Why Willie Nelson's Cannabis Brand Loves Denim

Why Willie Nelson's Cannabis Brand Loves Denim
Courtesy of Willie's Reserve
The coronavirus pandemic hit just as Willie Nelson was getting ready to take his show on the road for a summer of concerts and other gigs where he would have sold his line of denim jackets and shirts, with the proceeds going to charity.

“If you ran into us at an activation, you’d pick out the patch and the jacket,” explains Elizabeth Hogan, vice president of brands at Denver-based GCH Inc. “From the very beginning, we took a page out of Willie’s book and recognized that when it comes to telling the world what you like, band T-shirts and hats are a way we have communicated with each other.”

Launched in 2014, GCH is a cannabis intellectual-property company focused on developing a portfolio of cannabis brands, starting with Willie’s Reserve. In 2019, it launched Willie’s Remedy, a line of hemp-based wellness products, and Willie’s Rescue, a hemp-based pet line.

In 2020, Willie’s Reserve partnered with musical artists Margo Price and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats to launch new product lines. Price’s is dubbed All American Made. The Rateliff line was released in Colorado under the Nightstache brand, and has since expanded into Maryland.

During the Willie’s Reserve party at the cannabis trade show MJBizCon 2019 in Las Vegas, Nelson set up a denim bar, where attendees were invited to select a denim item to be adorned with a patch. There was no charge, but a donation was requested. The clothing was so popular that another project was born: upcycling denim jackets and shirts — many of them old Levi’s or Wrangler labels that Hogan and her team have collected — with Willie’s Reserve patches, pins and other embellishments, then selling them for charity.

But with the COVID cancellations, they couldn’t launch the program as planned. Before the pandemic, the vision was to hire seamstresses to sew the patches and other custom details onto denim jackets at live events. With in-person concerts a casualty of COVID-19, Nelson and crew shifted gears and started selling apparel emblazoned with Willie’s Reserve patches and pins online. The jackets go for about $110 each, and demand has been strong.

“This started as an organic idea to reach out and put some of our team’s enthusiasm to work,” Hogan explains. “Seeing that it’s successful, it makes sense to make this part of our program and set some goals around it.”

GCH and Nelson decided to support veterans with the line. Currently, proceeds from its sales go to The Mission Continues, a nonprofit organization that empowers veterans to continue serving their communities after returning to civilian life. “I like the idea of fostering community right now,” Hogan says. “Anything that’s bringing people together and is community service-oriented feels like the right thing to do.”

Another charity that GHC and Nelson are considering is Canines for Warriors, which trains shelter dogs to be paired as service dogs with returning veterans to relieve post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury or military sexual trauma. They’ve also worked with the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit organization addressing cannabis criminal justice reform through legal intervention, public education and legislative advocacy.

When it’s safe to hold concerts again, the project will return to in-person sales. “I’d love to be able to feature the work of some of the stitchers we’ve worked with in the past and other craftspeople who work in the textile arts,” Hogan says. “It’s not got to be about pot every minute of the day. We’ve found this to be a cool outlet.”

Nelson’s philanthropic work dates to 1985, when he and fellow musicians Neil Young and John Mellencamp established Farm Aid to increase awareness of the importance of family farms. Nelson has also been an outspoken voice in efforts to stop the slaughter of wild horses.

“We’re always looking for where we might be able to lend a hand that will be impactful,” Hogan says.

Nelson isn’t the only celebrity to create a lifestyle line of merchandise around his cannabis brand. Notorious stoners Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong each have their own cannabis brand, with separate lines of T-shirts, hats, holiday cards and accessories. San Francisco Bay area rapper and entrepreneur Berner (Gilbert Milam) started making Cookies-branded apparel in his garage and selling it exclusively online; word of mouth and social media fueled sales, with every item created selling out within hours. In 2013, the clothing brand’s popularity spurred the relocation of production from Berner’s to a manufacturing facility. In 2014, he partnered with fashion-industry veteran Bryan “Weezy” Wilson to help launch Cookies SF into the mainstream fashion industry.

Today Berner has a line of limited-edition screen-print T-shirts, caps, beanies, socks and belts that bridge the gap between streetwear, urban lifestyle marijuana, hop-hop music and multiculturalism. He also recently opened a Cookies store on South Broadway that’s been as fast a hit as his fashion line.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.