Brother Vellies' Aurora James On Her Sandals Getting Knocked Off...Again

Since Brother Vellies' founding in 2013, it's maintained a cult following for its ethically-made, sustainably-sourced footwear. The brand's designer, Aurora James, scored a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award in 2015 as well as a spot on the council's two-year Fashion Incubator Program. Generating this type of buzz not only creates demand — it also draws more attention to her emerging label. That, however, can attract some of the uglier realities of the retail industry, such as the prevalence of knockoffs. James learned this the hard way last year when a friend texted her a picture of a Zara shoe that bore an eery resemblance to one of her styles. Now, she's in the same situation again, with a different brand and a scenario that hits closer to home.

Last night, James took to Instagram Stories to reveal that two different Brother Vellies shoe styles were knocked off by fellow NYC-based designer Steve Madden. One of Aurora's former interns tagged the designer in a picture Steve Madden posted on the brand's official profile: an #OOTD of someone wearing furry pink slides that looked like the designer's Lamu sandal. "First, I saw the post and thought, ‘Oh, my shoes!’," James told Refinery 29. "Then I was like, ‘Oh, wait a minute… it's Steve Madden?’'

Fluff it up with the CIARA

A photo posted by Steve Madden (@stevemadden) on

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Unlike Zara's Spain-based parent company, Inditex, Steve Madden is a fellow NYC-based designer. "At one point [after the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund], someone suggested that he should potentially be a mentor to me," Aurora recalled. "Someone had thrown his name into the ring at one point, just because Steve built a huge business, it’s footwear, he has stores — that’s the sort of thing that a young designer looks up to."

"Looking a lot like the @brothervelllies Marabou Lamu sandal," James' former intern captioned the post. James immediately commented: "Oh my God! This is such a blatant rip off! Are you guys kidding me right now?? @stevemadden! Also with your last post as well!" The previous image James is referring to is a collage posted of Steve Madden's Imelda heel, which resembles Brother Vellies' Dhara sandal — the very shoe Zara was accused of ripping off back in August.

Fur sure⠀ ⠀ Faux fur & feathers are available now in stores and from our link in bio

A photo posted by Steve Madden (@stevemadden) on

Commenters chimed in on that thread, too. "When you know of the true talents of the industry like @brothervellies, you're cannibalizing the fashion industry & making it exactly what it's criticized for," wrote one user. "Our world needs new ideas & fair play now more than ever. Hoping you cancel this style & release something original in its stead." Fellow designers weighed in, too, including fellow CFDA Fashion Incubator designer Charles Youssef, who wrote "Horrible copy of @brothervellies" on both images. "This generation [of designers] is completely different and they are not going to put up with it; [brands] can’t get away with this anymore," James said.

Adding insult to injury, Brother Vellies works with and supports artisans in the African countries where its shoes are manufactured. "What’s hardest [about seeing this] is that both of those styles are from our workshops in Ethiopia, and Ethiopia in the last year has had an incredibly hard time," James said, referring to the state of emergency announced in October. "For Steve Madden to undercut that at this time and in that way just feels so low," James said.

When Zara copied her work back in August, the designer raised the same concerns about having her company's sustainability and local empowerment efforts undermined by the fast fashion cycle. Word of these ripoffs has reached those working in Ethiopia. "They were obviously horrified and don’t even understand why [this happened]," she said. "They were like, ‘Wow, they don’t have any creativity?’"
Photo: Courtesy of Brother Vellies.
Brother Vellies' Lamu sandal.
Photo: Courtesy of Steve Madden.
Steve Madden's Ciara sandal.
James is more concerned with making sure those in her workshops don't continue to get cut out of the equation. "If [Madden] wants to make those shoes in Africa, I will personally fly there with him and we can tweak the style and we can have it made there and he won’t have to pay any development costs because they already know how to make those damn shoes," she offered. "You have options in this life: You can be counterproductive, or you can turn a bad situation into a great situation. I’ll literally donate my time to fly with him to Africa and we can work on it together. I don’t want a penny — I just want the people who I worked with on actually making these shoes to still be given the opportunity that they deserve."

Steve Madden has gotten criticism previously for its apparent copies of designer footwear. Last year, Aquazzura filed a lawsuit against Steve Madden Ltd. for alleged trade dress infringement, WWD reported. In 2015, Skechers sued the company for reportedly copying patented features of its sneakers, according to Footwear News.

James isn't thinking about legal action just yet. "It’s a really different situation" than what happened with Zara, she explained. Madden and James have mutual friends and are part of a professional community that's not very big. To wit: when James posted about the alleged copies on her Instagram, she tagged Madden's personal account. "I was hoping that he would write me and say, ''I’m so sorry, this is a horrible mistake. We’ll pull this immediately,'" she noted, and that no further moves would need to happen. Her message to Madden: "Just call me."

Since August, James has noticed changes in how people perceive indie designer being ripped off by larger companies. "People in my inbox are really, really upset." James just wants more honest communication in these sorts of situations. "That’s why I’m really urging him to respond so we can carve out a way to make this better," she rationalized. "We all make mistakes. How can we meet in the middle?"
Photo: Courtesy of Brother Vellies.
Brother Vellies' Dhara sandal.
Photo: Courtesy of Steve Madden.
Steve Madden's Imelda sandal.
James has unfortunately learned that certain parts of her business model can make her susceptible to rip-offs. "It’s the fact that our shoes are at a certain price point because we manufacture them in a certain way — that makes us vulnerable," she said. "Those Lamu sandals are made in Ethiopia, and everyone’s paid a living wage. A living wage means they’re able to support themselves and their families, pay for potential education, and then, on top of that, still have 30% extra left over that they can save."

These wages, she explained, are set and monitored by the United Nations. Other costs include a rain water filtration system that distributes water to local communities; plus, the leather is dyed using eco-friendly processes, which factors into the final, three-figure cost of her product.

🌸🌸🌸 eek! New batch just started selling out. This is the warning. 🕊⭐️⭐️⭐️ #LamuSandals

A photo posted by Brother Vellies (@brothervellies) on

The larger problem here, James thinks, is a trend towards "a quick fix of ego" — that instant gratification a shopper gets from buying trendy items for very cheap. This satisfaction often outweighs the knowledge that the price is so low because something was made at a sweatshop — in other words, "that someone else paid the price for that item." There's also the negative impacts on the creative process. "Nobody has the right to empower another company to steal from me so they can have it," she said. "Nobody has the right to my art."

Despite all of this (and the fact that it's happened twice), James is only more determined to find solutions to the rampant issue of fashion community knock-offs. She's optimistic that other designers, attorneys, and legal experts continually offer up resources to help protect creative work. "A lot of people truly love fashion," James said. "And when you really love an industry, you want to see it do right by people; you want to see it have positive impact on things."

We've reached out to Steve Madden for comment and will update our story when we hear back.

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