Zara is on a seriously disappointing streak this summer. Barely a month after a group of illustrators rallied against Inditex for allegedly copying their work, Brother Vellies' Aurora James appears to be the latest indie designer to get knocked off by the Spanish retailer. This morning, James posted a picture on Instagram of a sandal clearly bearing a Zara tag — and a not-so-subtle resemblance to her very own Dhara Sandal. "Stolen from Africa," she captioned it, adding a frowning emoji and tagging the retailer. A friend of James' texted her a photo of the shoes, spotted at a Zara store in Los Angeles, over the weekend. "I honestly don’t go into Zara, because it’s not my thing and I know they knock people off a lot," James told Refinery29 over the phone. "But to see [the shoe] actually on the shelf was very disheartening. I actually felt very sick.” The style, which is also available on Zara's website, retails for $59.90, whereas Brother Vellies' Dhara shoe goes for $715. "This really isn’t about me as a designer — it’s about the choices that we make as a company to be sustainable and the opportunities that [Zara is] taking away from other people," she noted. "I can come up with new ideas, and I will come up with new ideas. The point, really, is that we do things in a way that’s very sustainable." A mega-chain like Zara copying her designs (sans her business practices) "undermines all of this effort," she said. "We’re working really hard every day to just put our product out there and to make it in a way that we can be really proud about."
Earlier this summer, James read about the #boycottzara campaign that emerged when the Spanish company reportedly lifted illustrations from Tuesday Bassen, among other artists. "This generation is way stronger and way smarter than [retailers like Zara] are giving them credit for," she said of the public's reaction to the movement. "A lot of people's comments have been very sad, because they know our story," James continued. "Many of my Instagram followers have been following me since the very beginning... It’s jarring to see how easily and how quickly that can get appropriated and taken away." Ironically, from the outset, Brother Vellies has been trying to reclaim appropriated designs: James started by making a veldskoen, a traditional African shoe style popularly known as "vellies" (hence the label's name), that would later be rebranded as the desert boot in the Western world. "This is nothing new; my company is named after this idea that we can rise up beyond that," James said. Every story like this that comes to light is seriously upsetting. But in the case of James, it digs even deeper, as Brother Vellies is so committed to ethical practices. Her designs start at $195 for lace-up sandals and go as high as $3,500 a fur-and-leather over-the-knee boot. While some would-be customers are thus priced out, this ensures that her workers are paid well, the materials are sourced responsibly, and that the company is in line with the CFDA and Lexus' 17-month sustainability plan.
The irony — and greater implications — of being knocked off by a fast-fashion corporation aren't lost on James. "Our price point is based on the way that we do things," she said. "I understand the people that want to buy into trends — and Zara knocks trends off for that reason — but as consumers, we have to understand that there are some things we just can’t have." If you're buying a sandal for $59.90, then, you don't know exactly who made it (and under what conditions), or what it's made of. James doesn't think this is the first time fast fashion has ripped off her designs; and, unfortunately, she doesn't know if her small business could take Inditex, Zara's parent company, to court. "For me to go after a multibillion dollar corporation like Zara, which has a huge legal team ready and waiting for this, is not going to happen. I can’t afford it, and that’s how they get away with it." She's not against pursuing legal action in the future — but doing so would have very real effects on her company's day-to-day operations. "You have to weigh your time as a small-business owner," she said. "I can try to do this, but I’m going to end up taking 20% of my week away from my business, away from the goals we’re trying to accomplish, and send it toward that when, essentially, the damage is already done." This situation is making James rethink other business decisions, like hosting a presentation during New York Fashion Week, where editors and showgoers snap her latest designs months before they're produced (much less on the selling floor). "A lot of designers don’t want to do [the traditional fashion schedule] anymore because your stuff is getting out there in advance of you putting it on the shelf," she said. "It makes me think twice about putting my spring ’17 designs on the internet, because they’re going to be able to knock it off before I’m able to train people in Africa to make them." Despite everything, James isn't completely disillusioned. She actually thinks the pervasiveness of knock-offs in fashion "isn't a' forever' problem, [but] an interim problem that we all collectively have to figure out." If anything, she feels more committed to the core beliefs she's fought for at her company. "It’s one of those moments that tests you, and makes you think about why you got into this and what your motivations are," she noted. "What’s amazing about the fashion industry, too, is that everyone is really supportive...but this is a conversation that we need to figure it out as a community." We've reached out to Zara for comment, and will update our story when we hear back.