The woman known for designer soles is now bearing her soul in a new memoir. Aurora James’ Wildflower is an intensifying journey through her tumultuous childhood and the demons she encountered in her teens to her success as the fashion designer, entrepreneur, and activist we know her as today. “Young girls always ask me, ‘How did you get to do what you do?’ And it’s hard to answer without people understanding where I came from and how I was socialized in the world,” James exclaims. “Writing a book from authenticity and honesty and being vulnerable was the only way I could share my story with the world.”
Along with the success of Brother Vellies, James launched the Fifteen Percent Pledge in 2020, calling for businesses to dedicate 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned brands. “In the past three years, we have grown that call to action into a movement, partnering with dozens of major companies in three different countries and creating the potential to shift $14 billion to Black-owned businesses,” she declares.
James revisits the toughest and most joyful moments of her memoir and shares the poignant meaning behind its title with EBONY.
EBONY: What inspired you to write Wildflower?
Aurora James: My hope was to lay everything out there showcasing the trials and tribulations of my journey. Straddling two cultures, I wanted to unpack my complicated upbringing as a mixed, biracial child, raised by my white grandmother and mother where I bounced around between Canada and Jamaica. From experiencing casual racism, longing to reconnect with my father who I barely knew, dropping out of high school, brushes with the law, and getting arrested to my motivation to visit Africa and my eternal quest for answers about my identity.
You share some very personal traumatic moments in your life: abuse, extreme dieting, and your relationship with your mother. What was it like to revisit those times and why are they important to share?
It felt really important to me to talk about what goes unsaid. Black women, even prominent public figures with cultural influence, are not encouraged to talk about struggles with body image and abuse. At the same time, I wanted my own story to put awareness into the public sphere that even if we have come a long way, we can struggle behind closed doors. I’m so grateful to have had the chance to tell my story, even though it has been a terrifying experience.
How did your tumultuous childhood prepare you to succeed in fashion and business?
I think overcoming adversity makes you better in all aspects of life. I learned at an early age that I would never get anywhere if I did not advocate for myself. I credit much of my success to the resilience and drive my childhood gave me.
What was the most joyful part of the book to write?
Some of these memories have been a delight to resurface again in written form, the first few days of launching the Fifteen Percent Pledge or taking my first big leap launching my brand Brother Vellies. But my hands-down favorite part has been able to write about some of the amazing people I have met on my journey so far: artisans, craftspeople, small business owners, friends and inspirations.
When you look back at the Fifteen Percent Pledge, what strikes you as the most incredulous thing about how it began?
When I posted my initial call to action on Instagram in June 2020, I did not expect the Pledge to become a full-fledged nonprofit organization with more than 10 full-time staff. We quickly realized that the proposition to support Black entrepreneurs was beneficial to everyone—not just retail brands. That is why we expanded our work to include companies like Yelp, InStyle, Vogue and Next Model Management, in order to create sustainable ecosystems for Black businesses across all industries.
What do you consider the most successful move in your professional journey and why?
Starting the Fifteen Percent Pledge has been the most rewarding experience in my professional journey. Not only have we disrupted the retail space by fundamentally changing how consumers and corporations view their business models, but we have also played an active role in narrowing the racial wealth gap. Over the last three years, we have been able to build a comprehensive network of partners to further our mission and support Black entrepreneurs. And I have had the opportunity to work with some incredible companies along the way, from partnering with Google to launch our Business Equity Community and our inaugural Achievement Award to collaborating with Citi on our first-ever pop-up shop last fall. Growing the Pledge has further solidified that supporting Black businesses is not only about securing shelf space, it is about providing them with the tools and guidance they need to ensure they reach their maximum potential.
You write there's no such thing as "Black Girl Magic," this is a story of a Black woman’s hard work. Why is that distinction so important?
Time and time again, we have seen how Black women's hard work and resilience are undervalued, undermined or questioned. I wanted this book to not only reflect on how my background informed my growth as a business owner and designer but to give credit to those who lifted me up along the way. We know that when Black women are put in positions of power, we outperform, both for ourselves and our communities. It is time that we are credited for the long roads we embark on, and the hurdles we continue to overcome.
You dedicate your book to your grandmother. What is the most important lesson you learned from her?
My grandmother taught me to see people through honest eyes, to determine if they are good at heart and if so, to accept them in their flaws. People can change and learn, and her love taught me to have patience. I also learned from her that racism is the manifestation of fear. If we can disband fear, we can disband racism. But at the same time, that is not necessarily our job as people of color.
If you can only give one piece of advice to those who want to build a business, what would it be?
I know firsthand the barriers that new business owners, especially Black entrepreneurs, face when trying to build their companies. Between a lack of available funding from VCs to reluctance from potential donors to truly understand your brand’s mission, creating and growing your business is not easy. Despite this, my advice is to keep persevering. Make sure you are relying on those in your inner circle to provide you with the support you will need on your journey. Never underestimate the power of building relationships with your community, they will push you forward more than you can imagine.
What do you want people to take away from your memoir?
I hope in some small way it will inspire people to chase their dreams. And I want to offer a story that people can relate to. I have always followed my gut and my creative impulse, and while not everyone has the same creative influences (or dreams!) as me, I want everyone to feel like there is something within them that can become the architecture of the life they always wanted to live.
What does the title Wildflower symbolize, in your own words?
My mom and I used to throw seed bombs out of our car window—they were wildflower seeds that we would [smash] together with clay and dirt. Anytime we saw an abandoned lot or any patch or area that looked like it could be more beautiful, we’d just throw one out the window. It’s really about that: how can you really, abundantly try to bloom in places where you are not expected to bloom, and how can we all bring and leave behind more beauty in the world?