The Weekly Journal | Fashion

By Yenia Hernandez Fonseca - June 15, 2022

PEOPLE MOVING FASHION:

Aurora James

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

"What happens when you get a seat at the table? What are you gonna do with it?”

— Aurora James

It’s hard to think about women in power without talking of the cautionary tale of the girl boss. The term “girl boss” surged into popularity in the mid-2010s and referred to a palatable idea of female empowerment and the pursuit of gender equality in the workplace. What started as a widely celebrated idea of the ambitious, most likely white, aspiring female entrepreneur, girl bossing died in marketing fodder and empty promises of feminist liberation. 

Thankfully, the fashion workplace is facing a reckoning at the hands of Aurora James. The Canada native launched an initiative set to have a lasting impact in how fashion and other industries operate. 

Upon the huge cultural upheaval of 2020, James founded The Fifteen Percent Pledge—a non-profit organization that calls on the world’s biggest retailers to dedicate at least 15% of shelf space to Black-owned businesses and suppliers. 

By creating clear business strategies and attainable goals, The Fifteen Percent Pledge aims to level the playing field for talent of underrepresented communities. 

Macy’s, Sephora, Vogue and Bloomingdale’s count among the companies that have signed on with James’ initiative. “I’ve just been on the phone talking to everyone and trying to have them do positive things,” she says. Within the first year, over 2 dozen major corporations dedicated to The Fifteen Percent Pledge, effectively diverting over $5B in capital to Black entrepreneurs in the United States.

James is no rookie when it comes to persuading people into action, in fact, she’s a pro at it. She was featured on the cover of Vogue’s September 2020 issue—regarded as the most important issue of the year—and included in the TIME100 List as one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2021. “In order for me to be passionate about something, it has to be creating meaningful, long-term change. I think that's how I've approached it.” 

That framework has been central to her work. Her story starts in 2010 when James traded Canada for the bustle of Manhattan and the sunshine of Los Angeles amassing an impressive resume of industry experience working with emerging designers, producing fashion shows and media content.

“There’s a lot of confusion about what fashion is these days. It gets misconstrued with the idea of commercialism and consumerism. What I love about fashion is the idea of creating tools for communication and expression, and the values we have.” Besides fashion James’ background includes journalism, art, photography, and horticulture.

Born in Toronto to a Canadian mother and Ghanaian father, James founded Brother Vellies with $3,500 in savings back in 2013. Her intention was to celebrate traditional West African design practices and techniques while creating and sustaining artisanal jobs: “I really wanted to find a way to actually involve artisans in the conversation.” 

Brother Vellies specializes in one-of-a-kind pieces, from footwear and handbags to homeware producing items only with respect and care for its artisans, customers and the planet: “I grew up with an understanding of fashion as being a form of cultural expression, and I think it’s really important that we are cataloging and archiving and being thoughtful about fashion, through the lens of culture, over the years.” Today, the brand’s production has expanded to Mexico and Honduras. 

“My mom used to take me to The Costume Institute and also the Shoe Museum in Toronto when I was growing up and she would explain to me how historically high heels were used as a tool to, really, stop women from being able to run away. I think one of the things that have been so important to me with Brother Vellies is, really, to reframe that narrative. How do you create a product that’s actually going to empower women to really go the distance?” Brother Vellies is worn regularly by dedicated followers like Beyonce, Meghan Markle, Zendaya, Rihanna, and Solange. 

Now New York-based, James is dedicated to the community she has cultivated throughout the years. She works in collaboration and mutual mentorship with fellow designers like Kerby Jean-Raymond, Batsheva Hay, Gigi Burris, and Ryan Roche. 

Winning the 2015 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund was a big turning point for the Canadian designer. The evolution of her business and the heightened attention from the world at the wake of sociocultural change allowed for her strength and enough courage to set foot in a myriad of opportunities. 

But perhaps it is her authentic passion for artisanship, design, and humanitarianism that foreshadowed the kind work she’d dedicate to give back to her community. “In fashion, a lot of people like to say they're doing things, and I think it's not so much about saying that you're doing something—just go out and do the right thing.”