Aurora James Is Changing — and Challenging — How We Think About Fashion
Here at Fashionista, we're passionate about covering all the ways that the industry is changing for the better. That's why we wanted to honor the forces working tirelessly to reshape what it means to work in fashion and beauty. With our annual series, Fashionista Five, we'll be doing just that by ...Continue reading
- Sep 13, 2020
Here at Fashionista, we're passionate about covering all the ways that the industry is changing for the better. That's why we wanted to honor the forces working tirelessly to reshape what it means to work in fashion and beauty. With our annual series, Fashionista Five, we'll be doing just that by highlighting (you guessed it) five people whose work we've admired over the past year.
Aurora James's understanding of fashion has always been about narrative and impact, more so than about trends or even objects.
"It was always explained to me as a tool that women use to express themselves, share their beliefs, communicate with each other, note how they're feeling in different times in history and celebrate their culture and their accomplishments," she tells me over the phone in August. "Fashion was always positioned to me as a cultural tool that we had, and a real, honest, legitimate means of communication — something that was often made by some of the most talented people in a community and was to be cherished, kept forever and passed down to many different generations."
This was early on — around "probably age five-ish," she estimates. The Canadian-born, New York-based designer grew up with a collection of clothes that her mother had amassed from her and her father's travels around the globe. As she got older, James began to seek refuge in the fantasy world created by the industry's leading creatives.
"I think we can all relate to having sad moments in our childhood or in our youth," she says. "I know I would often find myself escaping in a Tim Walker editorial. That really made my heart sing. It's always, definitely, been a part of me."
Beyond it being a source of comfort and inspiration, James wanted fashion to be a true "passion," James explains. "And in order for me to be passionate about something, it has to be creating meaningful, longterm change. I think that's how I've approached it."
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That framework has been central to her work, not only at Brother Vellies — the industry-beloved accessories label built on ethical production, sustainability and artisanal stewardship — but also at the 15 Percent Pledge, the non-profit James founded earlier this summer, which encourages retailers to commit to stocking their shelves with Black-owned businesses. (So far, Sephora, West Elm, Rent the Runway, Yelp and Vogue have signed on.) It has also shaped her approach to the industry itself, from navigating it to thinking critically about what representation and accountability should look like.
"There's been a lot of push in our industry specifically over the past five years on how many Black models are on the runway — which is fine, but I'm more concerned about how many Black women are on your board," James says. "To me, that's optical allyship, putting a Bandaid on the exterior of your company. All of that is façade. You can't hire one girl for a day to convince me that you're not racist."
Community is another important thread in James's career. Since starting Brother Vellies in 2013, she has cultivated relationships with fellow designers that have resulted in both collaboration — she's worked with Kerby Jean-Raymond, Batsheva Hay, Gigi Burris and Ryan Roche, for example — and in mutual mentorship.
"There was a CFDA thing where it was a bunch of us who were Black, specifically in the fashion industry. I was looking around the room, and at least two or three of them had shot their first ever lookbook in my old apartment," she remembers. "Studio 189, William Okpo, Azède Jean-Pierre... Anything that I can do, I always try, within reason. By no means am I perfect. I definitely fuck up all the time. But to me, it's a thing where all ships rise with the tide. And if I come into a room because I've been given access, I'm going to make more space in that room."
Take the work she's doing with the 15 Percent Pledge, for example. "I've sold to a lot of these stores already. I already had relationships with Net-a-Porter and Shopbop and Sephora — it's not about me," James says.
By encouraging retailers to dedicate at least 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned brands (the number corresponds with the approximate percentage of the U.S. population that is Black), the 15 Percent Pledge wants to not only increase the visibility of these businesses, but also set them up for longterm success, especially considering how they've been negatively impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
"Some people are like, 'Well, why are we pushing so hard for retailers to carry product? We should just be shopping from the designers directly.' Well, sure, you should shop from the designers directly — but these are the biggest retailers in the country," James argues. "We need to make sure that they're buying Black product and also selling that to white people. Everyone needs to be buying Black product."
Since we spoke in early August, James has shared some important, exciting updates: On top of signing more companies to the 15 Percent Pledge and publishing how individuals can commit to it, she, of course, appeared on the cover of the September 2020 issue of Vogue, what is largely and historically considered the magazine's most important edition of the year.
"Jordan [Casteel, the artist who created the cover] called me and asked if it was something I would consider. 'Consider' — can you imagine?," she writes via e-mail, a week after the issue was unveiled. "I really didn't understand what she was talking about and I was knee-deep in 15 Percent Pledge work (this was very early days, too) so, of course, I said yes. It was a dream sequence. Everything she was saying made sense and was great. But speaking with her and speaking with Anna [Wintour] separately was very surreal."
Photo: Jordan Casteel/Vogue
First, Casteel photographed James on a rooftop in Brooklyn, on a summer Sunday afternoon. "It felt like two friends hanging out, nothing more, nothing less," she remembers. Then, she painted the designer, who was wearing a Pyer Moss gown with a rogue Brother Vellies shoe at her feet. Then, when the cover dropped, Vogue announced that it, too, would take the 15 Percent Pledge, commissioning work from Black freelance photographers, writers and creatives throughout the year.
Some of the messages she's received — "especially from other women and specifically Black women" — have made her cry. To James, this milestone is even bigger than a single issue.
"This cover of Vogue, to me, symbolizes my own American dream," she says. "To get on the cover of a magazine not for how you look or how you perform, but for what you believe in and just how hard you're willing to fight for it... I'm grateful that's what landed me there. And I'm humbled that people are willing to fight for my dreams alongside me — an equitable future is feeling closer and closer for all of us everyday. We just must keep pushing in our ways, everyday."
Ahead, learn more about James and her journey, from how she started a fashion brand without necessarily planning on it, to what hard but valuable lessons she's learned along the way, to why she feels hopeful about fashion.
Was there an event or a thought that triggered you wanting to pursue fashion professionally?
I got discovered at a mall when I was a minor, so I was a model for, like, a year or two. And I hated it. Then I decided to work at the agency, because I thought that side was so much more interesting. I interned at a modeling agency when I was probably 16, in the summer. I never really had a doubt in my mind that it was an industry that I was passionate about.
What led you to move to New York from Canada, and eventually pursue the design route?
When I was first living in New York, I worked in a nonprofit organization called Gen Art and was working with emerging designers — at the time, it was William Okpo and Ace & Jig. Then I did some freelance and show production stuff with Hood By Air and Ralph Lauren. And that was all fine. I really didn't know exactly what my trajectory was going to be when I was in my 20s. I just wanted to learn as much as possible.
I started traveling around Africa and started seeing some of the traditional artisans that were there, and how few and far between they had become and [how in] a lot of the cities they were more interested in wearing what we were wearing in Western countries than they were in developing their own aesthetic... that was really heartbreaking to me. Because I know what happens when we don't value our traditions — our traditions die out. They were sort of looking to us and idolizing what we were wearing, and then in the fashion industry, we had all these brands that were taking inspiration from African people... So I really wanted to find a way to actually involve artisans in the conversation.
You launched Brother Vellies in 2013. How long had you been thinking about the concept before you officially launched?
Never. I had never thought about it — I didn't think about it at all. I didn't know that I was launching Brother Vellies when I launched Brother Vellies, and I didn't know that I was launching the 15 Percent Pledge when I launched the 15 Percent Pledge. All I did was take an idea, take a desire that I had for the world, and the world responded.
When I started working with a workshop in South Africa, they were at risk of closing. And I said to them, "Okay, what can we do to not have that happen?" I was looking at the vellies, which are a traditional South African shoe shape... I had $3,500 at the time, and I worked with them on tweaking some of the colors and a little bit of the shape. I made a bunch of shoes with them and brought them back to the Hester Street Fair on the Lower East Side and sold them there. It didn't have a name.
I can't even say it was an investment in them, per se — I mean, it was an ideological investment in them, but it's not like they gave me equity or anything like that. All of our workshops function on their own, and I'm a customer of theirs. We work together on products. So I designed a bunch of shoes with them, and placed a purchase order of, essentially, $3,500 and brought those shoes to the Hester Street Fair.
At what point were you like, "Oh, I actually have a company here"?
I would say it was a hobby for me for a long time. And I think that's usually how it goes: You want your greatest love to be your hobby, and then you hope that it can turn into a job. Really quickly, once we sold those shoes and I made another order, I realized that, to a degree, [the workshops] were dependent on the work now. It was that, also, that dictated the fact that I had to make it a company. It's the same with the 15 Percent Pledge: The idea resonated with people, and I realized how much work there was to do and that it was critical, critical, critical work that I couldn't afford to not do, which is why we had to immediately make it a nonprofit organization. It's the same project, when you think about it.
Getting into the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund [in 2015] was a big turning point for me.
What did the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund do to your business?
