Ron Alcalay is a vital member of the sustainable community, working diligently to re-legalize the cultivation of industrial hemp in the United States. I had the incredible pleasure of hearing Rony speak at the Green America Green Business Conference in 2008, and was awed by the telling of his epic journey to China to vet the factory he was working with at the time for fair trade practices. Vital Hemp was nominated for the Green Business Leader of the Year in 2009, and sets the bar for stylish hemp clothing. Read on to learn more about this incredible company, brand, founder and new father!
How did you get the idea to start Vital Hemp?
The company grew organically, like a seed that has its own destiny.
Back in 2002, I was teaching film history at a local university. I had been teaching literature and film history for more than ten years. It was stimulating, but didn’t feel particularly engaged with the most pressing needs of the planet. I had experienced the effects of global warming in my own lifetime, and *An Inconvenient Truth* spurred me to do something! Sadly, I didn’t know what that was, so kept going along, doing what I was doing, feeling comfortable, but vaguely unsatisfied, as though life demanded more of me and I wasn’t rising to the challenge.
I discovered hemp clothing at a small shop in San Luis Obispo, where I bought my first shirt. I loved it! A month later, I found a hemp shop in Venice, and bought more items, including gifts, musing aloud, “I have this fantasy about sharing hemp clothing with the world!” I had signed the owner’s email list…a week later, he invited me to discuss the possibility of going into the hemp clothing business. It was like the proverbial bolt from the blue. I suggested we do something small first, so we agreed to attend the first ever Green Festival in San Francisco. I worked the booth for no pay, sold a couple of thousand dollars of hemp clothes, and fell in love with the green business community, in whose company I felt more at home than I ever had among my supremely intellectual, academic friends.
Returning home, we discussed how we would market hemp clothing to the masses. We signed a short partnership agreement; I invested money; we bought clothes from China and we were off. A few months later, the partner said he wanted to go it alone. I was crushed, but eventually recovered, selling hemp clothes on the Venice boardwalk on weekends while still lecturing. Eventually, the hobby became my vocation. I designed my own styles, sold to stores and recently moved manufacturing to Los Angeles, where I can keep a close eye on every stage of the process. We now supply a growing list of retailers and make custom shirts and other logowear for companies that want to pursue more sustainable options.
What effect have you seen Vital Hemp having on your community?
Although I now have a small store on Main Street in Santa Monica and more than a dozen wholesale accounts, I still set up a booth every Sunday at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. Here I meet old customers, new customers, and educate the public about the qualities of hemp. For awhile I called myself a hempjucator, now I prefer “hemperdasher.” That’s my official title–on email and all business and government documents. I “put hemp in the hands of the people,” and “satisfy their hemptations,” a few of the slogans I conceived. See Mom: the Ph.D. in English was worth something!
About my community: the great thing is that the community keeps growing. At first, the local Venetians and tourists loved the brand and the fact that I was out there representing hemp. Then the Raw Food community embraced us, with a genuine open-ness and love I’ve rarely experienced; then the yogis, the kirtan artists, and the owners of natural products companies. I love to make custom tees or bags for companies I know and love. I always put those tees up in my booth and brag about Health Force, Nutiva, Kombucha Botanica or Little Moon Essentials, because I know the owners of those companies, know and use their products all the time and stand behind them. Of course, it’s always good to return to the Green Festivals, where my community gathers to share their offerings with the public and with each other.
What is your favorite aspect of what you do?
I love acting as a hemperdasher at festivals or the farmer’s market, helping people find the right piece for themselves or for a gift. I know the clothes will become peoples’ favorites and last a long time.
I also love choosing colors for the line. I never consult what the fashion people say is hot, or will be “in,” but I seem to anticipate those trends anyway… It’s a very personal, artistic feeling: I think, “I want a blue in the line,” then look at a whole range of blues, narrowing, and continually asking myself, “How does this make me feel?” Eventually, I select colors that make me feel distinct emotions, like the calm energy I feel near a tropical bay. And I might call that color “Aqua.” Nature inspires me. Rasberry, Tangerine, Leaf, Bark, Plum …they’re all colors from nature–colors we don’t often see in hemp clothing, but colors people seem to love to wear.
Any words of wisdom to share with budding entrepreneurs?
Trust yourself, but be open to the counsel and participation of others. When I started designing clothes, I knew what I liked on my body, but had no idea what women wanted to wear. I told a couple of my stylish female customers: “Bring me your top three favorite pieces that you’d like to see in hemp. If I manufacture the style, I’ll give you one in every color.” This worked well one season, until I got a better idea of what I wanted; but I still enjoy working with creative pattern-makers, fit models and others who broaden my understanding of what’s possible.
Apart from this, don’t spend a ton on the best software, website, etc…, planning for when your company makes millions. Get what you need to run the company; when the need really arises and the budget allows, upgrade. It’s easy to get persuaded you need stuff you don’t. Instead, put the money into creating the best products, and into creative ways to help your customers see these goods.