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Designer Aurora James aims to right a wrong by taking on exclusion in fashion


If you're a fashionista, then you probably know Aurora James for her luxurious shoes and accessories sold through her Brother Vellies line. And if you're a social activist, you might know her for the Fifteen Percent Pledge, her effort to get major retailers to commit 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. But what you probably don't know is the incredible, sometimes brutal, path she and so many other creatives have had to walk to claim their space in the world of high fashion. It's a story she tells with unsparing honesty in her new memoir "Wildflower." And she's here with us now to tell us more. Aurora James, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

AURORA JAMES: Thank you so much for having me, Michel. I'm so excited to be here.

MARTIN: Well, yeah, we have spoken before, mainly about the Fifteen Percent Pledge. And when I've spoken with you, you know, I've experienced you as this calm, very clear, very disciplined businessperson. Come to find out that you come from this really unusual background, let me put it this way. But you really had to kind of scratch and claw your way to everything.

JAMES: You know, I think we spend so much time as humans just kind of straightening out our own costumes of identity - right? - to be presentable to others. And I think, for me, there's always been so many things that I wanted to achieve in my own life. And dropping out of high school, not getting into the college that I - really, basically, didn't graduate college at all, like, found myself behind bars at one point - like, all of these things are not really conducive to being in the rooms that I wanted to be in in this country. And I didn't really want to let my stumbles in the past block me from what I knew I could achieve in the future.

MARTIN: For people who don't know your company, Brother Vellies, would you just describe - I describe it as kind of luxury accessories, but that isn't really the - that doesn't really describe it.

JAMES: Sure. It's so fascinating too - right? - because the shoes don't sit on the shelf with their story. So they just look like they're luxury fashion. But what most people don't know is that I work with artisans all around the world who've been historically excluded from participating in fashion, so people in Kenya and Ethiopia and Haiti and - really work with them on doing things that they've done for many generations, largely in the shadows and not being involved in luxury fashion sector. And we create beautiful products.

MARTIN: You know, one of the points that you make over and over again in the book is that talent is distributed all over the world, but access to the resources to bring those to bear are not.

JAMES: Yeah.

MARTIN: And this seems to be a lesson that you learned really early on, but it's also one that you seem to be willing to speak about very bluntly in a way that other people at your level of fashion are not. And I just wanted to ask how you first came to that conviction.

JAMES: Well, I spent so much time in museums, right? My mom was always taking me to museums, and we would go even to, you know, Indigenous reservations and watch women bead, right? And she would talk to them about the beaded patterns and what it meant to them and what level of expression it was. And she would tell me this Nigerian proverb, which goes, until the lion has a historian, the hunter will always be the hero. And she said, I want you to think about the most marginalized people in the world and the fact that their archives do not exist in the books that you're going to be reading or even in a lot of the museum collections that you're going to be seeing in the way that they intended it to. And so you're going to have to seek that out.

And I think because I've consumed a lot of the fashion media that we've all kind of seen - these ideas of Parisian couturiers and all of that - when I actually started traveling across Africa and seeing people who made Vellies, the desert boots that I work with, or who are carving beads out of cow bones - like, to me, that level of artistry is just as fantastic as what they're doing in Paris or what they're doing in Italy. And the only difference really was that these were hands of color in countries that we did not associate with being luxury.

MARTIN: Well, there are a couple stories that stood out for me. It's just the assumptions that people make about artisans in Africa, like they're sitting on a dirt floor or that it has to be, like, bug-infested or the work has to be - one time you were applying for a fellowship, and one of the judges rejected your application because she said that the fact that you - the artisans - some of the artisans could do the work at home meant that they could be abusing their kids, like they could be making the kids do the work. And you're like, wait, what? You know, it means that they don't have to hire child care. It means...

JAMES: Yeah.

MARTIN: So that part stood out. And then the other one was about later on, as your business became more developed, somebody who created a really onerous business loan for you that actually wound up costing you more than you got from it.

JAMES: My grandmother used to say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And I would always say, wow, that's so dark, right? But when we think about it, as consumers - and I talk also in the book about how American donated clothing has actually killed out almost 70% of the manufacturing across Africa. I was told to donate all my clothes to, you know, quote-unquote, "poor people in Africa" when I was younger. I remember doing that in spring cleaning, and I had no idea that there'd be all of these American clothes in landfills there, and it would be killing out their local manufacturing industry, right? It was well-intentioned, but the end result was not good. And so for me, it's much more interesting to actually empower community to make shoes, and then they can decide how they want to utilize their own resources that they then have. When it comes to something like the loan that I took - it was a $70,000 loan that ended up costing me over a million dollars to get out of.


JAMES: Truly so depressing. The more work that I did after the fact, the more and more I started realizing how commonplace it actually is and that female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color are the ones that are most adversely affected by predatory loans. And I think over the years, a lot of people have really kind of applauded this idea that I started this business with $3,500 and bootstrapped it, and, you know, I'm now the vice president of the CFDA and all of that. But when you look under the hood of what it actually means to grow a small business in this country, it's a lot more complicated, right? People tell you you should raise money from friends and family, but what if you don't have friends or family that can give you $10,000 or $30,000 or $50,000? Where are you going to get it from? And who are the people that are ready to exploit that situation? And how can we make more structures in this country that are actually meaningfully going to support small business?

MARTIN: Aurora James is the author of "Wildflower." Aurora James, thanks so much for talking to us. I do hope we'll talk again.

JAMES: I would love to talk again. Thank you so much, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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