As the guests settled into their seats, the lights in the room slowly dimmed until darkness fell, masking the glints and shimmers of the maximalist outfits of the observers. A hush fell over the audience in anticipation. A reading of Maya Angelou’s eponymous poem, “Still I Rise,” projected from the speakers, loud and imposing and booming. The darkness gave glorious space to Angelou’s invocation of the resiliency, strength, and beauty of the black community’s perseverance and flourishing in the face of hundreds of years of oppression and discrimination. As the strains of “I rise/I rise/I rise” faded out, the audience took a collective breath, anxious to see what was to follow this powerful start. Suddenly, to my right, a wall of bulbs flashed, flooding the space with brilliance, setting off the sequins, fishnet shirts, and ornate costume jewelry that were temporarily darkened for the reading. Just as the room gleamed gold once more, the first model showcasing Korto Momolu’s newest line burst around the corner of the catwalk.

A Project Runway veteran, Momolu collaborated with Women Grow, an organization designed to eradicate the stigma of the cannabis industry and to connect the female leaders within it, to produce New York Fashion Week’s first official cannabis couture show. Accordingly, Momolu’s line features eco-friendly, sustainable, hemp-based fabrics. As I watched model after model strut, cheekbones glittering, garments flowing, it was clear that the collaboration was a match made in heaven. Led by CEO Chanda Macias and President Gia Moron, Women Grow has made a sustained effort to increase diversity and representation within the organization and to promote and support women of color in the industry. Indeed, the show reflected such diversity: most of Momolu’s models were women of color, but the show also featured models of varying body types and ages.

Integrating Women Grow’s mission seamlessly throughout the show, the line incorporated elements of traditional African fashion with sustainability and cannabis positivity. Momolu began the show with a rose-gold flecked romper cinched by a band printed with cannabis leaves, evoking a warrior-like aesthetic that reflected the attitude of every model’s presence. Her next piece was a loose, Greek-goddess-like tunic belted with hanging fringe. As the model wearing the outfit walked up to the wall of lights, the glint of a gold chain wrapped around her hand revealed a gold-encased, bejeweled vape pen. She stopped, looked at the photographers scattered around the lights, and hit the pen, letting the smoke rise around her. The audience whooped with joy, enthralled by the show’s badass buzz.

The after party further emphasized the important work, collaboration, support and, yes, fun expressed by the women in the audience. As I entered the venue on the bottom level of Chelsea Market, a throng of people lined up to try the CBD bar, which was adorned with gold, sparkly hearts, and confetti. All around me, women gathered in small groups, excitedly talking and laughing. No one stood alone—everyone was invited to dance or chat about lighthearted topics or talk business. Genifer Murray, co-founder of Genifer M Jewelry, a company that makes cannabis-inspired fine jewelry in order to destigmatize the business and practice, bounced around the room like a veritable firecracker. An eighteen-karat white gold cannabis leaf paved with brilliant diamonds hung around her neck. It was the first piece her father, a jeweler who helped her begin her business, made for her.  Before the after party, as I walked alongside her towards High Maintenance, a luxury smoke shop located in Chelsea Market, Genifer explained that the jewelry company was made to provide people with a choice to come away from the pop culture idea of cannabis. Sadly, there exist veritable barriers for cannabis-related businesses and organizations like Genifer’s. She explained to me that because of the overwhelming stigma attached to cannabis, company sponsorships request confidentiality and charities refuse cannabis-related funds. Public advertisements are also a struggle.

Inside the after party, I caught up with Imani Dawson, Vice President of The WeedHead and Company, an organization dedicated to educate, empower, and facilitate e-commerce for professionals working in cannabis in an effort to make the industry accessible for all, especially those people who have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. Dawson echoed Murray’s sentiments regarding the stigma of the cannabis industry, and emphasized her and other women’s commitments to holding space in the industry for diverse minority groups and small growers and entrepreneurs. Dawson strives to keep the industry egalitarian, and to keep it from slipping into a prohibitive space for smaller business owners. She told me: “If you’re in this business, you also usually become an activist.”

From Momolu’s work in the fashion industry to Murray’s intervention in the jewelry industry to Dawson’s activism in the broader cannabis industry, all of these women are exemplars of what Women Grow hopes to cultivate and help flourish. By the end of the night, it was clear that the attitude of this organization and the female business owners and activists within it embody Angelou’s poetic words. Taking the cannabis industry with them, these women are rising and advocating for all those groups that have suffered from its negative impacts.

**Photos from Korto Momolu for Women Grow SS20, New York Fashion Week 2019. Courtesy of The Creative.