In 1997, New Yorker columnist Malcolm Gladwell embarked on a hunt for cool. Afterwards, he wrote an article titled “The Coolhunt”, recounting a handful of excursions spent tailing trend-scavengers enlisted by the likes of Converse and Reebok.
Through a series of gonzo shopping trips, Gladwell discovers a formula—three rules for zeroing in on the next big buck item to be plucked from the underground and prostituted to early style-adopters through music videos and magazines.
He figured out that cool: moves fast, can’t be manufactured, and can only be discovered by those who are, themselves, authentic trend-setters.
What does this have to do with weed?
Well, when it comes to the recreational cannabis market, Canadian brands are clambering over one another in a nationwide coolhunt as they rapaciously rebrand and pitch products to a mystifying counter-consumer—the 21st century stoner.
The federal legalization of adult-use cannabis forced major corporations to dig in the dank basement of dissidents for marketable ways to capture the now-trendy drug culture.
Ontario-based licensed producer (LP) Aphria has invented Riff: an art-heavy brand pulling inspiration from halfpipes and urban skate bowls. MedReleaf, now owned by Vancouver’s Aurora Cannabis, has San Rafael ’71: a sun-soaked, salty-air product line delivered from the beaches of California in a refurbished Volkswagen bus. And then there’s Tilray, a federally licensed Nanaimo cannabis producer, that acquired Irisa: a ladylike cannabis company channeling its branding energy from celestial patterns and sage-scented healing rituals.
To be fair, for the “cannabis curious” these recreational marketing vessels are safe and easy entry points—and the aforementioned are dope brands. But very few have been able to channel the cool factor the black market once offered.
As weed becomes an increasingly popular and accessible recreational substance, everyone is vying to win the hearts of a consumer already wary of traditional capitalistic tactics, like pink washing and pandering. And with advertising restrictions and celebrity endorsements rendered illegal by Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, it’s anyone’s game.
One Vancouver brand, however, epitomizes Gladwell’s theory—and, on Friday (March 22), it launched the third installation of what can only be described as a triptych of “old world” psychedelia.
Care to check it out? Start by grabbing a few grams at the Medical Cannabis Dispensary on East Hastings. Then, follow the subtle trail of blue and yellow “pot is fun” bumper stickers slapped on electrical boxes and telephone poles until you reach a stark white studio in the heart of East Vancouver’s industrial district (1326 East Georgia Street). There, you’ll find Studio A-OK—a hidden healthy patch of peachy coolness on weed culture’s increasingly gangrenous limb of corporatization.
Although it’s a tiny hole-in-a-(well-tagged)-wall, the store has all the markers of a modern head shop—imaginative bongs, easy Ts, and cheeky rolling papers. But upon closer inspection, each item in the shop is deeply rooted in historic moments of drug liberation. It is a West Coast stoner’s dream: a pared-down Woodstock aesthetic that blends near seamlessly with Vancouver’s boardroom-to-skateboard street wear vibe.
In 2016, three friends—RJ Hunt, Patrick Campbell, and Darcy Hanna—realized no store providing smoke wares or apparel appealed to their minimalist and architecturally inspired aesthetic. So, they made one.
On January 13, they expanded into a brick-and-mortar shop featuring A-OK collections, various collaborations, and goods from designers with aligning visions.
“You can’t turn your back on the past,” Campbell says as he guides a reporter around the studio. “There is so much good design to pay homage to. I have nothing but respect for all the old heads.”
And that’s exactly what almost every piece in the store does—in the coolest of fashion.
“We’re freaks. We go into every used book store and dig for old counter culture books for inspiration,” Campbell continues. “The history of activism was an interesting time for design. The old guard was sick. And it would be a shame to ignore that.”
He holds up the Utopia shirt, a long sleeve with a series of geodesic domes trailing down the arm. The design harks back to the 1960s, when hippies conceptualized off-the-grid communes built based on sacred geometric architecture.
Then, Campbell holds up a second shirt with a familiar slogan: “Police create hippies, hippies create police” encircled by a chain of yin-yang symbols.
“That’s an old Ram Dass saying,” he says, placing it back on the hanger.
Next to that is white t-shirt with a retro sun logo reading: “Take your pick: clean mind, clean body” which Campbell says is inspired by an old rave poster from the acid house days in England.
The trio also hand-selects a limited collection of hardware: a blend of their own designs and those of likeminded minimalist pot fanatics. On one wall of the shop, a white ceramic pipe emulating a MacGyvered smokable pop can from the Portland company Candy Relics sits next to a dainty A-OK one hitter that, instead of the standard cigarette silhouette, mimics a beer bottle blue hex key.
When it comes to cannabis accessories, Hunt says the key is to focus on curating a high-end stash kit.
“Think about it? Cannabis paraphernalia was often shoved in a shoebox under your bed until the next time you needed it,” he says. “That’s not the case anymore.”
Hunt’s vision is to help consumers create a bud-focused version of the classic bar cart, but instead of crystal decanters and rose gold shakers, it’s sea glass green pipes and terracotta bongs.
“Historically, people’s [cannabis] kits have been really DIY. Our belief is that as the industry matures people are going to want things specifically made for weed, made by weed companies,” he says while fiddling with one of A-OK’s more utilitarian items—a solid metal tamp stick specifically built for packing loose bud in joints and bowls.
For even the classiest of cannaseurs, that job is normally relegated to the butt of an old BIC pen or a chopstick, adds Campbell.
“We’re about function as much as we are about design,” continues Hunt, picking up a steel smell proof doob tube keychain that holds not one but four joints.
“When I go to a party, I don’t bring one beer. It’s the same with doobies. I usually bring about four or five. So, instead of having a bunch of single doob tubes, I can bring this guy.”
Everything, right down to the “pot is fun” slaps popping up on government property throughout the city ties back to old-world drug culture—with the saying itself inspired by a sign American poet and writer Allan Ginsberg held during a weed rally in the late '60s.
Campbell then flips open a black pack of rollies A-OK designed in collaboration with 8-Ball—a New York publisher of grassroots zines—to reveal yet another prohibition style Easter egg. Lining the inside, and hidden under the filter tips, are instructions on what to do if you’re stopped by the cops.
While classic head shops cling to the building blocks of stoner paraphernalia—and new designers toss around stigma-sanitized language like “elevated” (stoned, baked) and “legacy market” (black market, illegal, the good shit), Studio A-OK’s swag is located at the cross section where high meets fashion. Using terms synonymic slang, like cabbage, marijuana, and pot, combined with design throwbacks to drug war era imagery, their products aim to provoke a conversation most are choosing to ignore.
“We totally understand the complications around stigmatizing terminology…and the importance of reinventing it to create a more equitable space,” says Hunt. “But the challenge we took on…was in combining the existing great imagery, terms, strain names, and the real history.”
Studio A-OK isn’t trying to market to a skeptic. It is the skeptic. Its products pay respects where due and prop a pedestal under the old guard—and it’s one of the only modern brands not trying to create cool where cool already exists.
(Insider’s tip—check behind the t-shirt labels.)