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July 31, 2020
The Spark: Talking to James Flemons of PHLEMUNS

BY INDYA BROWN

Photo courtesy of James Flemons

What sparks creativity? Joy? Every week, we talk to cool people who inspire us.

Designer James Flemons has a funny story about the first time he tried an edible. Like so many of us, he didn’t know what to expect. “I was running late for my job at American Apparel, and I didn't have time to eat breakfast. One of my coworkers was like, ‘I have this brownie edible’ and being so hungry, I think I ate half of it or something. Later we both passed out in my car, and I was like, okay so that's what edibles are like…” Flemons recalls.

Since then, he has developed a mature relationship with cannabis, becoming an advocate for its creativity-enhancing and stress relieving properties. The LA native launched his label PHLEMUNS (a play on his last name) in 2013, which has steadily gained a cult following for its printed denim sets and backless tops. Designing custom creations for artists like Solange, Lizzo and Lil Nas X, PHELMUNS subverts the traditional fashion ecosystem with genderfluid clothes that don’t adhere to any fashion week calendars.

We caught up with the designer to discuss the importance of community, how he’s shaping his brand, and why he still enjoys an edible or two when creating.

On how his relationship with cannabis evolved:

I grew up very asthmatic in a sheltered home where there was no drugs or alcohol. I was that good boy wearing my D.A.R.E T-shirt in high school, and when my friends would tell me that they were experimenting with cannabis, and I was like ‘Oh no, you're going to die’. It was all from a scared, sheltered point of view.

Then, in my twenties I learned more about cannabis which is really important — it’s automatically vilified, but there are so many good things that can come from it when used properly. I suggest watching the amazing documentary, Grass is Greener to learn more.

On using cannabis as stress relief:

I was around 30 when I learned how to smoke properly: what strain did I like? Am I an indica versus sativa person? When and where do I like to smoke? I’m big on Blue Dream, it’s my favorite strain. I also like gummies, but the edible world is a new one for me that I’ve entered in the past year or so. 

For many years my mom was anti-cannabis but this past month I took edibles with her for the first time. It was amazing. She's a very spiritual person who is in tune with the earth, people and the environment. With everything going on between the civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, and the state of the world, she felt so much and struggled. She saw how it worked for me and decided it was time to explore. I also think her doctor mentioned it to her and she has been so thankful because it has helped. 

Being someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, smoking helped me battle those issues and find clarity within them. It expands my mind creatively. Some of my best ideas have come when I’m dancing around my room at three in the morning high. It gives you a freedom to see things differently and expand your horizons. I've become an advocate but I also acknowledge the fact that it’s not necessarily for everyone. 

On the economic injustices of cannabis:

When Black people have been forced to use the weed and narcotics industry as a way of survival, lives were ruined. But now people who tried to previously demonize us for this get to profit off of it. Unfortunately, there are many Black people in jail for minor possession, which just boils my blood because so much of the cannabis industry is being dominated by white people who already have money. It’s a taxing conversation.

That said, I’m very thankful for the fact that there is progress. It's cool to see a growing dialogue about it, and I'm so thankful to be in a place like California where it's been legalized. 

On how he uses cannabis:

Generally I’ll use it at night by myself or when I’m with close friends. When the pandemic started there was so much chaos and I’m also an over-thinker, so my brain was constantly thinking about my business. My mind was spiraling every night. Eating a gummy in the evening really helped me be at peace, calm my nerves, and chill out instead of feeling mentally wired and overwhelmed. 

I don't like to smoke in public settings because I get a little too in my head and anxious but when I smoke in my comfort zone I get to really be myself. 

On becoming a designer:

Everyone knew me as the kid who designed clothes, so it was very encouraged in my world. I was a quiet, introverted person and this was a way to show my personality when I was too scared to talk. I knew I wanted to [pursue design as a career], but I also saw the obstacles of that reality — being Black in the world, specifically as a Black creative, as well someone who doesn't come from money or generational wealth makes it hard [to nurture an artistic career]. Growing up with that dream and thinking about all those factors, I had to ask myself: Do I really want to do this? 

On how he designs with intention and empathy:

My parents were always very encouraging, but also they acknowledged that it’s a very tough industry to succeed in. I always had that concern in the back of my mind but every time I tried to stray away from designing, it pulled me back. It's so ingrained in my DNA at this point. I've always said that if the money aspect wasn't there, and I could make clothes to give away for free, I would. That’s a dream of mine -- a brand not based around money and profitability. And we try to do that now: We always see how we can work something out to get a garment to someone, sometimes we offer payment plans or other things but it's a dialogue. I strive to be able to provide that fantasy for people. 

I feel like I stepped into my own this past year. And hearing that so many people have an emotional reaction to my clothing, that they have this connection, is really cool for me. For so many years I didn't expect that to be a variable in the equation, but making those fashion dreams come true for people is something that kind of helps keep me going.

On creating his own community:

I'd like to think at this point I removed myself from fashion to exist in my own world and on my own wavelength with my team. We're trying to build a new creative community and approach to fashion, style, and identity. I don't want to come up on my own. I want to come up with the community and a group of my peers around me, so we can be successful together. 

So many people I know have been fighting to break into fashion. Why don't we stop putting our energy and dollars into those people or businesses, and come together to create our own? It's very much a place of colorism, whiteness, nepotism, and favoritism. Our current established fashion industry is not working for us. It's never been on our side. Let's create our own world, because we're in a new time. 

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