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Cannabis Companies Are Taking Cues — and Employees — From the Fashion Industry

Dhani Mau

Beyond treating weed as a wellness product, these businesses are drawing increasing comparisons to fashion ones, and that's no accident.

Photo: Courtesy of Beboe

"The Hermès of Marijuana," read a 2017 headline in The New York Times Style section, referring to the brand Beboe, whose founders have also said that they aspire to become something akin to "the LVMH of cannabis." Brands in cannabis are being likened to those in fashion and beauty with curious frequency. There's also the "Louis Vuitton of marijuana," the "Supreme of cannabis," "the Sephora of CBD," "the A.P.C. of head shops" and "the Barneys of cannabis" (never mind that actual Barneys is about to start selling cannabis). And that's no accident.

Marijuana businesses are on a mission to not only sell their products, but also further legalize, de-stigmatize and normalize the substance overall (because that means they can sell more product). From upscale retail chain MedMen's new Spike Jonze-directed commercial to brands like Beboe investing as much (if not more) into their packaging and design as they do their weed, these companies are going to great lengths to change consumers' mindset about marijuana and the people who use it recreationally, and many of them are looking to fashion and beauty for cues on how to do it.

The intersection of fashion and cannabis has been getting, shall we say, more heavily trafficked for a while now. CBD is one of the trendiest beauty product ingredients being used today, and the hottest thing in millennial-targeting wellness: Facial shop Heyday now offers CBD treatments in Los Angeles and The Now and Chillhouse each offer massages that use the ingredient. Meanwhile, several designers — most consistently Alexander Wang — have incorporated weed motifs into their designs. A marijuana-inspired line that debuted at New York Fashion Week: Men's last year even describes itself as "smokewear." And, there are no fewer than three chic magazines devoted to weed in print to cover all of these developments.

Recreational marijuana for those over the age of 21 is now legal in 10 states; medical marijuana is available in 33. And as legalization has grown, particularly in metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, so too has the substance's cultural relevance — and that could be the main reason for many of the fashion-cannabis adjacencies that have come up lately, in addition to the business potential. (Some have dubbed this era the "green rush.") At the same time, consumer habits have shifted, with millennials especially choosing to spend their money on experiences instead of material things like fashion.

Scott Cambell and Clement Kwan of Beboe. Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Beboe, LLC

That could be one reason for another recent phenomenon — the overlap in workforce: Lately, fashion people have been jumping ship to work in cannabis instead. For instance, Beboe, which is likely the best-known cannabis brand among fashion crowds, employs a number of business-savvy professionals from that world. 

To name a few: Co-founder Clement Kwan worked for Theory and Dolce & Gabbana before becoming the president of Yoox, which he left for the cannabis world in 2015 after overseeing its merger with Net-a-Porter (though he also grew and sold marijuana in college, so you could say his career began there); the other co-founder, Scott Campbell, was and still is a tattoo artist, and fashion-adjacent one at that, who has collaborated with designers like Marc Jacobs; VP of Marketing Kiana Anvaripour launched a successful luxury lingerie line and then a startup that facilitated personalization for apparel retailers, both of which she licensed before joining Beboe. Together, their fashion industry connections are vast (as are their Hollywood connections — Campbell is married to actress Lake Bell).

"At the time when I left fashion, the industry had started to change," says Anvaripour. "I noticed that customers had less and less of an emotional connection to brands, and the focus shifted to paying for experiences versus material things. Cannabis was just starting to gain attention and I sought the excitement of a new industry where I could really make a difference."

Fleur Marché, the so-called "Sephora of CBD," was founded last year by two Goop alumni, Meredith Schroeder and Ashley Lewis. Lewis says she noticed a "huge migration happening" with wellness accounting for an increasingly larger "slice of the pie" in terms of how Goop customers were shopping. She and Schroeder realized that there was a customer "willing to stretch their budget" to try innovative new solutions to things that were ailing them, with confusion and stigma around cannabis being the only barrier to entry. Working at Goop made them experts in what they call the "contextual commerce model," i.e. selling product alongside educational, relatable content. "In fashion, you're trying to reinvent what categories always existed," says Schroeder. "There was a big opportunity to use that same storytelling element in this space."

