Of all the labels in the fashion world, the ones applied to designer Aurora James are among the most eye-catching. At 38 years old, she has been called the fashion industry’s “number one disrupter,” who isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo. Case in point: Her “Tax the Rich” dress, worn by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the Met Gala in 2021, that raised eyebrows around the world.
The tale of James’ meteoric rise has been documented by others, but now she’s telling it herself in a memoir called “Wildflower.”
She admitted that others have asked if she is a bit young to write an autobiography.
Cho asked, “Why did you feel, like, now was the right time to write your life story?”
“I think social media has done such a great-slash-horrible job at showing what it means to be a successful woman in today’s society,” said James. “It’s like, you have to be buttoned up; you have to be photogenic. And it’s kind of just like, we can’t expect everyone to be perfect.”
James’ own story begins decidedly less-than-perfect, an itinerant and what she described as a painful childhood spent between Canada and Jamaica.
She said she remembers praying to God, “that I would find myself in a place that was more safe and more comfortable, and really make something of my life.” One year she read the Bible back-to-front three times. “Looking for salvation and hope,” she said. Years later, those prayers were answered.
In 2011, she was 26 and traveling in Africa, when a shoe changed everything.
“The full word is Veltskoona, or Veldskoene; we call it a Vellie for short,” said James. “I saw it as an opportunity to actually work with artisans in a meaningful way instead of just having them on the mood board, like normally fashion brands were doing.”
And so, James took her life savings, modernized the classic shoe, and sold them at a New York street fair. “I was just taking a leap of faith, and trying to do something,” she said.
And that something paid off. Those hand-crafted shoes were the first step toward her very own luxury accessories brand: Brother Vellies, praised for its focus on sustainability and empowerment of local artisans.
She’s now a long way from a flea market: “So, now we work in South Africa, Kenya, Morocco, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Mali, Bali, Haiti, Italy, America, Mexico, really all over the world.”
She earned herself a seat at some of fashion’s most elite tables. Still, she wasn’t ready to sit back and relax, especially in 2020, when she started thinking about racial justice versus social justice. “Black people are almost 15 percent of the population,” James said. “Major retailers should commit 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses.”
And with that, the 15 Percent Pledge was born, asking businesses to do just that. Hundreds of Black-owned brands have been added to shelves of major retailers, such as Nordstrom, ever since. “It’s not just about checking a box and then moving on,” she said. “It’s how do we make sure that they actually do well in the environment.”
The pledge itself has been called “era defining” by Vogue’s editor in chief Anna Wintour.
Hailed as a once-in-a-generation leader, Aurora James is committed to designing a better future for all.
Cho asked, “If you could tell little Aurora who was struggling back in the day something, what would you say?”
“I think just keep going,” she replied, “and all of these things that you’re going through are actually going to be really helpful in understanding the world – and perhaps tweaking the world a little bit, too.”
READ AN EXCERPT: “Wildflower: A Memoir” by Aurora James
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Story produced by Sara Kugel. Editor: Mike Levine.