Aurora James: On Brother Vellies and Redefining Sustainability One Shoe At a Time

  • Harry Archer

It’s Aurora James’ world and we’re just living in it. The creative is taking on global corporations, promoting sustainability, and is keeping us stylish at the same time.

There has been a shift in perspective. The tragic death of George Floyd in May 2020 and the dawn of a new presidency has made many of us stop and consider our role in society. How can we do better? One person who’s spearheading the conversation and creating systemic change is Brooklyn-based designer Aurora James. We spoke to the creative director and activist about her brand Brother Vellies, and how she got  Vogue and Sephora to take the 15 Percent Pledge (more on that below)

First, What Is Brother Vellies?

Founded in 2013, the Brooklyn-based brand specializes in shoes and accessories for the contemporary woman. But before James was dressing Solange Knowles for the Met Gala, she was just a woman with a vision, one that wanted to keep traditional African design practices alive and encourage a sustainable approach to shopping. “Brother Vellies has always focused on the impact of our production, we aim to never make more than we sell,” notes James.

Brother Vellies' Commitment to Sustainability

“With each new season, we ask ourselves how we can lessen the impact our practices have on the wider world,” says James.  It’s this constant commitment to cause that means James has not only achieved her goal, but has surpassed it. The creation of Brother Vellies designs is sustaining artisan jobs worldwide, with vegetable leather tanned bags and recycled boots hailing from places like Italy, Mexico, and even from the designer’s home town of New York City.

However, while the term sustainability conjures up images of homegrown living or Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump’s Twitter spats, James doesn’t make the topic feel stifled or stagnant. Instead, the creative force redefines the word in a way that feels relevant, fun, and something we should incorporate into our everyday lives—much like her colorful mules. 

“Sustainability can mean so many things,” says James. “In one sense it involves evaluating a brand’s supply chain and production process, in another, it means analyzing how we’re treating people.” In short, we can’t have material sustainability without moral sustainability. Because while ethically-sourced sneakers will keep the world turning, it’s our compassion that will make it a world worth living in. And while this sounds like a grand notion, James believes the key to our survival lies simply in imagery.

“We need to start thinking about the images we’re producing. The visual incentives used to encourage people to shop are more often than not created at the expense of women; I think we should focus instead on having women feel like the best versions of themselves,” James continues.

It’s this holistic approach that has made the designer so successful, attracting the fashion-forward minds of Zendaya and Elaine Welteroth who regularly sport Brother Vellies boots. But we’re not surprised—it’s natural for powerful women to be drawn to other powerful women, and as someone who has made Vogue and Sephora take the 15 Percent Pledge, James fits this description.

What Is the 15 Percent Pledge?

The 15 Percent Pledge is a product of the George Floyd protests where James was trying to figure out a pragmatic way for the fashion industry to respond to racial equality. Knowing that black people represent 15 percent of the American population, James concluded that for retailers like Target to create change, it needs to have at least 15 percent black-owned products on its shelves.

“To date, 19 organizations have committed to pledge with Sephora, Vogue, and InStyle being three of them,” says James.

But, James isn’t stopping there. She’s putting together a full-time team to lead the charitable organization’s mission of reshaping the fashion industry, and she has a few secret plans tucked up her sleeve—or in her Brother Vellies bag.

“We’re incredibly excited about the future and are planning to make more announcements over the coming months,” teases James. And if the new Brother Vellies Alps Boots are anything to go on, we can hardly contain our excitement, too.

Editors Note: Editorialist is also working towards taking the 15 Percent Pledge and following the example set by James and the aforementioned brands.


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