Meet the Woman Making Ethical Fashion Cool
About a year ago, I started hearing about a shoe brand called Brother Vellies everywhere—from a friend in the industry to a cousin living and working in Africa (where the company makes its shoes). The consensus across the board was that this was a brand to watch, not just for its on-point aesthetic but for its admirably ethical production methods, too. Put simply, it was thought to be the best of both worlds, which is not always easy to come by in the sustainable fashion space.
A little research confirmed this for me (and had me suddenly craving far more shoes than I needed) but also led me to a serious crush on the brand’s founder, Aurora James. Beyond being drop-dead gorgeous in the most natural way, she has killer style and—judging from her current endeavor—a really good heart.
Inspired by the traditional veldskoen (“vellie”) desert boots she kept seeing on her travels in Africa, James founded Brother Vellies in 2013 with the goal of creating and sustaining jobs throughout Africa. She has done exactly that—her products are handmade in South Africa, Kenya, and Namibia—and wooed the fashion world on top of it all. When she was announced as a finalist for the prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund competition on July 15, I was not surprised in the least.
I hopped on a call with James to discuss that experience and everything leading up to it, and was met with one of the sweetest, smartest ladies in the biz.
Scroll down to hear James’s amazing advice for getting into the industry, and the hilarious way she found out about being a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist!
Congratulations on being named a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund competition! What was the process like leading up to that?
“Thank you! It’s so amazing—such a huge honor. You have to get an application, which people don’t really talk about. It’s not online. You have to email someone and ask for it, and then once you apply you move on to phase two, where you have to give them a portfolio presentation and make a video, which took us a couple of months to put together. People do some really extravagant things! You just kind of lay it all out there and try to do your best and hope that whatever you create resonates with the judges on some level.”
And then how long do you have to wait to find out the results?
“There’s like two to three weeks between [turning it in and having the finalists announced]. I just tried to put it out of my mind. But then, if you do get chosen, you’re thrown into it right away. It started the day it was announced! On June 15 at like 3 in the afternoon they had a camera crew show up to my house to film me getting the call from Steven Kolb that said I was chosen.”
Wait, so did you have to fake being excited for the camera crew, or did you not know yet?
“I didn’t know! They called me and said that they were FedEx, waiting downstairs for a pickup. I was like, Huh, at what address? Because I was at home and we send all of our FedEx shipments to the store. But I went downstairs [anyway], and there was a camera crew at my door and suddenly my phone rang with Steven Kolb on the line. They’re crafty over there at the CFDA!”
So, let’s backtrack a bit. What drew you to fashion in the first place? How did you originally get your start in the industry?
“Like a lot of people, I just grew up really loving fashion. You know, when I was a little girl I always had a lot of fun with what I wore—I was that kid who had to wear a tutu to the grocery store.
“And then when I turned 16, I had my first internship at a modeling agency because I just loved editorial photography and all that jazz, and I liked the idea of development: the idea that you can take a girl from the most remote place in Africa and have her walking a runway a month later and making enough money to support herself, even without an education. It taught me early on that fashion can be a really transformative experience for people.
“After I graduated, I worked there for a bit and then I did some work with Fashion Television in Toronto; moved to L.A. for a while with an organization called GenArt, which is an arts organization; then I did something totally unexpected and worked for a company called Woolly Pocket that does a lot of gardening stuff, and I helped build 1000 school gardens, which was fantastic and a great way to connect with the most basic elements of life. It was very different than fashion but so important for me to do.”
How did the idea for Brother Vellies come about?
“While I was doing modeling development, I traveled a lot, and the first two places I went to in Africa were Morocco and Nigeria. They were both just so beautiful and so completely different that I was inspired to explore more of what the continent had to offer. And all my life, whenever I was traveling with my mom, she’d buy different cultural items that were locally made, so I’ve always been really aware when traveling of what the locals are making. I’ve also always loved shoes, so it was just a natural thing to focus on them.”
