky (yes, that’s a person!), who got a job teaching literature and Hebraic Studies in Alabama. Stopping in San Luis Obispo, I discovered hemp clothing, truly realizing for the first time that clothes were made from plants! Even though I had already bought Linc a Swatch as a going-away present, I saw a banded-collar hemp/silk button-down shirt that I knew he would love, so bought it; but by the time I got to Berkeley, I had fallen so in love with the shirt that I gave him the Swatch and kept the shirt for myself (I sent him the shirt later)!
A series of uncanny events led me to a hemp shop in Venice, where I said idly to the sweet, stoned owner, “This stuff’s so great, I want to share it with the world!” A couple of weeks later, I was on the road to vend with him at Greenfest in SF, then into a short-lived partnership, then into a lifelong relationship with the green business and hemp communities. I loved the owners of organic, superfood, fair trade, alternative- and other health-oriented companies—all providing unique, top-quality solutions to the social and ecological problems we collectively face.
That day on the promenade, I sold more than $1000 of hemp clothing, and thought “I have a business!” What made it worthwhile was knowing hemp clothing would serve the buyers well, and be easier on the planet than the conventional, polluting apparel that most people in the world still wear without knowing where or how it is made. The next couple of years, I peddled hemp clothing on the Venice boardwalk, hempjucating people about the benefits of so many products made from this eminently-useful, unfairly demonized plant—and advocating for the re-legalization of industrial hemp.
At the Green Business Conference in San Francisco, I saw a presentation by the head of the International Women’s Health Organization that brought tears to my eyes, because of the ills faced by the families of cotton farmers in India and other places we rarely consider. When hemp replaces these polluting crops,” I thought, “the world will be so much better.”
The journey took me and a dynamic crew of hempers and hempettes to farmer’s markets, Raw Food, Green and Harmony Festivals, Expos West and East, to Congress to lobby for the re-legalization of industrial hemp, to the Seattle Hemp Fest in the old, blue VW Eurovan I bought to replace the old blue BMW with surf racks, and to Colorado’s NOCO hemp fest in the Sprinter I bought to replace the VW when it finally retired. We stayed with friends, or camped in the wilderness, ate hemp seed bars and drank hemp ale, participated in fashion shows and panels, practiced yoga and danced in hemp pants. I met fabulous people and made friendships I still cherish today.
Along the way, we wore hemp. It occurs to me that I've been wearing nothing but hemp for twenty years -- including hemp underwear and socks. Nowadays, I consider myself lucky to sleep in hemp sheets and dry myself with hemp towels. I wore hemp camping and skiing and before and after surfing, in bed on cold nights, and as pillows underneath my head. I wore hemp on rocks, in yoga classes and at weddings, in arid and humid climes, from Mt. Shasta to the north of Thailand. A few years ago, a bunch of old hempsters and activists and hemptrepreneurs wore hemp while frolicking in the recently-legal hemp fields of Kentucky, Colorado and California, a national dream come true for farmers, citizens, ecosystems and everyone who cares about the future well-being of our beloved, amazing Earth!
During these trips, we sold literally tons of hemp clothing that I designed and produced in the Shandong Province of China (I moved production to Los Angeles in 2010). I learned : because hemp is such a bio-dense crop--and so good at aerating, cleaning and creating soil--that every ton of hemp we harvest sequesters 1.62 tons of atmospheric carbon. So in addition to “hempin’ people out,” I felt Vital Hemp (as the company name became) was playing a small, but vital role in cooling the globe.
With the encouragement and blessing of Co-op America, I traveled to China, working with a top-notch company I found to conduct a week-long social and environmental compliance audit of the factory that produced our goods. While there, I saw other brands I recognized, and contacted them to collaborate on compliance, believing we would have more influence together. Sadly, only one responded, and our collaboration didn’t last long--in part, because the factory had such poor quality control that sometimes goods would arrive with sleeves that were four inches too long (our Chinese partners thought we were giants); or they would shrink two sizes, requiring all sorts of creative (and costly) adjustments on our end.