Photo: Courtesy of Fleur Marché

Canndescent is another cannabis company positioning itself in the luxury space — with its orange packaging, it's also been dubbed the "Hermès of cannabis," uh-oh — that has been looking for fashion experience on prospective employees' resumés. The publicist I worked with for this story previously held roles at Tom Ford and Gucci, while the company's Chief Marketing Officer Jenna Habayeb previously held the same role at 7 For All Mankind, Splendid and Ella Moss.

Habayeb, who's been at Canndescent for five months, was initially hesitant to take the position. "When the recruiter reached out to me for this role and I saw cannabis, I thought, 'cannabis?' she says. "But when I did some research on the brand and I saw the aesthetic and the experience they were trying to create for the consumer, it definitely intrigued me."

"I loved that they approached cannabis as a premium good like a designer handbag," says Anvaripour about what attracted her to Beboe.

Campbell makes the point that, of course, cannabis is a rapidly-growing industry and talent has to come from somewhere. "The whole cannabis industry is all kind of borrowed talent from different fields and coming from different spaces and applying what they learned in other fields to this one." Still, he admits, "there is a lot of fashion talent on our team."

With former fashion professionals at the table and a common near-evangelical mission to normalize cannabis consumption, these particular companies are, naturally, branding, marketing and selling products using tactics that are tried and true in the fashion and beauty industries.

Beboe products. Photo: Courtesy of Barneys and Beboe

Kwan and Campbell have made aesthetics the main point of differentiation for Beboe: The brand's slim, rose gold vape pens — subtly decorated with Campbell's signature line art — look like fashion accessories in their own right, while their pastille containers are undeniably Instagram-flat-lay-ready. 

"Working in fashion and living in Italy has taught me about the true meaning of aesthetics and the true definition of quality of product and attention to detail," says Kwan. "I'm a very aesthetic person and package design and product design is a real vetting process, especially in an industry that a lot of people are engaging with for the first time," explains Campbell. "You look at the package and it's like, wow, this is very considered and it's easy to trust that whatever is inside the package is equally as considered."

"When we started and up until recently, there were no other brands approaching cannabis with attention to aesthetic like this. Every aspect of the brand – packaging, events, social content – is thoughtful and high-touch," explains Anvaripour. "I'm a woman who appreciates taste and quality and Beboe is designed for a customer like me."

From a retail standpoint, Lewis and Schroeder confirm aesthetics are important, especially for a site like Fleur Marché, whose mission is to de-stigmatize CBD and present it in a way that speaks to women who might be trying it for the first time. Schroeder says she's noticed that branding of cannabis products is improving and called out Beboe as a brand that's getting it right. "The more you can make it feel like a chic accessory, the more accessible it gets," she says.

"We really look at it as a fashion accessory or beauty accessory... they help you relax and overall that's helpful for your wellbeing and you're going to look and feel like a better person," says Habayeb of Canndescent's products — primarily marijuana flower, plus a recently-launched vape pen called the Stylus that is actually shaped like a pen (the type that you write with). "Aesthetically, we're making products that are gorgeous and luxurious," she says. 

Photo: Courtesy of Canndescent

Like fashion brands, cannabis companies like Beboe and Canndescent also engage in influencer and celebrity gifting. Beboe has even seeded its products in gifting suites ahead of big award shows like the Golden Globes as well as Coachella. While many celebrities and influencers are still shy about revealing their cannabis use publicly and on social media, some are coming around. Chelsea Handler recently made an appearance at a Canndescent event and Habayeb notes that fashion blogger Rocky Barnes posted the brand's Stylus "organically" on Instagram. Courtney Trop of Always Judging is another fashion influencer who openly shares her cannabis use on Instagram and has even teased a CBD line that she has in the works.

Influencer shyness is not the only challenge cannabis companies face when it comes to marketing: Products can't legally cross state lines or be mailed, so they can only seed to people in the state in which they are based. (Fortunately, California has no shortage of influencers or celebrities.) They also can't legally engage in any paid advertisements on Facebook, Instagram or Google. "When you think about beauty and fashion brands and how much Instagram plays a role in those brands and how much paid media and PR play a role in those brands, it's so much harder when we're a regional company that also has to follow restrictions for ages and overall regulation," laments Habayeb.

