This Shoe Designer Is About To Win Fashion’s Biggest Award

Photographed by Francis Tulk Hart.
Aurora James is the type of gal we instantly want to be friends with — and it's not just because she designs some of the coolest footwear we've ever seen. Shoe-collection goals aside, the passionate creative director and founder of Brother Vellies runs her business on the charitable premise of creating jobs for women in Kenya, Namibia, and South Africa, where they hand-make the brand's sandals, flats, and its trademark style: a fashion-forward version of a traditional African desert boot, the velskoen (a.k.a. "vellies"). In an industry that's often so focused on style — believe us, her furry chukka boots have it in spades — it's refreshing to see a designer who's also using her talent to make an invaluable impact. It's no surprise that the CFDA took notice by naming her a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue fashion fund, which awards emerging designers with mentorship and monetary support (clearly she's killing it). We sat down with the Toronto native in her palm-tree-filled Brooklyn apartment to discuss her give-150% approach to breaking into the fashion industry. Read on for how she built her own business (spoiler: It's not all about who you know), the best advice she's ever received, and how she's curated her unmistakable style along the way. If you find yourself inspired by her sartorial prowess and playful, denim-heavy aesthetic — Canadian tuxedo, anyone? — then head to Gap for more musings from this rad change-maker. Her fresh POV will make you want to take a walk in her shoes — literally.

What sparked your interest in fashion?
"I was named after Sleeping Beauty and loved Disney growing up. I loved the idea of princesses and dressing up. Cinderella transformed through clothing, and that concept of transformation through clothing was really interesting to me. Fashion should transport you to another place and feeling, and we capture that with the shoes I make." What did you feel was missing in the fashion space that prompted you to launch Brother Vellies in 2013?
"Empowerment. There are a lot of charitable shoe brands, but giving someone a handout isn't as empowering as giving someone a job." Sustainability is a big part of your company's mission. Do you feel like the industry as a whole needs to become more sustainable?
"I feel like we should all appreciate the fact that this world needs to be treated a certain way — it’s ours for now but it will not necessarily be ours later. If I can live my life doing as little damage as possible to this planet, I consider that successful. At this point, we should be putting in whatever effort we can to be sustainable. Nobody's perfect, but you should take the little steps to try." How do you dive into the design process?
"I think about what I want to wear, what I’m excited about. I tap into memories and go to museums and spend time with friends. Those experiences ignite your creativity and give you new ideas. I don’t have one process — I just like experiencing life as much as possible."
What are your style go-tos, both personally and in your designs?
"I think fashion should always be playful, comfortable, and unexpected. Denim is a great canvas from which to develop your outfit; you can really take the day and your outfit anywhere when you are starting with jeans. These days I am in love with a pair of great-fitting Gap jeans and one of its go-to wool sweaters. Also, I’m Canadian, so the concept of a Canadian tuxedo really runs through my bloodline. I believe denim (and animal prints) to be a neutral and wear it as such. It matches everything. We even use denim in our shoes."
Photographed by Francis Tulk Hart.
Describe your style in three words.
"Nomadic, spontaneous, textured." "Nomadic" makes sense, considering you're traveling on the reg. How much time are you spending in Africa to manage your business?
"I go to Africa every two to three months and spend two to three weeks there per trip. As the company grows, I’ll be able to go less and have people who are stationed there all the time. I’m partnered with an initiative called Ethical Fashion, a division of the International Trade Centre, so they are helping me with the production issues in Africa."
How do perceptions of what life is like in Africa compare to the reality you've experienced firsthand?
"All the countries in Africa are so different, but I will say, growing up in Canada I saw commercials about Africa, and it looked sad and horrible. But, during my first few trips, I was just struck at how happy everyone was. I would visit a lot of local communities where people have almost nothing, but they are very happy, grateful for what they do have, and grateful for the opportunities that come their way. It’s a much more positive place than what people expect and what they see in the media. It’s also a huge continent. I don’t think people understand the size of it." It's great that you're getting recognized for the work you're doing there. What have your experiences been as a female entrepreneur?
"It's an honor to be included in the CFDA/Vogue fashion fund — I'm one of two female finalists. It's different when you're a woman. I'm so happy to be a female entrepreneur, and to be an African American CEO, but when I’m in Africa traveling with my boyfriend, everyone talks to him like he's the decision maker. I’m like, 'Hello, this is my thing!' It’s weird working with people who aren’t used to women making the big decisions. It’s a learning curve for people. But, then we work together and they learn that women can be great CEOs. People have to get used to it; I’m not afraid of that."

What was your secret to breaking into the fashion industry?
"People always say it's who you know, but I didn’t know anyone. I came from Canada. I had to rely on people liking what I put out there and hopefully finding a way to connect to that. I’m not one of those people who go out every night. I don’t have time; I have to run my own business. I'd rather have my friends over on a Saturday than be at a nightclub on a Wednesday. "For me, it was really about interning and giving 150%. When you think that you are giving 100%, know that you are really only giving 75%. If you're working for someone and they have some advice for you, they are telling you for your own benefit. I started interning when I was 16, whenever I could. I wanted to start from the bottom and work my way up, because you can’t properly manage unless you understand the roles of the people you are managing."

Has any of the advice you received as a rookie stuck with you?
"When I was living in Canada, I worked for an organization called the FDCC [Fashion Design Council of Canada], and my boss at the time asked me to mail something. I put it in an envelope and was getting ready to mail it when she said, 'You’re going to send it out like that?' Working in fashion, you are trying to create a visual identity, and it’s so important to pay attention to detail. Everything that you do is a reflection of you. It’s those little things that aren’t even meant to be advice that make you rethink things. Now, I pay attention to what kind of stamps are at the post office. Isn’t it so much better when they have Janis Joplin stamps?"

What words of wisdom do you have for aspiring designers?
"I just really want women and men, but especially women, to know that you can do anything you set your mind to. My mom taught me you can do anything, and my naïveté allowed me to believe her to the fullest degree. People have to push for what they want and make sure their idea stands out and has purpose. I think I made that true. Everyone can make that true."
Photographed by Francis Tulk Hart.

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