"Moral compass"

Legacies of the African diaspora can be found in this high-end fashion line

Aurora James’s socially and environmentally conscious brand, Brother Vellies, prioritizes community concerns without forfeiting an ounce of sophistication

Aurora James

If one look at the models standing around in leather corsets, fur, and some of the most original and chic footwear wasn’t an indication that this was not your typical fashion show, maybe the live butterflies fluttering around the crowd would do it. This was the scene last month at the latest fashion week presentation for Brother Vellies, a shoe brand started by Aurora James dedicated to bringing African-inspired footwear to the United States.

Over the past year, James has received the publicity and accolades the hottest young brands in fashion dream of. In 2015, she received not only an onslaught of media coverage, but also a somewhat surprise visit from Kanye West to her New York Fashion Week presentation in September. To cap it off, she learned in November that she was one of three winners of the 2015 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award, one of the top prizes in the industry.

But most impressive is the fact that James has done this all while blazing her own path to creating a socially and environmentally conscious brand that manages to put community concerns first without sacrificing one stitch of design.

Aurora James

Aurora James (right). (Aurora James)

Toronto-born, New York-based James spent the early part of her career making the rounds through the fashion industry, with stints at a modeling agency and in fashion journalism before settling down as a creative consultant. But after several years in the high fashion grind, she needed a break. So, she took a year off to work for a program dedicated to “building as many school gardens in America as we possibly could.”

James was still interested in fashion, but she says she “realized if I were to go back full time, I would need it to be fulfilling to me in a more meaningful way than just having pretty clothes around.” She made her first trip to Africa during this time, visiting Morocco and then Nigeria. While there, she was inspired by the cobblers she saw who were making traditional African styles of shoes.

“I’ve always been really aware of the different cultural attachments through shoes,” James, 31, tells Women in the World, mentioning her mother, who has an Inuit background, always had mukluks, moccasins, and Danish clogs around while she was growing up. “So seeing all these people making all these amazing shoes in Africa and also acknowledging that a lot of the manufacturing industry there is dying out, I said, ‘Why don’t I help preserve some of these amazing skills and bring to life a collection at the same time?’”

In January 2013, she launched her shoe line, Brother Vellies, with an African style of shoe called the velskoen, nicknamed “vellies.” While this specific type of shoe wasn’t well known outside of Africa, it is the predecessor of what people in the West know as the desert boot. During her youth, James lived in Jamaica for a number of years and had noticed that Rastafarians often wore desert boots, insisting they were “African shoes.” At the time, she didn’t understand the connection — they just looked like a pair of Clarks to her. Once she traveled to Africa and saw people wearing and making vellies, it all started to make sense. “I feel like the desert boot has a special place in a lot of people’s hearts in the African diaspora,” James says. “I thought that [vellies] were amazing, and they had been surviving [in Africa] for a long time, and that’s for a reason.”

Since the early days of Brother Vellies, James has expanded her collection to include several new styles. The line now features babouches, otavis, and erongos in addition to sandals using a variety of traditional construction methods and materials. In her Spring/Summer 2016 collection, she introduced heels.

James has set herself apart in the fashion world through her swoon-worthy designs (that are also appropriately luxe — shoes range from the mid-two-hundred dollar range to as high as $1,450 for a pair of ornate, gladiator-type sandals). But that’s not the real point for the designer. The heart of Brother Vellies lies in the other, less glamorous, side of the business: James is dedicated to supporting the communities of artisans who both inspire and hand-make all of the designs and to adopting practice that are environmentally sustainable.

“I believe in creativity and creative spirit and having a creative license, but I also feel like taking ideas from people who aren’t in the position to utilize that themselves is sort of stealing,” James says. “So if you are really inspired by the Maasai people and create an entire Maasai collection and then you decide to have that made in China or Italy, then you just bring it back to Africa and photograph it in front of the Maasai people, that’s not ok to me … that’s appropriating an entire culture.”


The Maasai sandal by Brother Vellies. (Facebook)

To that end, James employees workshops in South Africa, Morocco, and Kenya to produce Brother Vellies shoes along with other artisans who handle specific aspects of the designs, like women’s co-ops in Burkina Faso who do some weaving work for the brand and the Maasai in Kenya who handle the beading on the Maasai sandals.

You don’t hear of many designers who are willing to go against their own vision to support their artisans. But that’s exactly what James did when she collaborated with the Maasai on a line of beaded sandals inspired by their own local fashions. When they insisted the color scheme for the first collection be red, white, and black, James’s response was, “Are you sure about this?” It was the only red thing she’s ever designed, she says, laughing, but she went along with it, with an agreement that they may add new color palettes to future collections.

“They were like, ‘OK, but this time people have to know it’s Maasai’… And that ended up being one of our best selling shoes that season. It was Vogue Paris’s shoe of the week. Imagine that, right?” James says. “They all think that I’m crazy, initially. It takes years for them to realize, O.K., she kind of knows what she’s talking about…and then to get that kind of validation, it’s major. That’s the first time they’ve ever been properly involved in that kind of conversation.”

In addition to supporting local communities and craftsmanship, James is also committed to making her brand and production process environmentally friendly. She says this “moral compass” was instilled by her mother, as well as Kindergarten lessons in Canada about the three R’s — recycle, reuse, reduce — that really left an impact on her.

James in Kenya (Facebook)

James in Kenya (Facebook)

Early in the design process, James realized that a lot of clothing that Americans were donating to Africa, including denim, would end up in landfills. So, she pulled pairs and pairs of jeans out of the trash heaps, washed them, and turned them into babouche shoes. Similarly, she collected discarded tires from beaches, and used them to make the soles of a line of chic tyre sandals — a practice many people in Africa have been doing for years. For leather and other animal products, she uses materials that are the natural byproducts of other industries — like farming — and over 70 percent of her fall collection is made using vegetable dyes.

Initially, James didn’t think there was anything special about her environmental practices. When someone at the CFDA told her she should apply for the council’s sustainability program, she assumed she wouldn’t meet their standards. But, then, she looked at the guidelines and thought, “We could blow this out of the water. This is all it takes to be considered sustainable these days?”

She was happy for the opportunity, but also a little disheartened that the bar was set so low. While she believes her decisions are just the “basic choices that we need to make as citizens of the planet,” she also has a rigorous — if admirably idealistic — view of the standards all business owners should be implementing. “You really need to be creating a positive impact in the world,” she said. “It’s not just about, oh, this is eco because it’s not doing damage. It’s how can your production actually leave a positive imprint? Not a zero imprint, a positive imprint.”

From a mission to bring vellies and African craftsmanship to the U.S. to becoming an award-winning fashion designer, James has been on a wild ride over the past three years. But she’s not slowing down anytime soon. The top CFDA prize comes with a year-long mentorship for her with Warby Parker founder Neil Blumenthal, along with $300,000 to grow her brand. James plans on expanding Brother Vellies into other categories that she hints, at first, “maybe are a little unexpected.” She has also already used some of the money to start building her dream team of “really strong women who really believe in what we’re doing and who are super passionate about it.”

“I think that people in fashion have really realized that if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” James says.

By those standards, Brother Vellies is poised to soar even farther. But there’s one other measure of success that James may need to consider. When the Maasai artisans heard how well received their first line of sandals was, “They were excited about it, and they want to know when Beyonce’s going to wear them.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *