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The creator of luxury brand Brother Vellies is fighting for justice in fashion

Wildflower is the new memoir from Aurora James, founder of the luxury accessories brand Brother Vellies as well as the Fifteen Percent Pledge.
Penguin Random House
Wildflower is the new memoir from Aurora James, founder of the luxury accessories brand Brother Vellies as well as the Fifteen Percent Pledge.

Three years ago, fashion designer Aurora James created the 15-percent pledge, challenging retailers to devote 15 percent of their shelves to products made by Black-owned companies.

George Floyd's killing in 2020 had created a tidal wave in social justice. James wanted to also challenge companies to commit to economic justice.

Since she began this quest, more than two dozen major retailers like Nordstrom, Macys and Sephora have signed on.

James is the creator behind the Brother Vellies brand, luxury shoes that she designed on a shoestring budget until sales took off.

"What most people don't know is that I work with artisans all around the world who've been historically excluded from participating in fashion," she told NPR's Michel Martin. "So people in Kenya and Ethiopia and Haiti and I really work with them on doing things that they've done for many generations."

Fashion was a world familiar to James - she had a brief stint in modeling and worked for Fashion Television. She also delved into a modern gardening business. When James met someone on that job who happened to be wearing a pair of veldskoens, South African-made field shoes, the trajectory of her future changed. Most South Africans call veldskoens "Vellies," pronouncing the "V" like an "F."

The Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund awarded her Brother Vellies the top prize in their annual contest in 2015. But while there was huge demand for her shoes, James constantly felt mired in debt. She tells that story in her memoir, Wildflower.

James said that she has only reached her current success after years of scrambling. Well before she became established in the fashion world, she sold marijuana to make ends meet. After her mom married a man who she said mistreated her and her mom, she was forced to find her way on her own.

"I feel incredibly proud of everything that I've managed to accomplish," she said. "And not being completely transparent about how incredibly hard it has been would only be a disservice to other people who are putting in the work and not having an easy path of it themselves."

A condensed version of Michel Martin's interview with Aurora James follows. It has been edited for clarity.

Michel Martin: You come from this unusual background. Let me put it this way:it's kind of eye- popping. And I'm just wondering if other people have reacted as I have when they found out that you've really had to kind of scratch and claw your way to everything.

Aurora James: You know, I think we spend so much time as humans just kind of straightening out our own costumes of identity, right, to be presentable to others. And I think for me, there's always been so many things that I wanted to achieve in my own life. And, you know, dropping out of high school, not getting into the college – that I really basically didn't graduate college at all, like I found myself behind bars at one point. Like, all of these things are not really conducive to being in the rooms that I wanted to be in in this country. And I didn't really want to let my stumbles in the past block me from what I knew I could achieve in the future.

One of the points that you make over and over again in the book is that talent is distributed all over the world. But access to the resources to bring those to bear are not. And this seems to be a lesson that you learned really early on, but it's also one that you seem to be willing to speak about very bluntly in a way that other people at your level of fashion are not. And I just wanted to ask how you first came to that conviction?

Well, I think I spent so much time in museums. My mom was always taking me to museums. And we would go even to indigenous reservations and watch women bead, right. And she would talk to them about the beaded patterns and what it meant to them and what level of expression it was.

And she would tell me this Nigerian proverb, which goes, 'Until the lion has a historian, the hunter will always be the hero.' And she said, I want you to think about the most marginalized people in the world and the fact that their archives do not exist in the books that you're going to be reading, or even in a lot of the museum collections that you're going to be seeing in the way that they intended it to. And so you're going to have to seek that out.

And I think because, you know, I've consumed a lot of the fashion media that we've all kind of seen these ideas of Parisian, couturiers and all of that. When I actually started traveling across Africa and seeing people who made Vellies, the desert boots that I work with or who are carving beads out of cow bones, like to me, that level of artistry is just as fantastic as what they're doing in Paris or what they're doing in Italy. And the only difference really was that these were hands of color in countries that we did not associate with being luxury.

There are a couple stories that stood out for me... One time you were applying for a fellowship and one of the judges rejected your application because she said that the fact that some of the artisans could do the work at home meant that they could be abusing their kids, like they could be making the kids do the work. And you're like, wait, what? You know, it means that they don't have to hire childcare... Then the other one was about later on as your business became more developed, somebody who created a really onerous business loan for you that actually wound up costing you more than you got from it.

My grandmother used to say "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." And I would always say, "Wow, that's so dark." But when we think about it as consumers, I talk also in the book about how American-donated clothing has actually killed out almost 70% of the manufacturing across Africa. I was told to donate all my clothes to, you know, "poor people in Africa" when I was younger. I remember doing that and spring cleaning. And I had no idea that, there'd be all of these American clothes in landfills there and it would be killing out their local manufacturing industry. Right. It was well-intentioned, but the end result was not good.

And so for me, it's much more interesting to actually empower a community to make shoes, and then they can decide how they want to try to utilize their own resources that they then have.

When it comes to something like the loan that I took, it was a $70,000 loan that ended up costing me over a million dollars to get out of. Truly so depressing. The more work that I did after the fact, the more and more I started realizing how commonplace it actually is and that female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color are the ones that are most adversely affected by predatory loans.

And I think over the years, a lot of people have really kind of applauded this idea that I started this business with $3,500 and bootstrapped in and, you know, now vice president of the CFDA and all that jazz. And it sounds really lovely.

But when you look under the hood of what it actually means to grow a small business in this country, it's a lot more complicated, right? People tell you you should raise money from friends and family. But what if you don't have friends or family that can give you $10,000 or $30,000 or $50,000? Where are you going to get it from? And who are the people that are ready to exploit that situation? And how can we make more structures in this country that are actually meaningfully going to support small business?

The audio version of this story was produced by Ana Perez and Shelby Hawkins. The digital version of this story was edited by Lisa Lambert. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Reena Advani
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered and host of the Consider This Saturday podcast, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.