Even before Aurora James started her sustainable footwear brand, Brother Vellies, she knew, whatever she decided to create or do in this world, it would also need to manifest some good. “It always had to be both, otherwise I wouldn’t be comfortable,” says James, ethereally poised on a gilded chair inside her Council of Fashion Designers of America studio in New York’s Garment District, wearing a black, bohemian dress by Ulla Johnson and a pair of Brother Vellies single-strap Dhara sandals. “I was a tiny child when 9/11 happened, but I remember being like, ‘Oh man, I am not going to be able to work in fashion because there is way too much stuff going on in this world to just be caring about my dress.’ But what’s great is ultimately, with anything creative, you can find a way to give it more substance.”
And James has done just that. Founded in January 2013, Brother Vellies brings traditional aesthetics and craftsmanship from across the African continent to a broader customer base while creating and sustaining jobs in each respective country of origin, including South Africa, Kenya, Morocco, and Ethiopia.
Although Brother Vellies now offers a variety of fashion-forward styles ranging from hand-woven slides to fur-trimmed, over-the-knee boots, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund-winning brand was built from one simple style: the traditional South African velskoen. Worn by women, men, and kids, the “vellie” is the original blueprint of the modern-day desert boot made popular by the British footwear label Clarks. While Clarks are produced in factories across China, India, Brazil, and Vietnam, Brother Vellies employs South African artisans to handcraft the shoes using animal hides from local tanneries.
“South Africa does all of the desert boots, springbok sandals, and handbags,” says James of her artisan communities. (Handbags were introduced for Spring 2016.) “Kenya does all of our simple sandals and any beadwork. Ethiopia does all of our heels while Morocco does our carved heels and babouches. It’s national footwear, for the most part, but Ethiopia is a departure. I wanted to start making heels, but they weren’t making high-end heels anywhere in Africa, and I didn’t want to take away jobs, so the United Nations help me set it up. The Ethiopia workshop was about expanding into something new, something that will continue to grow.”
Starting from scratch isn’t unusual for James. She traveled frequently with her global-fashion-loving architect mother as a child, moving from Canada to Jamaica at a young age. Eventually returning to Canada’s Eastern provinces, she moved to the Kensington Market area of Toronto as a teen. In her early 20s, she went to Los Angeles on vacation and ended up living there for a few years due to a visa snafu that left her in need of work to validate a longer-than-planned stay.
“I ended up getting a job that validated it, and I started working once I had a visa, but it was tough for those first few months when I couldn’t work,” recalls James, who became a creative consultant for fashion companies such as Gen Art, Thomas Wylde, and Elite. “I would go to downtown L.A. and wait for J. Brand to do their drop of reject denim at St. Vincent de Paul every week, and I would fix them myself and give them to my boyfriend to take to that store Wasteland, on Melrose. I was paying, like, $4 and he would get $80 per pair of jeans. It was a hustle for sure.”
Now living in Brooklyn, James’ wide-eyed ingenuity has proved paramount to not only the sustainable growth of Brother Vellies, but also to building a support system, which she finds essential to sustaining her sanity. While others may see competition in fellow designers, James sees camaraderie—and all it takes is an email. “I’ve always been a total nerd, a total info@ emailer,” she says. “If you have a brand I like, I’ll totally send you an email. It’s like, why not? If people are afraid, it’s because they are insecure. Insecurity is not great, and we all battle with it. Having your own fashion line is a trauma in itself, but reaching out to others is a good way to erase those insecurities and realize there’s enough pie for all of us.”
Although she’s run into her fair share of industry pie-hoggers, naysayers, and haters, the support system James has built—including a dynamic array of inspiring women such as April Hughes of Beautiful Dreamers, Cary Vaughan and Jenna Wilson of Ace and Jig, Becca McCharen-Tran of Chromat, Sarah Law of Kara, and Darlene and Lizzy Okpo of William Okpo—keeps her moving forward.
“Having your own fashion line is a trauma in itself, but reaching out to others is a good way to erase those insecurities and realize there’s enough pie for all of us.”
— AURORA JAMES
“Everyone has a path and everyone has his or her own battles and demons,” James says, “but I feel like the more you meet people and know them, they become actual people rather than catalysts for whatever you’re actually going through, and it really strips away the question marks and makes you feel better about things. I went through some really crazy shit when I was starting my company, and I wanted to fold it a bunch of times, but when you surround yourself with other people who are in the same mindset as you, you don’t have to defend your actions because they are building on your actions. You’re more supported mentally and creatively.”
But for James, this sense of communal support doesn’t refer to just an inner circle. Brother Vellies takes the concept worldwide. “The genesis of Brother Vellies has been about community,” she says. “It’s always been about how we can create this network of communities on a global scale that can support and feed each other.”
This past February, James received a reassuring sign of her brand’s global synergy when Kanye West made an appearance at the Brother Vellies Fall 2016 presentation. Back when she was first scouting workshops in South Africa, the traditional vellie was not a popular shoe choice among South Africans. Just like in America, the footwear Kanye wore was what everyone wanted. But now? “Yep, it’s come full circle,” James says. “Not only did we help popularize that style in America, which in turn popularized that style back in South Africa, [but] its popularity created jobs in our workshops and boosted all the workshops that were making that desert boot and selling to local markets,” which, she notes, ultimately goes back to the community.
“We’re all connected, and if one of the links falls apart,” she cautions, “the whole thing isn’t viable anymore.” Although James is speaking to the community she’s built around Brother Vellies, these words of wisdom could very well revolutionize a new world order.