When I got into the Fashion Fund, one of the designers asked me which of the judges I knew. And I knew none of the judges — like, never, ever, ever had met any of them in my life. That question to me was so insanely wild. I couldn't fathom it. That gave me a lot of hope, because I was just working on something that I was passionate about. And I put that application together, honest to God, as an exercise for myself, to be like, "Okay, this is an opportunity where someone is going to have to look at my application and be like, 'yes' or 'no.' But at least it's an opportunity to have someone look at my application." I put it out there in the world, and I didn't really think much of it.
It really was a huge platform, and we had a lot of exposure at the time, so our company grew really, really fast. And when you win the Fund, there's a financial grant that comes with that, which was really helpful.
I think for me, a pitfall came because we grew so fast. We needed additional funding, and I ended up getting myself into a not great financial situation that, in retrospect, could have been avoided, and that a lot of people are able to avoid [if they] are coming to the table in a different economic situation than I was. I'm self-funded, didn't have any VC money and don't come from any kind of multi-generational wealth or anything like that. I ended up having to take some financing from an outside source, and it ended up being the biggest regret of my career, that I'm still trying to work through. There's a historical precedent for people taking advantage of Black business owners — that happens in every industry, it's not specific to mine. I've also had to learn the hard way there.
How have you been able to recover from that? Are there any questions that you ask yourself now or things that you consider when doing business based on that experience?
I'm still working my way out of it. And I've learned a couple things. There are always wolves in sheep's clothing. I'm a really trusting person. I'm also an optimist. And I really trusted someone because of how they were presented to me as a mentor, essentially. It was the one contract that I never had my lawyer look at. And my business has suffered as a result of that.
It's a learning curve. And don't get me wrong, I've had some great mentors over the years, for sure. But people always ask, "How do I find an amazing mentor?" And I'm like, "To be honest with you, the best mentors that I've had along this way are my friends and my community of other women, where we can be honest with each other and support each other and give each other the information."
I started working on Brother Vellies a long time ago now. I was in my 20s and I was just so grateful that anyone even wanted to pay attention to me. And I think that we need to also know our value.
Photo: Courtesy of Brother Vellies
What do you see as the most consequential moment in Brother Vellies's history, that got the brand to where it is now?
It's hard for me to think about history, sometimes, because I keep myself so much in the present. But one thing that's kind of huge for me at Brother Vellies was launching our Something Special program. If you had asked me in January, "Hey, there's a world where six months from now, you're going to have a subscription service that focuses on home goods." I would've been like, "What are you talking about?" However, we're in a global pandemic and in March, everything froze.
We hadn't had a sales month that was that low in the history of my business, basically. Our stores closed. None of us knew how long this was going to last for. My partners were telling me, "Oh, it's probably going to be at least until August, September." I knew that I had a group of women that worked for me at Brother Vellies [whose income] I didn't want to jeopardize, and I knew that I had customers that I absolutely did not want to pressure to buy shoes during a stay-at-home order. Then I had a supply chain of artisans that were going to need work. That was a unique situation that I found myself in. And it was just left, right and center, people were getting laid off and furloughed, especially in fashion businesses. I didn't want to do that.
It sounds so silly, but I was making my coffee every morning at home and had this mug that meant a lot to me, that I had worked with an artisan on in January when I was in Oaxaca. And people started asking me about it. And I thought, "Okay, well, I may as well sell the mug, because I know that that artisan, specifically, needs some support right now." We launched the bodega section of the website, and we immediately had this gigantic waitlist for this mug. I kind of put all of the dots together and said, "Look, we have this community of people who are stuck at home and want to find a way to connect with each other. We have an artisan workforce that would love to be able to still make things, but aren't going to be able to do the crazy technical stuff that we have to do when we're making shoes or bags or whatever. And we have this overhead need that needs to be met." That's when I decided to launch Something Special, as a monthly subscription where we do small batches of artisan-based products and home goods.
What has that done for your business?
A few things. One, it's been incredibly heartbreaking for me to design things that end up having to be pretty expensive because of the way in which I choose to work with the planet and the artisans that make our products. That price point, to a degree, has been largely exclusionary of a lot of people in America and around the world.
[Something Special has] enabled us to tap into our existing community base. I flip back and forth between the word "customer" and "community," because I feel like to be a customer of ours, it doesn't necessarily mean that you need to have bought product from us — I really think of it as more of a community, and sometimes there's financial interactions, sometimes there's not. But it's like a family, in that sense.
