When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez walked the Met Gala red carpet in a tailored dress emblazoned with the words “Tax the Rich,” it sparked a media storm (“Ultimate Fashion Statement or Display of Hypocrisy?” was a headline). Time magazine named its creator, Aurora James, one of the 100 most influential people of 2021. This year, James has only accelerated that trajectory.
Born in Canada to a Ghanaian father, who died aged seven, and a Canadian mother, James began her career on Fashion Television, the weekday night show hosted by journalist Jeanne Becker. In 2013, she launched Brother Vellies, a brand of accessories and lifestyle, initially working with African craftsmen, for which she received the CFDA/vogue Fashion Fund Award. Beyoncé, Serena Williams, the Duchess of Sussex and Zendaya have all worn pieces from the brand’s eclectic collections, which include the hyper-modern neoprene Brandy Thigh High Boots ($965) and soft leather Vellies (from $265).
Lijadu Bird Cloth Bag, $1,395
Wooden Malindi comb, $85
Leather Huarache shoes, $225
Leather Erongo Velor, $335
I meet James at breakfast in New York at the Bowery Hotel. She wears a sleek black blazer and pointed heels. She describes the brand’s namesake, Vellies, as “fascinating shoes…that evolved in southern Africa, were discovered by the British, and then inspired the Clarks desert boot. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been won by erasing black people from the proposition. In many ways, the boots embody its intent: to empower the producer, protect the manufacturers and promote new narratives in fashion. In 2015, the company added handbags and now a “bodega” online sells lifestyle finds — from hand-carved Malindi combs made in Kenya ($85) to a fluffy neon green Lijadu Bird bag ($1,395).
In September 2020, James appeared on the cover of US vogue as part of a special two-cover issue painted by artists Jordan Casteel and Kerry James Marshall. “I was floored,” she says. “I am forever honored and proud to have sat in front of their canvas.” At the time, Casteel said, “I believe what Aurora is doing is hugely important in creating the long-term change that black people deserve and this country owes us.”
Recent years have seen it become more political. James launched the 15 Per Cent Pledge in 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd. Founded as a nonprofit, the pledge commits retailers to giving black-owned businesses 15% of their retail space. Sephora and Rent The Runway were the first to register, and so far 28 brands, including vogue and MatchesFashion made the pledge. In the two years since its inception, the pledge claims to have diverted more than $5 billion in capital to black entrepreneurs in the United States.
“[Fashion] is part of how women adorn their bodies,” says James. “This is how they express themselves across cultures. It’s also their dog whistle at times. She is proud of the stories of Brother Vellies customers who recognize themselves: “We can see each other and know that a person is a kindred spirit.
Business expansion isn’t just about the numbers. She recently appointed CEO Behnaz Ghahramani, previously chief marketing officer at Stuart Weitzman. “When I say ‘growing the brand’, I also mean its influence, its history and its ability to rethink the structures considered to be the norm,” she says. “I think I have a responsibility to make sure the brand is in every woman’s closet across America. It’s not just about shoes, it’s also about putting those values into the everyone’s closet?
“What really inspires me is to keep taking market share from people who I don’t think are thoughtful,” she says of her current goal. The inaugural 15 Per Cent Pledge Gala – theme: “Black Tie, Black Designer” – in April honored model Iman and politician and activist Stacey Abrams, and marked a new direction for the initiative by introducing a Google-powered data of 1,600 black people. brands that enjoy privileged access to marketers, investors and consultants. vogue Editorial director and European editor Edward Enninful called the commitment “a kind of tangible change that can have a real impact on society”.
Mermaid Doodle Leather Boots, $1,150
Nile Handbag in Electric Flamingo, $995
James is undoubtedly a visionary. “You really have to keep your eyes on the future and keep moving forward and rethinking some things,” she says. “If you look at Brother Vellies and then the 15 Per Cent Pledge, it’s the same exercise: what does it mean to actually work with people who have historically been left out of the conversation? What does it mean to open the door and let these people in instead of just admiring them through the window? She’s not afraid to go fast or what other people think. “The world keeps getting bigger, and if you don’t change the law, you’ll end up like Blockbuster.”