While clothing made of hemp may still conjure up images of Woodstock-era harem pants and flowing boho tunics, the need for more sustainable choices in fashion is prompting designers to upgrade hemp from its hippie heritage to the world of high fashion.
Fashion Versus The Planet
Behind all those Instagram trends from “norm core” to “coastal grandmother”, is the fact that fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Huge amounts of water, chemicals pesticides and fertilizers are required to grow and process the plants which eventually become our #OOTD. Cotton is an especially thirsty fiber and it takes approximately 713 gallons of water just to make a single cotton tee shirt. But hemp fiber, made from the stem of the cannabis plant, is a highly sustainable crop that grows quickly and requires little water and no fertilizer or pesticides. The plant gives nutrients back to the soil and the fiber is easy to color with non-toxic natural dyes.
So Why Aren't We All Wearing Hemp?
As you probably know, the U.S. has a long and politicized history with hemp. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp and even the very first American flag by Betsy Ross was made from hemp fiber. But hemp production decreased dramatically when the cotton gin was invented in 1794, making cotton easier (and therefore more profitable) to harvest.
Money was the motivation in the 1930s when hemp was demonized by two powerful businessmen. Publisher William Randolph Hearst was invested in thousands of acres of forest land, which provided his newspaper empire with wood-based paper versus the cheaper and more durable hemp paper.
Lammot du Pont was head of the chemical company DuPont, where polyester and nylon fibers were first created, opening the door to a new synthetic clothing market that our activewear lifestyle is still expanding today.
According to author Jack Herer, who wrote the fittingly named book The Emperor Wears No Clothes, du Pont lobbied the U.S. Treasury Department to slow hemp production. Then Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics, lumped hemp and cannabis together and created a racist campaign to blame them for violent crime and insanity. Hearst’s wood-based magazines and newspapers spread the propaganda far and wide until they all got what they wanted in 1937, when the U.S. government banned hemp production making it illegal until 2018.
Hemp Is Back In Fashion
Now that farmers can plant hemp again, the fashion industry is rediscovering and reinventing this remarkable fiber. Pure hemp fabric feels like linen, and it softens quickly the more it is washed and worn. Many designers are mixing hemp with organic cotton and even silk to create different weights and textures. Hemp is also one of the strongest and most durable natural fibers, and can be easily machine washed and dried. According to the Council of Fashion Designers of America, hemp fabric can keep you warm in winter, cool in the summer and it is resistant to mold, mildew and even UV rays from the sun.
New York based designer Mara Hoffman is a pioneer in sustainable fashion and has been including hemp in her collections for years.
Her hemp pieces range from structured jackets and high waisted pants to flowing skirts and voluminous dresses. The flirty Raya crop top with its full sculptural sleeves takes advantage of the linen-like crispness of hemp and along with the natural hues you might expect, her hemp also comes in bold tropical prints and colors.
The autumn/winter 2022 collection by London based designer Bethany Williams is entitled The Hands That Heal Us in honor of the makers and manufacturers who create the clothing. Overall the collection reflects the designers commitment to innovation and the environment in its use of cactus leather, bamboo silk and upcycled materials. The denim is where the hemp is, blended with recycled cotton for stand out shirt jackets, jeans, dungarees and gilet vests.
LA based designer Reese Cooper keeps the community, education and the environment core to his brand. His recent collaboration THE LEVI’S® X REESE COOPER® COLLECTION brings high-fashion to authentic workwear materials and construction. The collection of jeans, truckers, hoodies and tees include a patchwork chore coat and straight fit jean in indigo denim made from cottonized hemp.
While not a designer brand, I have to include Pangaia, the materials science company of designers, scientists, and technologists known for innovation in sustainable materials. They make fashion from plant based leather alternatives (as opposed to the many vegan leathers which are mostly plastic), recycled cashmere and fill their puffer jackets with down made from flowers instead of goose feathers. Pangaia also has a denim collection made from “rain-fed PANhemp™” which is blended with certified organic cotton and treated with their trademark PPRMINT™ Oil which controls odor and keeps the products fresh for longer. The hemp denim collection of jackets and jeans in multiple styles come in a rainbow range of colors from traditional light and dark indigo washes to bright flamingo pinks and jade green. They have the sizes to dress your kids in hemp and complete the look with hemp baseball and bucket hats and cross body bags.
Hemp can also be used to make shoes, but Nike proved it’s not just ‘Jesus’ sandals anymore when their Air Force 1 “Hemp” styles dropped in early 2022. The shoe upper has a knitted texture made from hemp textile and soles made of recycled materials. When not in sneaker mode, luxury shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood offers pearl detailed combat boots, fringed trimmed sandals and mules made from a blend of merino wool and hemp.
What's Next In Hemp Fashion?
There are many more hemp and hemp blend items online from well-known designers Rick Owens, Yohji Yamamoto, Giorgio Armani and JW Anderson. Expect the selection to grow as more of the fashion forward commit to responsible threads, and whatever you choose you can always top it off with a charming and luxurious 60% hemp Hermes Cavale Pop Cap.
Mary Gehlhar is an educator and consultant on fashion entrepreneurship and sustainability. She is author of the best-selling book The Fashion Designer Survival Guide and an advisor to the United Nations Conscious Fashion Campaign. Find out more on LinkedIn.
A version of this article was originally published in Honeysuckle's milestone 15th print edition. Click here to get your copy now!
Find Out More On Social
Featured image: One of the Mara Hoffman "Raya" hemp tops from the Spring 2022 collection (C) Mara Hoffman