One way around this is putting out a product that does not itself contain THC, whether it's a CBD product or a vape pen battery (which you would buy separately from the cannabis oil pod), like Canndescent's Stylus, which Habayeb says is "opening up a lot more avenues for us to have a national conversation." 

Another way around it is IRL events and experiences, which have also become increasingly popular in the mainstream fashion space. "We definitely lean heavily into experiential," says Habayeb. "We're constantly hosting small-format and large-format events to educate people, get people comfortable with trying our products."

Lewis and Schroeder also plan to make events a priority for Fleur Marché. They're in talks to do "pop-ins" with a "big athletic apparel retailer" with stores on each coast and hope to do trunk shows with different brands.

Physical retail is another way to build brand awareness, and there are plenty of dispensaries in LA, but when it comes to reaching shoppers who aren't already well-versed in cannabis, things are a bit trickier. Campbell figured it out, though, and in March, Beboe products will sit atop a marble pedestal inside Barneys' Beverly Hills flagship when it opens The High End, a permanent cannabis shop-in-shop. While shoppers can't technically take weed home from the store since it's not a dispensary, they can learn about it, purchase it through Beboe and have it delivered to their homes. It's being thought of as a watershed moment in cannnabis retail.

"I think the Barneys project will open a lot of doors and shed a lot of hesitation that people have in embracing [cannabis]," says Campbell. "It's a bold move on their part and I'm really kind of grateful for their legal team for trusting us on this one."

If Beboe didn't market itself like a luxury fashion brand, it probably wouldn't be in one of the most prominent luxury fashion retailers in the country. And other cannabis brands hope to head in the same direction. 

Photo: Courtesy of Sherbinskis

Bay-area cannabis veteran Mario Guzman, who owns the upscale, beautifully packaged brand Sherbinskis (the aforementioned "Louis Vuitton of cannabis," which has also been compared to Supreme) has been gaining respect in the industry for the past 10 years and was among the first people to really brand weed. "We started coining the term 'designer weed' because people started saying, 'Man, you're making the best weed,'" he tells me. He initially made a name for himself — or for the fictional "Mr. Sherbinski" since this was pre-legalization and he feared using his real name — by aligning with the music industry. "Gelato's been rapped about in over 200 songs," he says, referring to one of his signature strains. Next, he's after the fashion set. He ended up meeting Kwan about a year and a half ago and they clicked. Sherbinskis has cultivated strains for Beboe, one of which will be available exclusively through the Barneys shop.

Kwan also invited Guzman to last November's Business of Fashion Voices conference, where the two took the stage to discuss marijuana business. There, he met Stella McCartney, with whom he hopes to one day collaborate, among other fashion designers. Sherbinskis merch and a Sherbinkis Nike AF1 Low Bespoke shoe dropped at Complexcon last year. Speaking of which, MedMen also launched merch recently. Los Angeles-based Mister Green and Cookies are also among the cannabis companies that sell apparel. (Maybe this is the next merch trend?)

Campbell says he, too, has a number of fashion-adjacent projects in the works, including something with Clique Brands/Who What Wear co-founder Katherine Power, who recently joined Beboe as an investor and advisor. "Nothing I can talk openly about just yet but this is absolutely just the beginning," he says of Beboe's plans to engage the fashion community.

It's worth acknowledging that as great as this move towards legalization and normalization may be, there is still major racial inequity in cannabis that isn't really being addressed: Criminalization has historically put far more black people in jail than white people, and many communities are still suffering from the effects of that while privileged entrepreneurs profit from legalization with "luxury" product.

Despite the relative infancy of the recreational marijuana market and the many regulations standing in its way, it's growing rapidly. Ten billion dollars were invested into legal marijuana last year, and the North American legal cannabis market is expected to exceed $16 billion by the end of this one. And while these brands are really just getting started, there's no doubt that, by using fashion as a portal to mainstream consumers, they're a big part of a major cultural shift.

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