I ended up switching to the factory that produces for Patagonia, a tight ship if I ever saw one. My intention was always to bring production home, but I needed to find the right people to make it here, so I planned to do it a little at a time. Man plans… Within months of placing my back-to-school order that was supposed to arrive in August (and wiring tens of thousands of dollars), the factory told me they received a couple of 80,000-piece orders and would only be able to produce my goods by late December, or maybe April…. I said, politely, “Thank you for putting me out of business,” and hung up the phone before falling to my knees and praying.
Looking through hundreds of email signup sheets, I found the name and number of an old customer who had given me his name years before, agreeing to counsel me if I ever needed help. “You’re just too small for them. Buy your fabric and manufacture here. Keep your customers.” So I did just that, letting stores know what happened, and offering to honor the old prices even though I knew domestic manufacturing would cost at least three times more.
I became a resourceful mouse in the Los Angeles garment district maze, discovering sweatshops and shops so tight, they wouldn’t even let me inside. Miraculously, I met just the right people to manufacture the line domestically. And sometimes I discovered they weren’t the right people after all, so I found others. Over ten years, I went through at least four patternmakers, five cutting houses, a half dozen sew houses, a handful of dye houses and several finishing houses—not to mention fit models, and sewers so unique and gifted, they could turn hemp scraps into beanies, or Mondrian-like scarf or hempkin compositions in their free time!
And thus, my education as a garmento began and progressed. Serving as the designer and production manager (as well as CEO, CFO, CTO, and any other C or D you can think of), I learned what it took to run and grow a business. I hired people, managed them as best I could, and sometimes fired them. It wasn’t easy. And Vital Hemp grew, to the point that I decided to open a retail store (the same year I became a dad), initiating the production of hemp swaddle blankets and hemp baby clothes—because, as we say, “Everything’s better in hemp!” The store also housed our wholesale, logo wear and e-commerce operations. With the store, the volume of business grew significantly, even if with rising rent and overhead, profits didn’t.
The store also became a community hub. From 2010 until 2020 (when I closed it at the start of the pandemic), we hemped out our local peeps and tourists from all over the globe—from poor college students to princes of Saudi Arabia, from unknown folks to celebrities. The stories I could tell….
We hosted events: speakers, panels, and screenings of vital documentaries, such as The Vanishing of the Bees and Bringing it Home, gatherings of the Green Business Council and Green Drinks, The Holistic Women’s Network, fashion shows, parties and yes, more parties.
Always such a sweet vibe in the store, so I was sad to let it go; but happy to keep Vital Hemp alive online, with less overhead.
So here we are—lean, happy to collaborate, and open to new partnerships in the service of life on Earth. A few days ago, I initiated an embroidery collab with a dancer friend, Lisa, who loves hearts and mushrooms…more to come. A few months ago, Vital Hemp collaborated with a spectacularly-talented tie-dye artist, producing hemp designs beyond my capacity to imagine. You can still find a few of these unique pieces left on the site, if you search….
On the business side, I am looking to partner with someone who shares the vision of Vital Hemp--someone resourceful, who understands how to scale a business, perhaps someone with e-commerce experience. If this sounds like you or a friend, contact me, please.
As a kid and into adulthood, my favorite movie was the 1971 (and inimitable) Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. I love the idea that Wonka builds something beautiful, and wants it to continue…so he initiates a search for the right person to keep the magic going. Consider this my invitation. There may be no worldwide obsession with a golden ticket; but there will be tours of Vital Hemp for anyone interested enough to consider taking a rewarding ride in our great hemp elevator--because hemp elevates everyone.
Whether or not I see your smiling face, I want to wish you a healthy, happy Earth Day, filled with sweet smells, clean water, delicious morsels, and the love of (and for) every creature you encounter.
Thanks for reading! Remember to enjoy 20% off everything at vitalhemp.com through midnight Monday April 24th. Use code: HEMPIN20.
As ever, thanks for being vital,
~Let Us Hemp You Out!~