Two years ago, we sat down with Aurora James at her Brother Vellies boutique in Brooklyn. Her space in Greenpoint reflects what matters to her—amplifying the voices of artisans around the world. It shines with details in clothing and accessories, as well as hung artwork and carefully placed objects.
Since 2013, Brother Vellies has preserved craftsmanship from international artisans by ensuring workshops, equal pay, and employment backed by United Nations standards. She’s traveled to and facilitated handmade pieces like dyed garments from Ethiopia, repurposed denim from Morocco, beaded items from Mali, and woven work from Burkina Faso.
Two months ago, while isolated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, James launched a new program called Something Special. Inspired by the sold-out releases of the At Home mug and Cloud socks, the program celebrates ethically artisan-made items.
“The thing that has brought me the most joy during this time has been making special items from our artisan community to be enjoyed by our Brother Vellies community, while at home,” she said. “When I started sharing my morning routine with my beloved Mexican mug, I never dreamed that I would then be making them and selling them to a waitlist of thousands of people.”
And in the wake of protests against police brutality in the U.S. sparking a global outcry for racial justice, James launched the 15 Percent Pledge—an initiative urging brands and corporations to dedicate 15 percent of its shelf space to Black-owned businesses, as Black people in the U.S. make up nearly 15 percent of the population.
Whitewall spoke with James about her latest initiatives dedicated to fair trade and equal justice, and how the idea of luxury is changing.
WHITEWALL: So much has changed from our “normal” way of life lately. How are you doing?
AURORA JAMES: Since beginning the initiative, seeing and reading all the positive comments from supporters have really kept me hopeful that they can help make this change a reality.
WW: What are some organizations or people that have been particularly inspiring to you during this time?
AJ: I’ve been very inspired by a lot of the community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs that have launched, as well as the flower delivery programs. Anything, where people have organized groups of farmers to meet the needs of customers on a weekly basis, has been really exciting for me because then I’ve been able to support farmers directly instead of shopping at places like WholeFoods.
WW: What was your idea of Something Special?
AJ: As the pandemic was growing, we realized we needed a shift in our business strategy. So, we started creating small-batch items that we hoped would bring beauty and comfort into the lives of our community—and this became Something Special.
By signing up for the program, they will receive a little something special every month such as our incredibly comfortable Cloud Socks; the At Home mug that is handmade by our artisans in Oaxaca; or an intoxicating hand-poured candle from our New York studio.
WW: Part of that has been the At Home mug, which is sourced locally and sustainably, with only five to 10 mugs made a day. How has that made you question what luxury is?
AJ: 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: How did you arrive at the 15 Percent Pledge—an initiative to get more Black-owned businesses on the shelves of large corporations?
AJ: The 15 Percent Pledge is a non-profit organization on major retailers to allocate 15 percent of shelf space to Black-owned businesses in support of economic equality. 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.
I believe the Pledge is one way major retailers—such as Target, Whole Foods, Shopbop, etc., businesses that have a big economic influence—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 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 brilliant Black minds on board to help make it happen.
WW: For those looking to support more Black-owned businesses, can you let us know of a few you are supporting today?
AJ: There are so many great brands out there—Fe Noel, Christopher John Rogers, Telfar, Victor Glemaud, Pyer Moss…the list goes on.
WW: Can you tell us how you’re feeling today, and what message you hope today brings?
AJ: Since we have seen incredibly positive responses from supporters all over the country, this has me feeling encouraged and more determined. We’re only just getting started on conversations with the bigger businesses to ask them to sign and make this a reality.
And the media is not exempt from this need for racial equality. Simply the commitment to hiring more Black writers, copyeditors, designers, etc.—committing 15 percent of your content to cover more Black-owned businesses, artists, creators, and designers—can make an impact.