Since launching her line of luxury shoes, handbags and accessories in 2013, Aurora James has come a long way. Originally sold in New York’s flea markets, her creations now adorn the likes of Zendaya, Beyoncé and Meghan Markle. The Torontonian started out behind the scenes of Fashion Television before moving to Los Angeles to work as a creative consultant, but it wasn’t until she travelled to Africa in 2011 that she realized she wanted to create her own brand.
Based in New York, Brother Vellies works closely with artisans in Morocco, Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia, Haiti and Mexico with the goal of preserving traditional design practices and techniques while also supporting these artisans.
James won the prestigious Vogue Fashion Fund Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2015 and the International Canadian Designer Award at the Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards in 2019. Last June, amid the Black Lives Matter protests, James sent out a call on Instagram for retailers to give Black-owned businesses and suppliers more shelf space. The idea quickly transformed from a viral post into the 15 Percent Pledge, a non-profit organization that has been growing exponentially ever since. There’s still much to be done to make the fashion industry ethical, sustainable and inclusive, but with James showing us the way, we can’t help but want to follow.
“The 15 Percent Pledge is a non-profit advocacy initiative that urges major retailers and organizations to allocate 15 percent of their purchasing power to Black-owned businesses and creatives. We’ve had a really strong start to 2021: In addition to the businesses we have already reported, including Sephora, West Elm, Yelp, Rent the Runway, Indigo (our first Canadian retailer!), Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s, we have just announced Gap Inc. (Gap, Old Navy, Athleta and Banana Republic) and Crate & Barrel. We also recently launched a career board that showcases available roles at various companies.”
“In 2020, we launched ‘The Nudes’—a collection of staple [shoe] styles in various shades. For as long as I can remember, I had always designed in a light peach colour that I lovingly referred to as ‘nude.’ It finally hit me, after years of being told what the standard ‘nude’ should be, that that is not what it actually means to our community, and I wanted to recontextualize that word within my own work. We just added another new style; although this is usually a made-to-order program, we’ll have every style, size and colour in stock for a limited time.
“In the early days of the pandemic, I was trying to think of ways that I could support my community. What could we do that would bring them comfort and joy at a time when they couldn’t even leave their homes? We started working with our artisans to produce [‘Something Special’]—small items that add warmth to your home. The first item was a ceramic mug made in Oaxaca—I drink my coffee in one of these every day; last month, we made key chains in Kenya that are inspired by one of my favourite places in Los Angeles; and in January, we made welcome mats out of coconut fibre. Every month, [we offer] a different surprise that gets shipped right to your door.”
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