Fashions to Preserve the Planet
Written by Art Cosgrove
Ron Alcalay founded Vital Hemp in 2003 with the ambitious goal of saving the world. Well maybe not quite that lofty a goal, but he certainly had his eyes set on a cause beyond fashion.
“My dad told me to stop worrying so much about what you want to do with your life, and think about what the world needs, and how you can best fulfill those needs,” says Alcalay of finding his path. He originally interpreted that advice into thinking the world needed more “critical thinkers,” as he puts it. So, he earned his master’s and Ph.D. in English and taught film and literature at the American Film Institute (AFI), UC Berkeley and other universities, for more than 10 years.
Eventually he realized that what the world needed from him was to become “a warrior for the environment,” he added, “This was back in 2002, when I was still lecturing in film history.” It was that year that he bought his first hemp shirt on a trip to San Luis Obispo, California.
He fell in love with that shirt, and one day, while visiting the hemp clothing shop he frequented in Venice Beach, he said that he wanted to “share the clothing with the world.”
A week later, Alcalay got a surprise phone call from the shop owner asking him if he wanted to get into the business. He accepted.
Alcalay has gone with the ebbs and flows of the industry: he rose from a booth-operator, and imported clothing from China to resell at festivals, to manufacturing his own pieces. He continues to grow hs business through his online store and brick and mortar location in Santa Monica.
Vital Hemp’s small inventory has expanded to provide a full selection of men’s and women’s clothing in a variety of styles and colors. Accessories such as scarves, hats and bags, are also available and made from hemp.
Vital Hemp also offers branded merchandise to those looking to have promotional gear or their logo on hemp products.
The product line includes some of the more traditional, loose, “crunchy,” looks that hippies and hikers have loved for decades. Collections also have more modern, upscale and urban looks. Vital Hemp has selections for almost anyone, including a button-down shirt for men that is reminiscent of the vintage pieces out of the J. Peterman catalogue. But more than the style, it’s the feel of the clothes that create return customers and devotees. Indeed Vital Hemp’s site and several others on the web that aggregate such reviews are popping with the types of lengthy, detailed praise that one usually sees reserved for a car or a camera.
In addition to the quality of the fashions he has to offer, Alcalay touts the seemingly endless benefits of hemp itself — from its look and feel, to the science of why it’s superior to cotton.
“It lets the skin breathe, and it’s naturally anti-microbial, because it doesn’t absorb moisture like cotton and other fabrics do, which helps to regulate body temperature,” says Alcalay. He noted that Vital Hemp’s base layers are good for hiking in the tropics or go well under a jacket while skiing.
He also described the material’s environmental benefits, “…hemp cools the globe too; for every ton of hemp we harvest, it sequesters 1.62 tons of carbon dioxide. It’s an extremely carbon-negative crop.” Hemp is a voracious consumer of CO2. “It’s more effective than many trees,” says Alcalay.
Since the 2010 opening of Vital Hemp’s flagship store, the company has grown to compete with titans like Patagonia. But, Alcalay still persists in offering clothes he believes can help change the world.
The store also sells CBD products and other accessories not found on their website, but are linked to the company’s social mission. “My goal has always been to produce garments that are grown and sewn in the USA. And we’re getting closer to that,” he says, with a note of exhaustion in his tone from years of working in the dog-eat-dog retail world. While Vital Hemp is an industry stalwart, it’s a tough business to stay profitable in, especially if you don’t want to sacrifice ethics for the bottom line.
Though it’s harder than ever to make a profit, Alcalay sees the industry as having enormous potential, due largely to the fact that increasing wages in China are sending production back to the U.S. “Yoga studios are interested in it, natural markets are interested in it, anyone who’s interested in a more natural lifestyle is into it.“
Until that industry takeover, Vital Hemp will continue to slog it out with the clothiers and try to improve the world one shirt at a time.
You can purchase Vital Hemp clothing online at VitalHemp.com or at their store at 2305 Main St. in Santa Monica, California.