How One Designer's Shoes Empower Women Around The World

When designer Aurora James moved to New York from Los Angeles in January 2011, the city was a different place — and she was a different person. Wanting to be closer to her hometown of Toronto, James found herself in a massive, open, and affordable live-work space in Bed-Stuy, ready to start her now CFDA-recognized sustainable footwear label, Brother Vellies.

The mission of Brother Vellies was simple: to create shoes and sandals in styles that "maintain the spirit and durability of their ancestral counterparts" in Africa, its website notes. To connect more deeply with her roots, James frequently travels to countries like South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Morocco, sourcing materials like Kudu leather and indigo and working with local artisans to craft the final product. The result is not only out-of-this-world cool — it's actually making a difference.

We talked with James in her expertly curated Brooklyn studio-slash-home, to learn more about her sourcing practices, her hesitancy to be labeled "sustainable," and the time her neighbors thought she was crazy. (Hint: Her out-there shoes had something to do with it.)

Photographed by Erica Gannett.
Where did the idea and inspiration for your company come from?
"I think I’ve always been very entrepreneurial. Also, I march to the beat of my own drum, so in that regard I think it's better to work for myself.

"That being said, I spent many years interning and assisting and getting yelled at and messing up. It's important to work your way up and learn from as many people as possible. I think it's helpful to remember that as much as you can know and learn, you’re still going to be ignorant about 99% of topics. There is always something to learn, and sometimes knowledge can come from the least expected places."
Photographed by Erica Gannett.
What does the name Brother Vellies mean?
"'Brother' comes from the idea of brotherhood and camaraderie. 'Vellies' is a slang term for the desert boots we make.

"I think all of our workshops — South Africa, Kenya, and Morocco — have learned something from each other. And, I have learned everything I know from them. At the end of the day, we are all in this together. That's what the sign in front of our store says. That is the most important message we have to share."
Photographed by Erica Gannett.
Tell us about your design process.
"I love sourcing when I’m on the ground, especially in Kenya. There are a lot of interesting makers in remote places, like shearling from Nakuru or Nile perch from Lake Victoria. It's a great experience to be able to work with local farmers whenever possible.

"Byproduct materials are also really fascinating to me; I love being able to empower people by using excess materials that would have otherwise been discarded — like the 100 tires we turned into amazing shoes for Moda Operandi.

"People are so powerful; they don’t realize the good that can come sometimes from buying just one pair of shoes. I’m fortunate to see that firsthand, and that’s what keeps me going and inspired."
Photographed by Erica Gannett.
Here, the 'Otavi' shoes are shown in cognac, a favorite hue among the South African artisans who make them.
Photographed by Erica Gannett.
What's something we wouldn't know about the places you source from if we haven't been there?
"I think people have this misconception about the entire continent of Africa; that they can go there and just find these amazing craftsmen everywhere who are making epic things, like the whole place is a giant flea market with animals — which couldn’t be further from the truth. You really have to seek people out. A lot of Western ideals and products have really changed the face and industry of places like Kenya.

"It's also a labor of love; our Beaded Maasai sandals, for example, take multiple days to make. Each pair is very special and hand-beaded by single mothers who work from home while they care for their children. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to support their families."
Photographed by Erica Gannett.
Furry Chukka boots, created in collaboration with designers Darlene and Lizzy Okpo.
Photographed by Erica Gannett.
A custom shearling moto jacket, designed by James herself.
Photographed by Erica Gannett.
Why did you want to make a line of sustainable footwear?
"I never set out to be a ‘sustainable’ brand. I set out to make choices that I would be proud of and that would bring positivity to what I was doing and the people I was doing it with.

"It just so happened that all of these choices made our brand ‘sustainable,’ and it's great to be recognized by [an organization] like the CFDA for that, especially when these decisions are innate to you and everyone on your team.

"But, in general, the word or the label ‘sustainable’ is scary to me because it's a weird category. I think we all just need to be conscious about our decisions and choices and how those impact the world around us. The cost of clothing isn’t always monetary."
Photographed by Erica Gannett.
A cozy corner with a glowing Curtis Kulig.
Photographed by Erica Gannett.
What is the biggest difference between living in New York and Los Angeles?
"There is a level of seclusion that comes with living in Los Angeles: you’re in your house and then you get into your car, drive to your coffee shop, and drive home — there’s not a lot of random human interaction when you go through your daily tasks.

"In New York, people are forced to collide with each other almost constantly: on the train, at the bodega, everywhere. I enjoy the perpetual interjection of random personalities in my day-to-day life. But, you can’t beat the sunshine and gardening in Los Angeles."
Photographed by Erica Gannett.
What was Bed-Stuy like when you first moved here? How have you seen it change over the past four years?
"I was in the middle of a drive-by shooting two months after I moved to Bed-Stuy. Now, I think the biggest inconvenience is the Wi-Fi being overloaded at Brooklyn Kolache. Or, having to wait 30 minutes for a table at DeKalb Restaurant. It's crazy how quickly a neighborhood can change in New York City."
Photographed by Erica Gannett.
Lace 'em up — all the way up.
Photographed by Erica Gannett.
Photographed by Erica Gannett.
Where does your interior aesthetic come from? What are some of your favorite pieces in your apartment?
"I think my home and my store are an amalgamation of things I’ve found over the years and fallen in love with.

"I have a mirrored trash can that I absolutely adore. A lot of the macrame comes from Kenya, and is really special to me. I am also plant-obsessed.

"HYM Salvage made my amazing couch from vintage African indigo-dyed fabrics. I love Isaac Nichols’ pottery and want to fill my life with as many ceramics as possible."
Photographed by Erica Gannett.
How would you describe your personal style?
"I like things that are easy and fun. People take themselves too seriously in New York. Sometimes, it's nice to just be yourself and put on something that you love, regardless of what other people think.

"The first time I wore our Springbok Congo sandals outside the house, I think people thought I was crazy. But, I love them — they’re so me, and they’re such a special piece that takes so much care and love to create. In Southern Africa, springbok is typically worn in times of celebration, and I think I have a lot to celebrate."
Photographed by Erica Gannett.
Where do you pull fashion inspiration from?
"I’m inspired by anyone that has the power to be themselves and dress for themselves — Dolly Parton, Leandra Medine, Jane Birkin, April Hughes, the Okpo sisters, the list goes on…"
Photographed by Erica Gannett.
Designers always know how to accessorize.
Photographed by Erica Gannett.
The official Brother Vellies mascot.
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