[Something Special has] enabled us to bring Brother Vellies into the homes of people who maybe wouldn't have been able to in the past. And it's enabled us to continue to support our artisan supply chain around the world, which is incredibly important to me. It's enabled us to bring comfort to people, with these small things every month. It's enabled us to ride out the storm of this pandemic: We know that we're able to keep everyone in my office employed because we have that baseline income.
I know that it's not a sexy thing to talk about, as a luxury brand, but I would rather be honest and pivot my business, so that I can keep my staff on payroll, than not pivot and not want to talk about it and just instead lay a bunch of people off, because I don't want to admit that things are kind of tough during a pandemic.
Now, the 15 Percent Pledge has evolved from an Instagram post, an idea you had, into a full-fledged non-profit. How do you go about your work now, balancing that and Brother Vellies?
As someone who has really preached work/life balance over the past however many years, I have to say, that's been tough. I was really busy before launching the Pledge, just because of Brother Vellies, designing and also working on some other product extensions. Then when we launched Something Special, it was a whole new ideation, of something new every single month that we then had to start putting into production. That was almost like launching another business. I was the busiest that I had ever been in my life. Now, with the Pledge... we're maximizing every moment.
It's also tough conversations, you know? Right now, there are two, three dozen businesses that I'm talking to every single week, trying to get them to a place where they're going to be able to really take the Pledge in a meaningful way. With West Elm, it's a five year contract — this is longterm work that we're doing with these businesses, trying to troubleshoot things and trying to fundraise so that I can hire all of the people that we're going to need to do this incredible work. So, it's a lot.
It's so, so, so much, also trying to make sure that all of my friends are okay, because they're also going through a pandemic. Making sure that I'm okay, writing, meditating and doing Pilates. All the things.
Tell me a little bit about the behind-the-scenes work of the Pledge. How do you onboard a brand?
There are three steps to taking the Pledge. The first is taking stock and actually doing an audit not just looking at your shelf space, but also your C-suite. That's often really hard with these business, because a lot of them haven't even really been paying attention, and then when they start looking at the numbers, they're not feeling great about it.
The second part is ownership and acceptance. That's when we actually ask people to publish that data. It's the owning and accepting of it and really having conversations around how you got there. We're seeing a lot of people, especially fashion brands, have a lot of Black people and people of color in their retail staff and marketing, but then their corporate representation is super low. It's really about looking at that and saying, "Hey, so maybe it's about committing to your shelf space, but then also making some corporate commitments, too." Maybe you don't have any relationships with HBCUs, maybe you only offer internships to people who have an inside track, maybe your entry-level hiring's done the same way. Whatever. And a lot of times, they really know what the problems are and what they need to do to address them — and it's about creating an open space so that they can talk about that.
Then, it's really figuring out how you're going to be able to do step three, which is expenditure growth. Let's say you're at 1%, which is kind of what we're seeing, oftentimes — maybe you want to commit to doubling that every quarter, and then maybe you want to make other commitments as it pertains to your corporate hiring and your internship program. But you really need to benchmark it and figure out what your goals are going to be.
What is your focus with the Pledge right now?
I would love to see every major retailer take the Pledge. But I'm most interested in working with the retailers that are going to do it in the right way, in a big way — really commit to it in a meaningful way — and that are already thinking about some of the things they can do in their own business to make it really great. Because it's not just about filling a quota for me: It's also about doing good business. Like, I want to see the next Fortune 500 Black-owned business come up through this program. I want these Black businesses to win. I don't want them just to be checking a box.
What's one thing that makes you feel hopeful about the fashion industry?
I'm a hopeful person in general. Do I think that the fashion industry is necessarily on the forefront of change at this time? No, I don't. But I do think that there are some people in the fashion industry that are really committed to longterm change and growth.
The fashion industry can have a horrible habit of doing things as a fad. But I have been having some really great conversations with fashion companies on what their longterm, meaningful, accountable growth and change is going to look like. That, to me, has been really inspiring.
I love that a lot of these companies are open to having outside accountability. Because a lot of businesses in general, fashion industry and otherwise, don't want to let outside people in — they want to say they're doing certain things, but they don't want to actually be accountable. That's why it's important for us to really be mindful of what the commitments are and check in with people.
I really urge fashion people, each person individually, to critically think on their own and not just continue following status quo when it comes to every single element of it. In fashion, a lot of people like to say they're doing things, and I think it's not so much about saying that you're doing something — just go out and do the right thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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