Aurora James’s path to becoming a fashion designer was anything but straight and narrow, and not at all what one could consider traditional. James had dreams of becoming a lawyer, went to school for broadcast journalism before getting kicked out, wasn’t accepted into fashion school, ran a stint as an on-air weather girl, worked for “Entertainment Tonight Canada,” and traveled America building 1,000 gardens on school campuses before launching her brand in 2013.
Brother Vellies, James’s shoe and accessory brand, came to be after James visited Ethiopia and was inspired by the people making fellies, or vellies, the classic desert boots. Today, she works with nine workshops in Africa and Haiti to create shoes that are produced ethically and with minimal harm to the environment.
James joined the Glossy Podcast to discuss how she became a “Kanye-approved brand” during New York Fashion Week, her work with the CFDA and what it means to be a sustainable, transparent luxury brand.
Edited highlights are below.
Sustainable clothing needs to cost more.
Brother Vellies shoes typically retail between $285 and $685. For a lot of people, that’s not accessible, but James believes that ethically made, environmentally friendly clothing comes at a cost.
“Sustainable fashion has to be a little more expensive. If a shirt costs $3, someone was paid to make that. Shirts are made by people,” she said.
She said that in order to cut costs where she can, she looks for ways to keep production as close to the workshops she works with as possible, which cuts back on shipping fees. But for Brother Vellies, the most important thing is that those in the workshops are paid a living wage.
“We work with the UN to ensure that happens,” she said.
People are pushing back against fast fashion — and those knockoffs.
Brother Vellies’ distinct furry sandals were recently ripped off by Zara. To James, seeing her creation copied hit home because it was like taking jobs away from the people in Africa who had contributed to the design and creation of the shoes.
“It undermines what the brand stands for,” she said.
For her part, James shares photos of such knockoff products on Instagram. The last time she shared one, she said she received around 400 direct messages of outrage at the rip-off.
“It’s 2017, it’s a totally new world,” she said. “People are not OK with anything happening that they don’t agree with, and they’ll tell you that.”
She has a New York Times fashion critic to thank.
After she began producing items in Africa, James was selling them at a Brooklyn flea market. A New York Times fashion critic approached her and told her she should start selling them online, so she did. Since then, Brother Vellies has been accepted into a CFDA program for sustainable brands, and it is currently sold in department stores like Nordstrom. Kanye West even showed up to one of the brand’s New York Fashion Week presentations — though James admits she wishes all the attention had not gone to him.
“All the headlines were about Kanye,” she said. “I just say, ‘Let’s try to sell more shoes today.’ The more we grow, the more jobs we’re able to create. We’ve been growing a lot, and every day is just shocking.”