Have you always been an ethically minded person when it comes to lifestyle and fashion, or was there a moment when everything changed for you?
“Well, my mom is a landscape architect, so she’s always been really attached to nature and the outdoors. Because of that, I just always tried to make decisions that were in the best interest of everyone, not just myself, which led me to think more of the environment. I’m also from Canada, where we sang songs about recycling in kindergarten and did a play on recycling in first grade, so I think [valuing that] has just been ingrained in me.
“When I originally applied for the CFDA/Lexus Eco-Fashion Challenge last year, I actually didn’t think I would meet the qualifications, because I don’t make, like, hemp shoes. But then I read about it and realized we not only met the qualifications, we actually blew them out of the water. It made me realize that the bar of environmentalism and sustainability in fashion is actually really, really low, so if you just put in a little effort, you’ll actually be far ahead of the game.
“If you’re conscious of how much waste is being made in the industry, that should propel you then to make more sustainable choices. And at the end of the day, if you’re selling something that’s a designer item, it should come with the whole experience of luxury. Luxury doesn’t involve garbage; it involves beautiful, artisanal things that are meant to be kept for a long time, and that just comes with using better materials.”
Do you only shop for ethically made goods, or is it a bit of a mix?
“No, I mix it up all the time. I think that I’m more aware of brands that are ethically made now, like the Everlanes [of the world]. I hear more of their stories now and am just more inspired by them—they intuitively feel more beautiful to me. Studio 189 has done a really good job in Ghana; it’s run by this girl, Abrima Erwiah, and Rosario Dawson, and they’re both really committed. I also love Stella Jean, Monique Péan, and Pamela Love has some great stuff that’s super sustainable too. I mean, you’d be surprised with some of them. I don’t think they all get a ton of press for it, but a lot of them have really amazing sustainability initiatives.”
How often do you go back to Africa?
“Every two or three months. I go to Kenya most often—I fly into Nairobi and spend a couple of days there meeting with the person who does our bone carving and sourcing some leather, and then I’ll take a miniature plane to the coast to visit one of our workshops and finish at our workshop in the Maasai Mara for a week or so.
“It’s a lot! I always try to go on safari while I’m there just because it’s such a beautiful place, and the animals are really special. I also always try to be an ‘eco-tourist’ by going to the hotels and places that keep as much money as possible in the local community.
How do you even pack for a trip like that?
“I haven’t gotten it quite right yet, because the weather is really erratic, but there’s a certain brand, Ace & Jig, that I always bring with me. You can put like 10 Ace & Jig outfits in your suitcase and still have space and not have to worry about anything wrinkling, so they’re a major win to me. We’ve also been doing something called the T-Shirt Project, which is a collection of vintage T-shirts from Kenya, and so I bring tons of those. I’m definitely a jeans-and–T-shirts person when I’m traveling.”
That’s really hard to imagine given the pictures I’ve seen of you—I feel like your style is so bohemian and eclectic!
“Well [laughs], it’s like a T-shirt under flared overalls that button up the front with some sort of hat. So it’s a little more complicated.”
How long did it take you to reach a comfortable place with your style? I feel like so many women struggle with that and spend years experimenting, but it seems like you really have a look down.
“You know, it changes a lot. It’s hard because you’ll look at magazines every day and not necessarily see yourself reflected in them, and not every trend works for every body type. So, for me, the number one most important thing is putting on something that feels natural and that feels really comfortable, because if you’re not comfortable in what you’re wearing, then you’re not going to look great in it.
“I do really love denim—I have denim dresses, denim overalls, denim pants, and ones that aren’t cut like regular denim, but that have elastic waistbands and such. Also, when I say overalls, I’m referring to a whole gamut of them: everything from 69s, which look kind of crazy, to a more basic MiH pair. I have a great denim skirt from Sea that I’ve been wearing all the time, and this Rachel Comey denim crop top a lot this spring. So there are pieces like that that become core parts of my outfit but that I always interpret in different ways.”
