For the past eight years, 34-year-old Aurora James has been traveling extensively in Africa. She founded the label Brother Vellies in 2013 to preserve the artisanal craftsmanship she saw in communities throughout the continent. Today, the brand partners and sources from various countries like: Kenya for beading and weaving; Mali for bogolan work; Ethiopia for embroidery and dyeing; Morocco for repurposing denim and clog carving; and Burkina Faso for harvesting, dyeing, and weaving. The United Nations has also been supporting her work with funding and workshop vetting, ensuring equal pay and an increase in jobs.
In May, James left the CFDA Fashion Incubator to open up her first brick-and-mortar store and studio in Brooklyn just one month later. There, visitors can find an open-space shop filled with lights and plants, as well as art elements added by friends—a mural by Christina Zimpel, cube display tables by Hugo McCloud, wall writings by Andru Sisson, and a poetry window decal by Cleo Wade.
Whitewall sat down with James to talk about craftsmanship and working with organizations for a better future.
WHITEWALL: When you founded Brother Vellies, did you feel like something was missing in the market? If not, what propelled you to start the brand?
AURORA JAMES: I don’t think that I ever took a read on the market. I had the privilege of being able to spend some time traveling in Africa, and I loved what they were doing. I thought it would be amazing to try to preserve some of those artisanal skills.
It was the idea that there were these shoes that had a rich history to them and they were an ingrained part of their culture. And because they had been sort of normalized and colonialized in a way that we didn’t understand, we didn’t understand that it was part of their heritage. It’s just what we knew as a desert boot.
WW: Can you walk us through how the brand preserves artisanal craftsmanship in areas you work in, like in Burkina Faso, Morocco, and Ethiopia?
AJ: One really good sandal example that gives everyone an idea is our Burkina sandal. That starts with cotton being picked and dyed and woven into thread that’s on a spool. Then it’s woven on a machine into patterned fabric, all in Burkina Faso. Then we send the fabric to Ethiopia and that’s where the shoe is constructed.
When you think about women who are involved in every step of that process, they learn from their mom or grandma. It’s a part of their culture. What’s so amazing about it is that you are inspiring people to keep doing things that are culturally native to them. There wasn’t, and still isn’t, a huge market for a lot of those traditional artisanal things. And that’s not really what they’re aspiring to wear anymore. Those are the things that are uncool. They want to wear whatever they see in Western media.
WW: You got involved with the UN three years ago. How did that begin and what does that consist of?
AJ: Someone from the UN said they were a fan of my work. They started doing an analysis of my business and the work that we were doing in Africa and realized that we created a bunch of jobs without that much money. So they said if we put more money into this, it will equate to more jobs. They started investing in some of our production and vetting for different workshops that we work with, going through the numbers to make sure that the employees were paid what they were supposed to be getting paid.
WW: Some say that fashion is a form of art. What is art to you?
AJ: It’s people expressing how they feel in a creative way and how they’re being made to feel in a creative way. I think that right now it’s really important for people to be able to express themselves in creative ways. It’s a certain kind of freedom because you also have to be really vulnerable to put yourself out there like that.
That’s why I have a lot of respect for my friend Cleo [Wade], because she can just write these things and post it on her Instagram. I know that it’s a vulnerable space for her, too, but I’ve been writing poetry almost my whole life and I rarely share that with anyone.
WW: Speaking of Cleo Wade, why did you welcome the creators that you did into this space?
AJ: Well, I felt like this was a message that I wanted for Greenpoint to have from Cleo. “You want love? Be love. You want light? Be light.” I feel like that’s a message that we all need to bear in mind right now, too. It can’t hurt to share that.
I let Andrew write whatever he wanted. He knows me, we know each other, we’ve done collaborations before. People are always like, “He spelled ‘receive’ wrong,” but that’s just part of it. You want things that you love in your home. And when you love the people in your life, you want to have mementos of them in your space.
There’s this thing as humans where we always want to carve our name into trees. We want to write, “I was here.” We desperately want civilization to know that we were here and we existed. So, people putting levels of permanence on the space, I think is important and relevant because they have put levels of permanence into the work in other ways.
WW: Proceeds from some of your sales have gone to organizations like Keep Families Together. Who are some organization you really align with? Why is this important?
AJ: Planned Parenthood is one we really focus on. We’ve also given money to ACLU and the Women’s March.
In the past year and a half, a lot of us, especially in the creative community, have felt really under attack. I know that we make products for women or people who identify as women, for the most part, so I felt like it was part of my corporate responsibility to support and fight for them. I’m also an immigrant, so those things personally affect me as well.