Since 2013, Brother Vellies has amplified the voices of artisans around the world. The label founded by Aurora James has helped to preserve the craftsmanship of international artisans by ensuring access to workshops, equal pay, and employment backed by United Nations standards. Over the past several months, with many small businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, James has expanded her mission. Through Brother Vellies, she began a delivery program of ethically made goods called Something Special.
And then, in the wake of racial injustice protests around the world, James launched the 15 Percent Pledge—a nonprofit organization that calls on large corporations to dedicate 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses.
Whitewall spoke with James about the power of purchasing and how the idea of luxury is changing to reflect what matters today.
WHITEWALL: What was your idea for Something Special?
AURORA JAMES: As the pandemic was growing, we started thinking about what the Brother Vellies community needed at a time when leaving your home wasn’t an option. We worked on creating small batch items that we hoped would bring beauty and comfort into the lives of our community— and this grew to become Something Special. By signing up to the program, our Something Special community members receive a little surprise every month. We started with the At Home Mug, which I use every morning to slow-stir my coffee and is handmade by our artisans in Oaxaca, then we sent a beautiful handmade hanging vase, which was followed by a thoughtfully designed bowl to burn the sweetgrass that came with it. We also are so excited about our Cloud Socks.
I think that the idea of luxury is changing, and that people are starting to equate luxury more with process and brand values and sustainability than they are with logos.
WW: In support of economic equality, the 15 Percent Pledge is a nonprofit organization that encourages major retailers to allocate 15 percent of shelf space to Black-owned businesses. How did you arrive at this?
AJ: As a business owner, I am especially torn up by how much Black businesses are suffering because of the pandemic. Studies say that 40 percent of Black-owned businesses will not survive beyond this. We started looking at some statistics and noticed that Black-owned businesses represent a mere 1.3 percent of total U.S. sales, in comparison to the 88 percent of overall sales for white-owned businesses. And Black people spend trillions of dollars in this country every year, but yet represent an insignificant fraction of how these companies allocate their purchasing power. I also calculated that Black people comprise almost 15 percent of the American population, and that’s how I came to this number.
We’re simply asking for equal representation when it comes to shelf space. I believe the Pledge is one way major retailers—businesses that have a big economic influence, such as Target, Whole Foods, and Shopbop— can seek out and invest in brands they may have previously turned a blind eye to. The support from these major retailers will help these brands grow when they are seeking outside investment or when they are walking into a bank. What we are asking is not that tough, and we are here to help these retailers attain that 15 percent with clear and attainable goals.
First, they need to take stock of where they are and complete an audit of their business. Then, they need to take ownership of where they currently stand and figure out how they got there. Last, they need to take action—commit to achieving a minimum of 15 percent, set a deadline to achieve this, and put a system in play where they can be held accountable. It could take a few years, but we are here to help lay out that plan and strategy and we have some of the most.
WW: What retailers have already signed on?
AJ: We are thrilled that Sephora, Rent the Runway, and West Elm have committed to the 15 Percent Pledge. As the first major global design home retailer to commit to the Pledge, West Elm is another major milestone for us.
WW: What other retailers haven’t signed on yet that you’re hoping will, that can make a big difference for Black businesses within their industry?
AJ: Target, Whole Foods, Net-A-Porter, Moda Operandi, Shopbop, and Matches are just some I’d like to step up and take the Pledge. These retailers have a big economic influence. We want them to seek out and invest in brands they may have previously turned a blind eye to. The support from these major retailers will help these brands grow when they are seeking outside investment or when they are walking into a bank. If Target, Shopbop, and Whole Foods follow Sephora’s lead—the four brands we originally called on—we can effectively funnel $14.5 billion back into the Black community.
WW: What does being a Black female business owner today mean to you?
AJ: I think this is true every day—Black women have had to work twice as hard to get half as many opportunities.