BY SHELTON BOYD-GRIFFITH
PHOTOGRAPHER MENELIK PURYEAR
HAIR MICHAEL DAVID
MAKEUP CHRISTYNA KAY
PROP STYLING SHANE KLEIN
Aurora James needs no introduction. (But, here we go anyways.) In fact, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that capturing the enormity of her presence in a pithy intro is less superfluous than it is impossible. A true multi-hyphenate, James wears many hats: including, creative director, innovator, footwear designer, activist, community organizer, product designer, and more.
Since launching ethical footwear brand Brother Vellies in 2013—a favorite of such stars as Beyoncé, Zendaya, Elaine Welteroth, and Andra Day—James has been disrupting the fashion industry season after season, bringing artisanal craftsmanship to the masses, and shattering the proverbial glass ceiling along the way. A CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund winner (James is now a judge for the revered fashion incubator program), a Fortune magazine’s World’s Greatest Leader, and the spark behind the ever-important 15 Percent Pledge, James is changing the game and leaving a massive (but sustainable) footprint.
Grazia Gazette: NYFW caught up with James on a typically busy day, as the design aesthete was overseeing the installation of artisanal terracotta tiles outside her gorgeous Los Angeles home. (See, she really does it all!) We chatted about her commitment to community and the 15 Percent Pledge, her desire for every woman in America to have a pair of Brother Vellies in their closet—and the secret recipe for her famous banana bread.
Banana bread? Yes, James expresses her creative potential in myriad ways. Still, at the core of her passion is an enduring focus on fashion. Her signature, organic, worldly aesthetic has been captivating the industry over the past eight years. With Brother Vellies, inspired by Aurora’s travels across Africa, James has carved out a niche that honors both traditional, artisanal shoe-making practices (from Nairobi to Milan) while blazing a trail at the forefront of sustainable design.
“My earliest memories of fashion come from being a child and growing up with the mother that I had, who really always explained to me that fashion was a tool for women to communicate with each other about how they were feeling and also about their culture,” she says, breaking down the origins of her passion for the industry. “Fashion has always been very tied to history, culture, and communication for me.” This perspective is suffused through the design ethos of her brand, in that it all stems from something far greater than just aesthetics. Fashion “also seemed and felt like a feminist device,” she explains.
“We’re still seeing very few Black-owned brands in the luxury sector. While I’m proud that Brother Vellies is among one of them, I just want to make sure there’s more!”
Never has that intentionality been more vital. Last summer, after the senseless killing of George Floyd and the resulting nationwide civil unrest—a maelstrom compounded by the economic harm inflicted on Black-owned businesses due to the pandemic—James thought about what she could do to help. The result: She launched the 15 Percent Pledge, calling on major retailers to commit to stocking at least 15 percent of their shelf space with products from Black-owned businesses. (The number 15 comes from the fact that Black people account for about 15 percent of the U.S. population).
“When I launched the 15 Percent Pledge, the same proposition, right? It’s that, you know, Brother Vellies, is sold at a lot of the major retailers across the country, but there’s a lot of Black-owned businesses obviously that haven’t got that opportunity,” she says. “So, what does it look like to bring them into the mix as well?”
With the 15 Percent Pledge, James wants to not only increase the visibility of these businesses; but also, to set them up for ongoing, long-term success. Building and supporting community in that way—on both a global and local level—is at the core of her personal ethos. Whether it’s by holding corporate America accountable for creating real, tangible equity and inclusion, or by working with smaller, artisanal, and family-operated businesses to craft shoes, bags, and homeware items, this work is important to James.
“I think one important role that I have—since I’ve been granted the platform that I have—is just to continue advocating for people,” the Toronto-native turned L.A. transplant (by way of NYC) explains. “Oftentimes when we think about our communities, we think of the people that we’re most commonly sitting shoulder to shoulder with at a table. It’s also important to think about the people who have not yet had access to that room.”
Tapping into that global community was crucial to James—and it’s not just lip-service.
“I think, for me, that was sort of the reason why I wanted to structure Brother Vellies in the way that we did,” she says. “You know, the artisans in Africa and involving them in the conversation—and even in Italy—and really focusing on these communities that have traditional skill sets and integrating them into that fashion conversation.”
As we’ve spent the last year and change at home, our appreciation for our home base and the need to create safe spaces has become ever more important. We are curating our surroundings with thought and intention—becoming conscious of the items we buy. At the same time, James’s fashion aesthetic has naturally translated into homeware and decor, effortlessly. From her stylish L.A. pad—complete with a Togo chair and an Ingo Maurer fan sconce—to the Brother Vellies brick and mortar, it only makes sense that she would expand into the home. “I’ve always been really in love with the idea of products for the home,” she admits.
For those who need more curatorial guidance, Brother Vellies offers a subscription service, The Something Special Subscription, a monthly made-to-order membership, that often includes artisanal home decor items (from ceramic vases to Oaxacan mugs).
“My home is incredibly important to me, and I really have always been intentional about only bringing things into the space that I love and cherish,” James explains. “During the pandemic I wanted to find a way to connect with our customers while they were at home, and it was a home order. I didn’t really feel like it was appropriate to, you know, try to push people to buy shoes, so I thought it would be nice to utilize parts of our own artisan community and parts of their extended network to create small products for home. That was the emphasis behind launching Something Special.”
Inspiration and creativity like that can be hard to muster when the world seems to be falling down around us. Even though James has always been solutions-oriented, she admits to finding the recent past challenging.
“It’s a bit of a struggle,” she admits. “A lot is going on: at home, in Afghanistan. There is a lot going on in the world. So, I don’t know that right now I am incredibly inspired to create, like, you know, these over-the-top things. I think it’s really about making sure that the brand and that myself, as a founder, are continuing to do what I can to advocate for our consumers in a meaningful way, to make sure that their existence can maintain it, and that we can also have wonderful, beautiful lives.”
As with the very foundation of the Brother Vellies/Aurora James universe, materiality remains key. “I want to make beautiful things along the way, but I think for me, it’s really about looking at really natural materials and making sure that we’re sourcing in a way that feels important, special, and helpful to the planet,” she says. “It’s been a big material exploration for me…Looking into our own very brief archive, and really just homing in on the fundamental principles of the brand, I think, is really what’s been inspiring me, honestly.”
As we wrap up our call, I ask James a question that is perhaps unexpected: “What do you like to do for fun?” We’ve talked about business models, initiatives, fashion, and the heaviness in the world today, but surely all of that must be balanced by something lighter? Perhaps unsurprisingly, James reveals she is about to bake a delicious loaf of banana bread: yet another iteration of her delicious creativity. “I absolutely love to cook dinner at home with friends and go over to other friend’s houses for dinner parties,” she says. Socially conscious, extremely stylish, ethical fashion pioneer, a heart of gold and a consummate hostess and chef—what can’t she do?