With some of the country’s harshest marijuana laws, Arkansas would seem to be far from an ideal location for cutting edge cannabis-related projects. The state is also not among the places that first come to mind when you think of a home base for a fashion innovator. But it is both for Little Rock-based fashion designer Korto Momolu, who is presenting a marijuana-themed collection with industry group at New York Fashion Week.

“My clients are like, ‘Now what are you doing?’” says Momolu in a phone interview with High Times while she works in her studio. “But I think where we are right now in Arkansas, there’s a future for [cannabis]. Once we do get going, this will be a great place for Women Grow to have market leaders, and to help women here who want to get into the industry.” 

It is true that Arkansas’ first dispensaries opened their doors earlier this year, and that some activists are making a concerted push to get a recreational cannabis measure on an upcoming ballot. Certainly Women Grow, founded in 2014, has a mission that goes beyond helping entrepreneurs get going in the country’s coastal metropolitan centers. 

“We are always seeking innovative ways to address and erase the stigma that still exists today for women who embrace cannabis as a career and/or in their personal lives,” says Women Grow CEO Dr. Chanda Macias. She says that this latest high profile collaboration with Momolu — which will be shown at NY Fashion Week’s official Pier 59 Studios venue on September 7 — was strategic. “On the surface, fashion might not seem like the most pressing of issues, but we see it as an opportunity to reframe the conversation around what is possible as a cannabis business,” says Macias.

Momolu was a compelling choice to create a collection representing the evolving convergence of fashion and cannabis. She has built her business around regal prom and wedding custom creations, their vivid patterns and dramatic lines largely inspired by the women of her home country Liberia. Momolu moved to Little Rock with her husband to raise their family, and a decade ago, made a memorable appearance on TV reality show Project Runway. It became clear that her immigration story and relentless, faith-based positivity had earned her a passionate fan base.

After the show aired, she couldn’t go out to dinner in Little Rock in peace. She shared in a live interview with a local fashion organization that one time, a fan fainted in the Hobby Lobby parking lot upon seeing her. When she returned to Liberia for the first time in over 20 years to present a runway collection, she was surprised to see her own face on a billboard, indicative of the hope her success had sown in fellow Africans.

Nowadays, Momolu sews and teaches local kids fashion design through projects with the Clinton Foundation and the Timmons Art Foundation. Her students “otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to fashion design, how to sew, how to draw, how to be a designer,” she says. “It’s kind of more of an inspirational push to dream, dream big.” 

She is precisely the kind of unconventional woman entrepreneur that might find herself at home among Women Grow’s cannabis CEOs, dispensary managers, and product developers. Plus, she has a personal connection to the work. Cancer runs in her family, so Momolu has seen the efficacy of what marijuana can do for patients — and felt it herself when it comes to treating her own arthritis pain. She also swears by i + i Botanicals’ CBD facial serum (the company is a sponsor of the NY Fashion Week event), which she first discovered at a Women Grow Event. Momolu says the product has been so effective that she’s been able to wear less makeup since getting hooked. 

“Her work speaks to our community of women participating in cannabis at all levels, from business owners and supporting professionals to patients, advocates and the canna-curious, all of which are represented in Women Grow as well,” says Macias.

Korto Momolu via Instagram

But even given Momolu’s multi-faceted relationship to cannabis, incorporating marijuana into a clothing collection was a challenge. This is not the first time high fashion has expressed its love for marijuana. Notable examples include Alexander Wang’s Fall 2016 collection, which was all but dedicated to cannabis and featured camisoles, fluffy jackets, and cut-out leather skirts with leaf silhouettes. Jeremy Scott designed a weedy Adidas logo in 2012, and Vetements dropped a marijuana grinder necklace in 2016. Although it’s an urban legend that the first Levi’s jeans were made from hemp, the company did put out a 69 percent cotton-31 percent hemp blend jacket and jean in collaboration with Outerknown in March.

It’s a bit hard to imagine what Momolu’s SS20 collection will look like walking out onto the runway. She mentions using down-to-earth materials — cork, jute, and linen, in addition to, of course, hemp. But she also employed brocade, organza, and lace for a “glamorized sportswear line,” or “the anti-tomboy sportswear collection,” in her words. 

The vibe of the show will largely be based off the first product that sold out at Momolu’s mini-capsule presentation at the Women Grow Leadership Summit in Washington, DC; a copper-colored sequined baseball hat emblazoned with the WG logo. There will be marijuana-themed accessories, and hemp jackets light and smart enough for women cannabis professionals to take them from the boardroom to the resort. (In fact at Momolu’s last presentation with Women Grow, all the models were IRL marijuana workers.)

“We’re giving that vision to the woman who works in cannabis, but who doesn’t want to wear a Polo collared shirt and khakis,” Momolu says. “She can actually put on a jacket made out of hemp and goes to the boardroom and do business, and really support the industry, wearing it proudly.”

Momolu’s New York Fashion Week presentation will also be an opportunity to see how one Arkansas-based, Liberian fashion entrepreneur’s relationship with cannabis has evolved, and fast. After her difficulty locating local hemp fabric with which to make the collection, Momolu is even mulling over getting into the United States’ budding cannabis textile business, suddenly viable now that hemp has been regulated by the most recent US Farm Bill.

“How could we, in this industry, with all the people involved with Women Grow and with the growers and whatnot, how can we maybe be a source for that?” Momolu wonders, her words providing better justification for cannabis women power-building than a single runway show ever could.

Introduce Yourself: Name, Company, Goals