As the former cultural engineer for Ace Hotel, 33-year-old Ariel Stark-Benz knows how to bring a brand to life via cheeky storytelling, tasteful curation and good design. In 2015, he left the hotel business and launched Mister Green, a design-forward pot lifestyle brand and e-shop. “My vision has always been to create a new perspective surrounding cannabis culture,” says Stark-Benz. Considering he’s been featured in Vogue and GQ and opened a breezy brick-and-mortar in East Hollywood earlier this year, we’d say he’s succeeding. We talked to the self-described “founder, creative director, #2 ranking sales person and store janitor” about branding cannabis, battling stereotypes and affecting social change.

What were you doing before you launched the shop?

My background has almost always been in design and brand marketing, most recently working with Ace Hotel to concept and develop shop products and collaborations. Before that I ran a design studio with a friend. And before that I worked for a large scale brand marketing project for Mercedes-Benz. I also worked a lot with Converse as a junior producer and trend researcher (when that kind of role existed), reporting directly to the global creative director.

How did you get the idea to launch Mister Green?

At some point, I started thinking about potentially creating something on my own. I wanted it to be unique and having always being interested in drugs (laughs) I thought it could be interesting to make a brand under the concept “cannabis.” Working for Ace, I learned a ton about what it means to create a brand in a very human way, in terms of taking a concept like “hotel” and creating interesting narratives around it, and developing compelling products that connect with people. That was a huge part of the a conceptual foundation for Mister Green. No one had done it in a way that I could relate to yet.

How did you want the shop to look and feel?

I wanted it to be a tad Japanese and Scandinavian — natural wood meeting bare white space. I wanted it to feel open and breezy like a gallery but not barren or austere; more cozy and casual. It’s also extremely DIY, with basic wood structures made of plywood and cinderblocks. A lot of beauty can be derived from very base materials.

What kind of products are available in the shop?

I knew that not everyone who came in the shop was going to buy a bong, so we have a wide product line ranging from branded clothing and accessories to apothecary items. We also curate a range of items that we feel align with our tastes and sensibilities. We’re more or less a typical head-shop, but we’re coming at it from an entirely new set of aesthetic principles. We’re just releasing our third collection now, and dropping a new fragrance in time for holiday.

Everyone knows the dated stereotypes around weed and potheads — how would you describe the reality of weed culture?

The reality is that almost every type of person imaginable enjoys weed and has their own individual relationship to the plant. We’re in a funny “coming out” stage on a public scale, and people are learning that more and more “normal” people enjoy pot. Those old stereotypes are a niche, but most long-standing producers of pot-related paraphernalia come from that niche and have defined the market for years.

What are some of the biggest positive changes you’ve seen in the industry?

Growing awareness is key, especially about massive social issues like the racist drug war. One of the most important causes we want to grow support for is giving back to disenfranchised communities that were ravaged by the war on drugs, including finding ways to help those who have been imprisoned for marijuana-related offenses. Its disturbing to think about marijuana sales being such a viable business opportunity for white businessmen when doing the same has destroyed the lives of people of colour and their communities for decades.

I know you originally considered launching as a dispensary but decided on a shop instead — is a dispensary in the future?

The dispensary aspect of Mister Green is our next phase of life – version 2.0 so to speak. It’s in the works, but we’d love to continue to re-shape the mould. It’s taking some time but seems to be unfolding beautifully.

Story by Nancy Won

Portrait photos by Johnny Le

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