When Aurora James was told by industry advisors that it was impossible to establish a luxury label that was manufactured in Africa, she went and did it anyway – with just $3,500 of her own money and a stall at a New York flea market. That was in 2013. Since then, the Toronto-born, New York-based footwear designer has seen her brand, Brother Vellies, stocked at blue-chip retailers globally. She also has a standalone store in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and works with several artisan groups across the continent.
Two years after launching her brand, in 2015, she became the first Black woman to win the prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund for her footwear – a $400,000 prize and a year’s worth of mentorship awarded by judges including Anna Wintour and Jenna Lyons. Bear in mind that Aurora trained in journalism, not design; talk about defying the odds. For Aurora, nothing is impossible; it just hasn’t happened before. She uses the phrase ‘first only different’ (or F.O.D) to describe these successes, borrowed from Shonda Rhimes’ 2015 book Year of Yes; an F.O.D being a Black female showrunner – in other words, an example to pave the way. Rhimes writes that ‘F.O.Ds are saddled with that burden of extra responsibility… whether you want it or not.’
Aurora, who lives in a brownstone in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighbourhood, has taken that description and run with it. In May, when George Floyd was killed by police officers in Massachusetts – sparking the biggest modern-day civil rights movement since 1968, with protests taking place globally under the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and where the wider world woke up to white privilege – she decided it was her responsibility to take action.
‘I had seen a lot of brands and influencers from across industries posting messages of solidarity, but not actually changing anything about their business.'
‘I had seen a lot of brands and influencers from across industries posting messages of solidarity, but not actually changing anything about their business,’ says Aurora. ‘They say they stand with the Black Lives Matter movement but I didn’t see diversity in their boardroom. And then I was on the phone with a friend talking about the struggles Blackowned businesses are having during the pandemic – statistics showed that at least 40% of Black businesses will not survive,’ she says. (The figure for white businesses stands at around 16%.) ‘As a business owner and as a Black person, I am torn up by this information.’
This culminated in an idea: the 15 Percent Pledge.
On 30 May, just five days after George Floyd was killed, Aurora posted a picture of a handwritten note on her personal Instagram account. ‘OK, here is one thing you can do for us…’ it began. ‘I am asking you to commit to buying 15% of your products from Black-owned businesses. So many of your businesses are built on Black spending power. So many of your stores are set up in Black communities. So many of your posts seen on Black feeds. This is the least you can do for us,’ she wrote. ‘We represent 15% of the population and we need to represent 15% of your shelf space.’
In it, Aurora tagged major retail players, from bookshop Barnes & Noble, Whole Foods and Walmart, to Saks, Sephora and Net-a-Porter – the latter a retailer of Brother Vellies, which is one of the mere 16 Black-owned brands (out of 1,123 labels total) stocked on the site. Her post swiftly garnered 35,000 likes and, just 10 days later, Sephora committed to the pledge. ‘We’re now a fully credited 501(c)3 [non-profit organisation] with a mission of advocating and supporting Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs,’ Aurora says.
Other retailers followed. Homewares brand West Elm committed not only 15% of its shelf space, but to corporate representation, too. Rent the Runway – a subscription service based in New York with a valuation of $1bn – has pledged to also ensure 15% of its freelance pool of creative talent, from photographers to stylists and models, are also Black. ‘It’s helping create a seat at the table,’ says Mitzi Okou, who launched the platform Where Are the Black Designers to connect creatives in June. She says initiatives like the 15 Percent Pledge ‘help through transparency and holding industries to account’. It’s not an easy path, but Aurora has never shied away from complexity.
Brother Vellies was born out of a similar vein. In 2011, while travelling in South Africa, she came across a pair of traditional African desert boots that British brand Clarks had ripped off and was selling thousands of globally. After discovering the manufacturing economy was in sharp decline across Africa because of US donations of clothing (which killed the need for any local production), she decided to reverse the trend.
‘Half of the manufacturing in Ethiopia had died out – people had been influenced by Western manufacturing [and trends],’ says Aurora, whose father is from Ghana and who first visited the continent in 2011 on a ‘soul-searching mission’. Aurora wanted to put production back. ‘I thought, if I tweaked a few things here and there [to the design], I could sell it back in New York,’ she says of the lightweight lace-up chukka boot she ordered in kudu antelope leather. Setting up a stall at Hester Street Fair market in Manhattan’s East Village some months later, Aurora sold out of the boots.
Then, she wanted to make a sandal similar to those worn by the Maasai tribe in Kenya, but her South African atelier was not keen; she realised she simply needed to produce each shoe with workshops local to where such designs originated. It makes for a more complex supply chain, with each atelier working to its own timescales for order fulfilment. But it works; she now partners with makers in Kenya, Morocco, Burkina Faso and Haiti, to name but a few.
‘It was important to work with local artisans and workshops to sustain that manufacturing process and jobs in those areas. It’s also really important that the materials are locally sourced.’
It was important to work with local artisans and workshops to sustain that manufacturing process and jobs in those areas,’ she says. ‘It’s also really important that the materials are locally sourced.’ As a rule of thumb, she generally uses whatever she can find in local markets. This has meant that the former vegan has used rabbit fur in her footwear – a controversial topic she rationalised by explaining that her buying the skins (a byproduct of local meat production) not only stopped them being disposed of, but provided an extra source of income to the farmers. And, of course, the alternative – faux fur – is unsustainable. Her kudu leather is a byproduct of a government-mandated antelope cull due to overpopulation.
‘We have always been committed to honouring the people who make our products and the places where they are made,’ she says. ‘It allows us to create hand-carved shoelace charms in Kenya; our soles [are made] from recycled tires. Our materials are sourced from local farmers. It allows us to treat each and every step with the utmost care.’
This commitment is what attracted Belma Gaudio, founder of London’s Koibird multi-brand boutique, to stock Brother Vellies upon opening in 2019 – in April, Koibird dedicated its seasonal buy to emerging African designers. ‘It’s hard to find accessory brands that deliver on craftsmanship and design,’ says Belma. ‘I love that Aurora employs communities to make her shoes. They’re handmade, a lot of them are made to order and the designs are very crazy, but sexy and cool.’ Belma says Aurora is ‘one of those smart, extremely talented people using those traits to make fashion a more responsible industry’.
Indeed, Aurora’s direct approach is entirely different from most fashion or footwear brands to launch; footwear designers tend to produce in Italy, the historic home of luxury, and usually via an agent who can establish factory connections on behalf of the brand. It’s rare that a sole designer is herself in regular pursuit of new artisans; rarer still that this designer would be doing so in Africa.
It’s natural, then, that her methodical tack has been applied to the 15 Percent Pledge. Target has so far chosen not to sign it. On Instagram, Aurora responded with a simple question. ‘Why not?’ Perhaps journalistic curiosity has set her up to think outside the box when it comes to industry problems, enabling her to pave a more unconventional path. Many hurdles remain; as yet, no UK-based retailer – luxury or no – has committed to the 15 Percent Pledge.
Aurora is dedicated to the cause, and is trying to force the hand of global retailers with urgency. ‘It’s no longer business as usual,’ she says. ‘The Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the pandemic, has really influenced how people are spending their money. Consumers are giving real thought to how they use their purchasing power and they want to spend money with businesses who are thinking about equality for all.”
She hopes, too, that supply chains become more ethical and fair, and that campaign images also become more diverse. It sounds like a big ask and, within the fashion industry, it’s a path not yet well trodden. But Aurora is on it.
Find out the latest from Aurora at @aurorajames.