Originally hailing from Toronto, Canada, The New York-based accessories designer Aurora James is is making waking waves within the fashion industry. She is at the forefront of the sustainability movement. Her accessories brand Brother Vellies, which she founded in 2013, is centered around keeping traditional African design practices and techniques alive. The line features handmade pieces produced from vegetable-tanned leathers, soling from recycled tires, hand-carved wood and floral-dyed feathers from around the globe. In 2020, James founded the Fifteen Percent Pledge, which is an initiative that asks big box retail stores, such as Target and Sephora, to commit 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned brands. James is a pillar in the fashion industry and is fighting for the voiceless and seenless who want deserve a chance.
Below, EBONY chatted with the designer about her journey into sustainability and how she overcame adversity in the fashion space.
EBONY: What brought you to create your brand?
Aurora James: I was traveling throughout Africa around 2013, and was amazed by the incredible artisans I met there and by the African women who had yet to succumb to western beauty standards. These people had such a clear sense of self and were experts in their crafts. I already knew that I was a designer, but they inspired me to build something that was meant to last.
How did you decide that sustainability was the direction you wanted to take your brand?
I did not want to contribute to the amount of garbage destroying our planet. I love making accessories but knew it had to be done the right way. I like to work with craftspeople in workshops that are pre-existing and potentially at risk. These people are so talented and create amazing things directly from the earth. I did not see any other way to build Brother Vellies.
What hurdles have you faced as a Black entrepreneur?
When I first started Brother Vellies, I did so with $3500 in my pocket and a stand at a flea market. Just like so many others in my community, I faced barriers to accessing capital. Venture capital firms and other donors often didn’t understand my story or my brand, which made it challenging to grow and scale my business. There are also unique hurdles I’ve faced with the Fifteen Percent Pledge, the nonprofit I founded in 2020 that calls on companies to dedicate 15 percent of their purchasing power to Black brands. As a Black woman-led organization, it has been difficult to secure funding, and this experience is not unique to us. Organizations led by people of color historically receive less grant money. Although there have been obstacles, I’m proud of how far Brother Vellies has come, and of the incredible work we’ve accomplished at the Pledge to support Black entrepreneurs.
What are some words of advice to Black entrepreneurs out there looking to start a business?
Starting a business, especially for Black entrepreneurs, is far from easy—but my advice is to never give up. Despite the systemic barriers we face, what matters most is that you have people in your corner who will support you. Lean on your inner circle and make connections with your neighbors, because building relationships with your community will push you forward in more ways than you can imagine. If you’re a Black business owner, feel free to connect with us at the Fifteen Percent Pledge—we have an entire ecosystem of Black businesses and we will do what we can to provide the tools and resources necessary to help grow your brand.