Image Source: David X Prutting/
Toronto Born, New York Based, African Made
I have probably started this post thirty times. Each draft being scrapped for a cleverer line, yet each sounding profoundly convoluted and inauthentic. The reason? To write a post on Aurora James, creative director and founder of ethical shoe brand, Brother Vellies, is one that must be done with the greatest of justice. One of the few women in fashion who is seriously changing the nature of the game, and doing it so gracefully and fashionably. Also, I am kind of hoping that we will become best friends, once she discovers the blog and realises that she cannot live another moment without befriending me. It could happen!
So why the fascination? I guess it is because I see fragments of myself in her, particularly in the ethos she is trying to convey--she through her shoes and me through the blog and, in the future, furniture (a dream I will share with you in more detail soon). Similarly, Aurora has found herself and her brand working with the United Nations--me with the United Nations Development Programme, and she with the Ethical Fashion Initiative--where we both engage in issues of economic empowerment, sustainable livelihoods and gender equity.
Aurora James photographed by Tom Newton on March 5, 2015, in Brooklyn, New York. Taken from Into the Gloss

'Vellies', short for veldskoens, are Southern African desert boots (if you haven't heard of them before, you are surely familiar with them as they were made famous by Clarks) from which Aurora took the name for her brand and inspiration for her first collection in 2013. The goal for Aurora with the conception of Brother Vellies was to share her love of traditional African footwear with the rest of the world, without compromising their integrity. The genius in the brand lies in the synergy found between traditional African spirit and modern Western aesthetic--a synergy that has given her great success within such a short space of time. In doing so, she is not just supporting Made in Africa, she is redefining it into something more complex and viable within the realm of sustainability.

Brother Vellies creates handmade shoes in Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco and South Africa, although she travels quite extensively to other regions in the world, exploring fabrics, techniques and styles by local artisans. In an interview with In 2015, Brother Vellies began partnership with the United Nations' Ethical Fashion Initiative, which saw her work with Ethiopian artisans to create 30 pieces for her spring/summer 2016 Collection. In a NYTimes Article James stated that she is "really turned off by the idea of taking inspiration from someone and not involving them in the inevitable commercial aspect. Particularly when you’re talking about underprivledged people. If I’m going to make a sandal inspired by the Maasai tribe in Kenya, I’m going to employ people in the community in the process." (Working with the Ethical Fashion Initiative, Brother Vellies provides living wages for all of its employees.) She added:“I spent some time with the people who are making our shoes for spring and I met some new people I hope to involve in our fall collection. It is always a work in progress though: Development in Africa takes much much longer than people typically realize. But, you know, life is about the journey — not the destination.”
Photo by Taylor Jewell
For Aurora, sustainability and working with local artisans are not about setting up for one collection and leaving; it is about establishing a long-term commitment and relationship. In an interview with NYMag Aurora expressed the importance of longevity of relationships with these artisans:
"Coming in and doing a capsule collection for one season — sometimes it does more harm than good. If you have women who traditionally would have been in a stay-at-home situation and maybe they've changed the structure of their family by leaving and taking on work, it's really hard for them to have to go back afterward. We just have to be thoughtful of the communities that we go into, and make sure we do what's best and seek a lot of advice."

Her goal is to one day source 100% of her materials locally, ecologically, sustainably and ethically, but in the meanwhile, Aurora has been working with local innovators to make this a reality. Most of her production is by hand, She has been playing around with fish skin leather, and woven plastic fibers. With leathers sourced from Ethiopia, fabrics from Mali and hand-carved beads from Kenya, we can see how this ethos is coming to fruition.

After taking home the 2015 CFDA Prize, it is only a matter of time before Brother Vellies takes the spot as both the top ethical and accessories brand of our day. In the meanwhile, I sit in anticipation for what will come next from this truly remarkable and admirable person.

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