On my way to class in Milbank Hall one morning, I overheard a Barnard first-year talking about a graphic sticker she had seen in the Sulzberger elevator. It was a plain, white oval with a black outlined female form, and a marijuana leaf covering the vagina. I was both intrigued and a little bemused by this description, and though I hadn't seen the logo yet, the image I had conjured in my head struck me.
Now, I am sitting in front of someone wearing the same logo on a slick black T-shirt. Like the sticker, the tee sports an elegant design of an outlined female form with a cannabis leaf covering the female genitalia. The crisp white lines of the design pop against the dark background—it looks store-bought and expensive, like something you would see Justin Bieber wearing whilst being bombarded by paparazzi leaving an NYC A-list event. The appeal is instantaneous.
Ava Kingsley, a Barnard senior majoring in economics, is the co-founder of an apparel brand called PussyWeed. She and two friends came up with the brand and its unique design last summer. "It is something that just fell into place, more so than me saying, 'I want to make money, I want to start a company,'" Kingsley says.
It seems Kingsley characterizes a lot of her life decisions things that "just happened," as organic events, but it is fairly evident that these achievements stem from hard work and dedication. Her co-founder, Natasha Przedborski, a fellow Barnard senior and economics major, describes Kingsley as having a unique style of organization. "When we do plan separately, [the organization] can fall apart, but when you sit down with her, it's like, 'No, let's just do this now.'"
When Kingsley started with a vision for the concept of PussyWeed, she asked Hannah Campbell, the brand's third co-founder and a senior at NYU, to handle most of the design aspects of the brand. Przedborski was enlisted to help on the management and design fronts.
The three seniors divvy up the responsibilities of PussyWeed equally, with Kingsley taking on more of the business development and financial side. Even so, Kingsley makes it clear that her work is not limited to spreadsheet calculations, but by "really promoting the brand by wearing the shirts all the time, talking to people about it, fueling their questions, and spreading the word."
Ever since it was founded just three months ago, PussyWeed has sold over 100 shirts and has recently received campus-wide recognition. Kingsley acknowledges the success modestly. "It started out simply, with a very minimalist yet sexy design that we put on a few shirts for ourselves," she explains. "Through word of mouth and visual appreciation of our aesthetic, we gained a large following."
This idea of female empowerment is clearly at the heart of the brand. PussyWeed's website explicitly underlines this philosophy. "In a world dominated by loud mouthed men, we are bringing you apparel to scream your feminism from the rooftops," reads the site's "About" page.
In Kingsley's own words, the design of the logo is, among other things, a "celebration of the female body and curves."
But, as evidenced by the name, PussyWeed's vision of feminism intersects with the issue of marijuana legalization in a creative manner. Given recent legislative pushes to legalize marijuana and the subsequent rise of the cannabis subculture, Kingsley and her co-founders honed in on an idea of their own.
PussyWeed is, in many ways, an intersection of the two cultural shifts. "Wiz Khalifa has his face on tobacco rolling papers—you don't see a woman's face on any of this," Kingsley says, in reference to weed paraphernalia. Even within hip-hop and rap culture, Kingsley feels that women need to be brought to the forefront of leisure celebration—the legal use and enjoyment of marijuana—even more.
Despite these intentions, Kingsley acknowledges that the name is contentious. "We have certainly received feedback on the name, that it is controversial," she chuckles, before returning to a more serious demeanour. "Yet at the same time, we think it is brilliant branding, if we can say so ourselves. You don't forget it."
A native New Yorker, Kingsley grew up in Pleasantville, NY, and attended Byram Hills High School in Armonk. She describes it as "your average public school in Westchester." Her intonation had a hint of irony—my mind flashes scenes of Mean Girls, since I presume she's referring to the average albeit highly dramatized public school experience depicted in the film. If Kingsley was a character in Mean Girls, I would say she is a cross between Janis Ian and Tina Fey's character, Ms. Norbury—smart and ballsy.
And as we sit in the Diana Center, surrounded by oatmeal, egg sandwiches, and women that might one day rule the world, it is evident that this is her place, more so than a high school hierarchy modeled after a cafeteria setup. Kingsley continues, "I really couldn't imagine going to school not in New York—and not in Barnard—where I have met the most incredible, intelligent young women who truly inspire me, for all four years."
"Honestly, if the Obamas and the Clintons one day had a PussyWeed shirt, it would be a dream come true." She adds, only half jokingly, "And you know what, I know for a fact Hillary would and does support us."
I joke that all Kingsley needs is an celebrity endorsement like that and she responds, cool and calmly, "Stay tuned. … This is just the start, the start of an empire." I wonder what Kingsley plans to do to get this empire up and running. For now, the brand sells T-shirts, black tote bags, stickers, and glass jars with the design traced on the wooden lid—which alone keep Kingsley and her cos busy.
Kingsley reclines in her chair and smiles. "But honestly, there is nothing more that I enjoy doing than talking about [the brand]," she confesses. She also gives credit to the relentless support she has received for PussyWeed. It's hardly surprising: Kingsley's passion is palpable, and the excitement in her voice is audible whenever she talks about it. PussyWeed seems to be to Kingsley what Red Canna may have been to Georgia O'Keeffe—an aesthetic celebration of femininity.
Kingsley is planning on graduating early in December and traveling to Europe afterward. The PussyWeed co-founder spent a semester in Paris in the fall semester of her junior year, where she made close friends and got to know her host family well. Kingsley says she'll travel as much as "her financials will allow for it," and then she'll walk at the May commencement ceremony alongside her friends graduating in the spring.
Regardless of where she goes, Kingsley hopes to promote her brand both in person and through social media. The brand's Instagram profile features a particularly ravishing photo of Liz Friedman, the New York-based jewelry designer, wearing one of the crisp, black tees and one of her signature chunky necklaces on top. Friedman is known for her larger-than-life personality and unique style, so her support of the brand seems natural.
And though Kingsley seems unfazed when asked about her employment stance post-graduation, she explains, "It is still up in the air, but after this summer's experience at the Empire State Realty Trust, it really got me interested in commercial real estate and acquisition." Kingsley explains her interest in the field stemming from her love of the city and architecture and adds, "Actually, the History of the City of New York with Kenneth Jackson at Columbia has forever, or rather exponentially, increased my love and interest of how the city is laid out, how it works."
Even without a concrete plan in her pocket, Kingsley shows little fear for the future. Looking out the window looking onto Broadway, Kingsley muses: "It is certainly something—started by a group of Barnard women on Barnard's campus, and [it] will continue to grow beyond the gates of 116th Street."
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