Representing the creative future

Weed in fashion education

Why do fashion students in California use weed and how does it affect their creativity?

Why do fashion students in California use weed and how does it affect their creativity?

With the usage of cannabis in America reaching an all-time high during the COVID-19 lockdown and with students and creatives being more stressed than ever, what is the effect of weed use on fashion education?

“Anxieties, stress…some people come home and have a glass of wine, I like to come home and have a hit or two of a joint.” Diego Rivera, a senior BFA Menswear designer at San Francisco’s Academy of Art, lets out a soft laugh. “Living in the state of California, especially in the field that we’re in, people are very open-minded towards it.”

While medical marijuana was legalised in California in 1996 and smoking weed was considered as much a part of West Coast culture as skating or hitting the beach, you could still be arrested for possession until a decade later. The passing of Prop 64 in 2016 marked a new chapter for what was to become a booming cannabis industry in the United States. Two years later, on News Year Day, dispensaries across the Golden State opened their doors for the first time and droves of smiling people queued around the block. But what effect has that had on the fashion creatives practising there?

“Working here in the Tenderloin, you smell it constantly,” shares Simon Ungless, executive director at the Academy of Art’s School of Fashion in San Francisco. “I live in Marin County, where my neighbours grow weed. That’s been the case forever. I’ll be driving home and somebody will be smoking in front of me, so it wafts into my car. It’s just a thing around now, isn’t it?”

We meet in the early morning, which in the Bay Area means there’s a 50/50 chance of walking outside to a grey overcast or to near-blinding sunshine. On this day, sunlight spills through the windows in Simon’s office filling it with a subtle glow. Students are busy cutting patterns and sewing in the studios upstairs as cars drive down the busy intersection just outside. 

Simon came to San Francisco in 1996, after CSM tutor Bobby Hillson convinced him to try it out – that and the allure of the beach. Even in London, drugs featured heavily in his experience of fashion school. The first person Simon crossed paths with on CSM’s Charing Cross campus was Lee Alexander McQueen, who would become a close friend and long-term collaborator. The two quickly started pulling together looks: Simon making the prints and textiles and Lee designing with them. It was a beautiful friendship that birthed collections like Taxi Driver and Dante. Beyond fashion, it was filled with lots of laughter and reminiscing after hitting the town. “It was a very big thing, being out and experimenting with a lot of different drugs. Feeling that energy, it becomes a part of the inspiration,” Simon explains. 

Drug use and the arts have a long, complicated relationship, and both have a rich history in San Francisco, which Simon would learn after moving over. “The city has this huge history of music and drug culture. In the 1960s, this building was the California Hall. Everyone played here, from Grace Slick and Janis Joplin to the Grateful Dead, Siouxsie and the Banshees. Even U2 – they all performed in our building.”

“My favourite thing to do in this entire world is going to a magazine or a book shop and spend hours looking through books, referencing pictures and pulling poetry that speaks to me, that with some weed makes my day.”

Today, the students walking the halls of the AAU’s School of Fashion are not touching heavy drugs, but many are turning to marijuana instead. BFA student Diego Rivera says editing while high helps him to see the work differently from the initial conceptual phase, allowing him the flexibility to modify where needed and overcome creative roadblocks. For him, it creates the mental space for enjoying inspiration, uninhibited. “My favourite thing to do in this entire world is going to a magazine or a book shop and spend hours looking through books, referencing pictures and pulling poetry that speaks to me,” he says. “That with some weed makes my day.”

For Kenneth Brody, a senior BFA Womenswear designer, marijuana soothes his nerves. “Now that I’m in college, especially in fashion school, I use it for medical reasons, to handle the stress of school and doing a senior collection. I don’t think I would have a good night’s sleep if I didn’t smoke.”

While both students see weed as a creative aid, neither would say it is fundamental. “For me, conceptualizing a collection should start really far away, crazy and avante-garde,” says Diego. “Then I bring my ideas down to realistic garments. But I can’t cut patterns or do day-to-day sewing while I’m high.” Like Diego, Kenneth uses weed to remove self-imposed restrictions but puts it down for the actualisation of his collections.

