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The inside of the Brother Vellies store is a collision of worlds you want to be a part of. Massive plants and woven baskets mingle with art books and a disco ball or two, all a backdrop to shoes. The appeal of Brother Vellies's gorgeous sandals and cool boots is only sweetened by the fact that they are crafted in socially responsible, environmentally respectful means by artisans in Africa. When the company's creative director, 31-year-old Aurora James, enters the richly-textured space, it all clicks.
James embodies everything we sought to profile in our first installment of the Style Crush series. She's effortlessly cool, wicked smart, and captivatingly interesting; the kind of woman that catches your eye sandals with horsehair tassels, sets up a planet-friendly supply chain in Africa, and then gets nominated for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund.and keeps your attention with talk of the importance of edible gardens in elementary schools. She's the kind of woman who dreams up
Brother Vellies debuted in January 2013 with veldskoens — "vellies" for short — the desert boot's ancient ancestor. The collection, which offers footwear for men, women, and children, has grown to include a breadth of sandals and mules, attracting stockists like Madewell and Nasty Gal along the way. Handbags are the next frontier and could arrive as early as this coming spring. Who knows what will follow; James isn't one for standing still.
The Toronto native left a journalism program at Ryerson University for a series of creative stints: working as a production assistant, consultant, model agent, and curator. "I dropped out of school, but [Ryerson] tweeted that I graduated," she mentions as she recounts her path from Canada to Los Angeles and then Brooklyn. "I'm wondering if that's going to translate to an honorary degree. I'm going to send them an e-mail." She has that spark best summarized as hustle: naturally inquisitive, savvy, unintimidated by newness. "I've always been someone who's very hands-on," she explains. "That's how I learned about shoes, by getting into workshops and physically doing it."
When we visit her storefront at Manhattan's South Street Seaport, one of the New York City neighborhoods most damaged by Hurricane Sandy, she's discussing electrical with Seaport staff and coordinating a flooring install between shots. "You could see the water lines on the walls of my store before I moved in," she says of Sandy's impact. "I remember walking from where I live in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, to the water, looking out at this area and it was completely black, not lit at all, thinking 'Oh my God. How are they going to rebuild this?'"
Brother Vellies is part of a massive overhaul of the Seaport, a charming cobblestone district that spent an unfortunate amount of time as a tourist-driven mall zone. A few holdovers from its unchic past — like an Abercombie & Fitch outpost you can smell from down the block — remain, but the area's business improvement district is upping the cool factor by seeking out tastemakers like James. "I had only been to the Seaport once before looking at the space for my store," she says. "I like the sense of community here. It's changed so much."
After the final shots are taken and a quick phone call regarding the electrical issue is made, James and I hunt for a quiet place to talk. The boutique is out of the question, due to flooring work in progress, and it's too noisy at the pastel picnic tables between the store and the food booths. We head next door to William Okpo — James is close with the pair of sisters who run the label — and settle in on a couch at the back.
While our conversation was rooted in personal style, we wound up traversing many, many other paths. Here, she talks about educating herself on building a supply chain that's good for planet, the flaws of the one-for-one model, and the summer she spent watching backstage fashion show footage from the '90s when "people weren't used to having cameras around."
First, congrats on your CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund nomination! What are you hoping to gain from the experience?
It's an amazing opportunity to talk to different people and get feedback. Diane von Furstenberg has been amazing and a role model of mine for a long time. It's also been really great to bond with the other nominated designers. Even though it's supposed to be a competition, it's really a journey that we're all on together.
Clearly you're very inspired by Africa. Are there any other major inspirations you draw from?
Florence, from Florence and the Machine. Her movement is really fantastic on stage. She floats around, she has so much energy. I think about what shoes would serve her. Also, my friend, Dakota Solt — you have to follow her on Instagram. Whenever she posts a photo I'm like, ‘Is this real life?' She's so cool, so beautiful and so amazing.
A lot of [the collection] is based on [artisans'] capabilities, so for spring/summer ‘16 I'm trying to find ways to integrate this beautiful fabric that they're making in Burkina Faso and Mali. The women there are super talented, so I'm really excited about integrating their skills.
Which shoe designers do you admire and why?
Charlotte Olympia is so fun. It's great to look at a shoe and smile.
How do you characterize your own personal style?
Maybe eclectic? I don't know, I'm not Johnny Depp — he's eclectic. There's a lot of texture, a lot of color in what I wear.
What outfit do you put on and think, I really feel like myself? Denim. Any kind of denim. It's such an experience-based material. You can do anything and you don't have to worry about it. It's not like, "Oh God, I can't. I'm wearing jeans today."
When you were a kid, did you like fashion and getting dressed?
Yes. I especially loved dresses; I was so girly.