Has your personal style changed at all since starting the company?
“Well, I never wear anyone else’s shoes [laughs], because if I want another pair, I’ll just make it. I also wear more cropped pants, because when people ask me what I do and I tell them I’m a shoe designer, they immediately look down at my feet. So I was like I’m just going to wear cropped pants [to make it easier for them to see]—seriously, probably 80% of my pants are cropped.”
Do you think that you’ll ever design something other than shoes?
“Yes, I’d really love to. I love jewelry and I also love handbags, so we’ll see!”
So, at 31, you’re now very successful—but you described a lot of different phases in your career, and I’m wondering if you ever felt frustrated or lost and, if so, what advice would you give to young people going through that right now in the fashion industry.
“I totally felt that way! The part that was toughest for me was making the jump from being an intern to actually getting paid. I don’t know why that was SO hard, but there was a period of time where my friends and I all really struggled to make that transition.
“I think it’s really important for young people to remember that, as much as everyone thinks they know everything, they [actually] know nothing. You know, I’ve been doing this whole CFDA thing, talking to so many different people and the mentors we’re given, and it’s been a good reminder that I know nothing! What DVF knows versus what I know is like worlds apart—I might as well be a shiny new toddler. So young people need to keep their ears and eyes open and read Women’s Wear Daily, really read it! Fashion is a business; it’s not just about clothes, and thinking Ooh, I love wearing shirts! is just not enough [laughs]. There aren’t enough people out there thinking about it from a business perspective, and if you’re not looking at it that way, you might be missing the bigger picture.
“Lastly, and really critically, be sure to do your research before you email someone, because even when someone doesn’t respond, 80% of the emails you send are still going to be read. I think a lot of young people think they’re just firing off these emails into the blue lagoon, but [that’s not the case], so every time you send one, you should be professional about it.
“Just because certain heiresses make it through life without doing that doesn’t mean that you can too. You can’t just wear clothes and gallivant around and expect someone to hire you to DJ or let you sit front row at all of the fashion shows—you have to earn it. Rest assured, if I have an intern that’s amazing, everybody in my life will know it and they’ll be lined up at the door waiting to hire them. But I don’t think people necessarily understand while they’re interning what an amazing intern really is.”
So what would you say an amazing intern is?
“An amazing intern makes themselves indispensable to the company that they’re working with. If you can be so helpful that the company can no longer do without you, you’re more likely to get a job there. You have to go above and beyond with your tasks—ask yourself how you can perform something at 150%. And, honest to god, that’s just what I tried to do with everything. I was not an overachiever in high school—I dropped out—but I was an overachiever in my internships.”
I wish I had gotten advice from you when I was starting out!
“[Laughs.] It’s funny because I was actually interviewed by one of my mentors yesterday. See, when I was in school I worked part-time at a gym, and there was this very, very famous fashion icon in Canada named Jeanne Beker who worked out there. Whenever she came in we’d all be like, Oh my god! She’s SO major! She was kind of like the Anna Wintour of Canada, but with this epic show called Fashion Television that was the first TV program based solely on fashion. It was on for a whole hour, and she would do these amazing interviews with designers like Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, etc., and they would play their entire runway shows.
“Anyway, she slowly started talking to me, and one day I told her, ‘I have actually been applying for an internship at Fashion Television for like six months slash eight months slash my whole life—and I can never get a response.’ And she was like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?!’ And it was because I didn’t want to impose, but the day after I told her that, I started interning for her and learned so, so much from being there. Then yesterday, she interviewed me! And it was this real 360 experience—we were both tearing up.
“You just never know what will happen—it’s important to build a community of people that support each other, be nice to everyone, and all ships will rise with the tide. As I told Jeanne, it took nothing for her to do what she did for me, and yet it made a world of difference in my life. Her taking those five minutes to be extra nice to me pretty much changed my life.”
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