Carson Fuetsch, a senior designer at the California College of the Arts, sees weed as more of a mainstay, at least for now: “When I smoke, it calms my ADD down and allows my brain to sit and think through my thoughts and not jump around so much.” While Carson appreciates how weed has helped her manage her mental wellbeing, she is open about the consequences. “If we’re going to be real about these things, there is a habit that comes with it. You can call it addiction or by another name, but there is a habit-forming aspect to it, ” she says. 

“I do wonder in the back of my head if I would be more productive if I wasn’t stoned.”

It’s the addictive side and long-term impact that has kept MFA womenswear designer Milijana Delic away from weed. With a background in nutrition, the senior at AAU is more concerned with the genetic toll her family might have generations later. “I’ve been keeping up with epigenetics, which is an ongoing study that looks at your lifestyle and how it can be passed on in genetics. The breaking down of chemical and brain barriers forms habits that I’d rather just avoid.” To cope with stress, Milijana opts for free-flow cooking in the kitchen or heading outside for a brief moment of fresh air.  

Patricia Falowo, a fellow MFA womenswear designer, put down the weed for physical health reasons. “I was doing crossfit for a minute and noticed how it was affecting my breathing. I started to develop problems because of the blunt I would roll it in.” When she decided to address and prioritize her health needs, Falowo underwent a broader lifestyle change. “I made a lot of changes healthwise – I cut meat – and weed was dropped as part of it.”

Carson admits that she has considered how her creativity might actually benefit from setting aside the weed. “I do wonder in the back of my head if I would be more productive if I wasn’t stoned.” While weed can be calming, the heightened awareness it generates can easily drift into an unfocused dazed.

“Times are tough and difficult but I found it next to impossible to communicate with stoned folks in their beds in an online class environment.”

It’s a challenge Simon has dealt with since San Francisco initiated its COVD-19 restrictions last month. “When the shelter in place started, I did experience an increase in use with some of the students in my class,” he shares. “We went remote through Zoom and they were trying to participate in class from bed and I just wasn’t feeling it at all. Times are tough and difficult but I found it next to impossible to communicate with stoned folks in their beds in an online class environment.”

“One of the biggest fears is that when you leave the drugs and alcohol behind, you leave your creativity behind,”

There are well-documented downsides which Simon and the students touch on. Dependency, overdoses, deterioration of both physical and mental health can all take place. Some creatives will toy with taking a step back. But for many, it isn’t even a matter of the pros outweighing the cons, but their belief that giving up drugs could lead to giving up one of their most prized possessions. “One of the biggest fears is that when you leave the drugs and alcohol behind, you leave your creativity behind,” says Simon.

He recalls a time when drugs were used not only for creativity but for self-medication. Mental health wasn’t openly discussed and appropriate treatment was hard to come by for many students. “Quite a significant number of people had mental health issues, completely undiagnosed back then, completely unrecognised,” Simon explains. “The number of suicides, deaths, accidents or completely going into a mental breakdown… I need more than two hands to count those people, just from my time at Saint Martins.”

A few decades later, the conversation has shifted. It’s become not only normalised but encouraged for students to speak out when they need help. Universities like the Academy of Art have made it their mission to ensure young creatives know that they are not alone. “The students are very self-reflective here. Every project that they do, half of their inspiration comes from their feelings, their issues, their depression, their anxiety — it all comes into the sketchbook.”

“There’s a lot more pressure today on this generation than, say, what I had 30 years ago,”

To fashion educators like Simon, it’s no secret that students think weed helps them think further outside the box. As far as the students are concerned, there isn’t a stigma around its use and nor do they feel like they are characterised by it (although Fuetsch does wonder how her professor came to recommend her for this conversation). And for those who continue to use it, weed is just one of the many ways they calm their nerves and take a break from the present.

“There’s a lot more pressure today on this generation than, say, what I had 30 years ago,” says Simon. “Waiting tables, working in a bar, doing all this stuff, the students have all sorts of extra things they need to take care of. They pay four or five thousand dollars rent, with seven people living in a one-bedroom apartment in San Jose. I think that’s perhaps part of why they use weed, to soften that in some way.”

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