Of all the labels in the fashion world, those applied to designer Aurora James are among the most attention-grabbing. At the age of 38, she has been called the “number one troublemaker” of the fashion industry, not afraid to challenge the status quo. New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortz’s 2021 “Tax the Rich” dress to the Met Gala raised eyebrows around the world.
The story of James’ meteoric rise has been documented by others, but now she tells it herself in her memoir, “Wildflower.”
She said others asked if she was too young to write an autobiography.
Cho asked, “Why did you feel now was the right time to write your autobiography?”
“I think social media has done such a terrific job of portraying what it means to be a successful woman in today’s society,” James said. “It’s like, you have to be strapped up; you have to be photogenic. And like everyone else, we can’t expect it to be perfect.”
James’s own story begins less than perfect, as she describes an itinerant and painful childhood spent between Canada and Jamaica.
She said she remembers praying to God, “to find myself somewhere safer and more comfortable and to actually do something with my life.” One year she read the Bible three times in front of her. “Finding safety and hope,” she said. Years later, these prayers were answered.
In the year In 2011, she was 26 years old and traveling in Africa, when a shoe changed everything.
“The full word is Veltskona or Veldskone; we call it Veli for short,” James said. “I saw it as an opportunity to work with artisans in a meaningful way, rather than doing it on a mood board like fashion brands typically do.”
So, James took her life savings, revamped the classic shoe, and sold it at a street show in New York. “I was just taking a leap of faith, and trying to do something,” she said.
And something is paid. Those handmade shoes were the first step to her own luxury accessories brand: Brother Velis, praised for his focus on sustainability and empowering local artisans.
She’s far from flea markets now: “So now we work in South Africa, Kenya, Morocco, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Mali, Bali, Haiti, Italy, America, Mexico, really all over the world.”
She has seated herself at some of fashion’s most elite tables. Still, she wasn’t ready to sit back and relax, especially when she started thinking about racial justice and social justice in 2020. “Blacks are 15 percent of the population,” James says. “Major retailers must dedicate 15 percent of shelf space to black-owned businesses.”
And with that, the 15 percent pledge was born, asking businesses to do just that. Since then, hundreds of black-owned brands have been added to the shelves of major retailers like Nordstrom. “It’s not just about checking a box and moving on,” she said. “How do we make sure they do well in the environment?”
The pledge itself has been called “the definition of an era” by Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.
Honored as a once-in-a-generation leader, Aurora James is committed to designing a better future for all.
“If you could say one thing to little Aurora who was struggling back in the day, what would you say?” Cho asked.
She replied, “I think you just go on, and all these things you’re experiencing will actually be very useful for understanding the world – and maybe for fixing the world a little bit.”
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Story by Sarah Kugel. Editor: Mike Levine.