Do you remember any specific style moments from that time?
My grandmother bought me this really nice coat when I was, like, four. It was during the holidays, and we we were going to see The Nutcracker. The coat was an early Christmas gift to wear to the performance; I was wearing it with a little dress that was sparkly.
What about during your teenage years?
I wore a bandana in my school photo, just tied around my head. I went to a really nice high school and they called me into the office and were like, "You can't wear the bandana because people are going to think it's gang-related." I don't know if it's because I was one of the few students of color or what but it was really weird.
You went to college briefly; what did you do immediately after leaving?
I was a production assistant at Fashion Television. I started there as an intern when I was still in school. I spent the summer in the tape library, watched old footage of Karl Lagerfeld and Marc Jacobs for hours and hours and hours — crazy early-'90s back-of-house stuff. People weren't used to having cameras around them then.
One of the first things I worked on was a segment on Behati Prinsloo and Coco Rocha and how they were becoming best friends their first summer in New York, which was like ten years ago.
Where did you go from there?
I went to LA on vacation, and ended up staying. I took a year and worked in school gardens, which I think is a really important topic — nutrition for kids. Edible Schoolyard is doing an amazing job, and all the Alice Waters school gardening programs are amazing, just giving children the information that they need to distinguish between a tomato and ketchup, or to even know there's a connection. I can assure you a lot of children don't know that.
Are there any specific parts of your business that you're trying to focus on right now?
I'm working on our spring/summer 2016 collection, which is a big jump for us in a lot of different ways. We're presenting a lot of new styles for spring, and I'm doing a presentation for the first time during Fashion Week.
You've thought through so much of the process of manufacturing Brother Vellies, from material sourcing to how it's made, where it's made. How did you create a sustainable supply chain you felt comfortable with?
In the year 2015, whenever we're making choices we need to weigh what's best for the environment. The well-being of our planet should be on the forefront of our minds throughout the day. I try to run my business that way, and we're definitely not perfect when it comes to sustainability, but we're making our best attempt.
Sometimes it's just about letting suppliers know that there's a demand for [sustainable practices]. If people know that there's a demand, it changes the way they do business.
Where did you learn about this?
The internet. I don't have a formal education, so it's just about asking questions. I am a huge question-asker — I will go into a meeting and ask questions that I kind of already know the answer to because you can never be sure. Going into any situation with the idea that you already know anything is a mistake.
Do you have any take on the trendiness of giving back, on so-called "greenwashing?"
I hate the one-for-one model because giving something to someone usually isn't going to solve the bigger problem. Someone needs something because they don't have the means to get that something on their own. Instead of giving someone a free pair of shoes, enable them to make their own pair of shoes. It's really about employment versus charity.
I don't need to give [our employees] donations because I'm giving them jobs. The people who work for us have money. They can pay their own rent, they can buy their own house because they have a job.
There are obviously a billion amazing charities, don't get me wrong, but that whole charity model can be really tough, and no one can argue the value of teaching people skills. That's really the model I want to focus on.
Are there any other business that you admire that work similarly, or that you looked up to when you were setting up your model of manufacturing?
There's no one that popped into my mind. I'm not the first fashion brand to make things in Africa. I'm the first fashion brand to make things in the way that I make things in Africa, and make 100 percent of our shoes in Africa. It's just about trying to do your best and having your own set of standards and ideals and going for it. Everyone has to create a business model that works for them and makes them happy, and so I just had to stick with my own standards. But there was no one that I was like, they're doing this really well.
It sounds like you enjoy having a lot of different projects, doing a lot of different things. Is there anything else that you have your eye on?
I'd absolutely love to have a hotel.
Do you know what city you'd like to have your hotel in?
Nairobi or LA ... pretty different places. Nairobi is really beautiful. It's such a nice first place to go to in Africa. But Giraffe Manor is there and it would be really hard to compete with because it's basically my personal version of heaven. It's an amazing manor that houses six rooms, and they have all these Rothschild's giraffes that they're trying to prevent from going extinct. They live on this multi-acre property and they'll come over to the manor in the mornings and afternoons.
8 AM or 8 PM?
Coffee or tea and how do you take it?
Coffee with whole milk, iced.
Dogs or cats?
Best vacation you've ever been on?
I just went to Italy about a week ago and it wasn't for vacation but it was really nice. We went to Florence and Milan and Venice.
Dream travel destination?
Whose wardrobe would you swap with in an instant?
Bjork. Or Tilda Swinton.
TV show that you cannot miss an episode of?
The Bachelorette because what is Kaitlyn doing right now? She's Canadian and I'm like, ‘Get it together!'
Song that you can't stop listening to?
I listen to the Tame Impala radio station on Pandora like it's my job.
Creative: Rajni Jacques