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Book Excerpts: "Wildflowers: A Memoir" By Aurora James


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In her new memoir, “Wildflower” (published May 9 by Crown), designer, fashion entrepreneur and activist Aurora James writes about how she found inspiration for her brother Velis’ shoes in a medina in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Read the section below, and Don’t miss Alina Cho’s interview with Aurora James on “CBS Sunday Morning” on May 7!

“Wildflower: A Memoir” by Aurora James

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It was the summer of 2010, I was in my mid-twenties and ready for a change of scenery and decided to move to New York. I wasn’t sure what my next career move would be, but I knew there were better opportunities to discover it. I found an apartment in Bed-Stuy on Craigslist and moved in, sight unseen. I also started dating a photographer I met at a Woolly Pocket shoot named Jason. He was from Kansas and was six feet tall with blond hair and blue eyes. Extremely kind and soft-spoken with a slight stutter, she was an assistant to several fashion photographers, including Steven Meisel and Reuven Afanador. Jason was talented, hard-working and deeply immersed in fashion, and his ambitions matched my own.

I knew my savings wouldn’t last long, so I cold emailed a casting director named Jennifer Starr and began assisting her with campaigns for Ralph Lauren, Gap, and Calvin Klein to pay my rent. It meant long hours in a big city, but I loved every moment of it.

I agreed to freelance for Gen Art again and connect new designers with sponsors to produce shows at New York Fashion Week. This sometimes means going to stores like Opening Ceremony and scouring social media and blogs in search of young creative talent who would benefit from the support….

Meanwhile, I was still thinking about what I wanted to do. Freelance fashion work was a great way to get my feet wet and pay, but I was still searching for what would drive me. I also felt a strong pull towards Africa.

My mother somehow acquired a time-share in Marrakesh. He still loved to travel when he could, and that wanderlust passed on to me. Jason and I saved two thousand dollars and went for two weeks. It was my first trip to a continent that felt so big to me mentally and physically. I was thinking more and more about my father and my own Ghanaian roots.

Morocco was sensory overload: a kaleidoscope of beautiful shades of terra-cotta, mustard yellow, warm brown, sky blue, and sage green with the intoxicating scent of cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, and peppermint. Add brass and metal elements—from doorknobs and knockers to bells and belts—and I was like a kid in a candy store. It was unlike anywhere I had been before.

I could and would sit for hours at the stalls of various carpet vendors as exquisitely designed rugs were unveiled before me, each from a different region, time period or group of artisans. Some had brown diamond-shaped white lambs, others had bright red backgrounds with purple, orange, and yellow patterns. Each one told a very specific story, which the vendors would excitedly share as they poured me mint tea, a visitor to understand the cultural history of these items as they meant to tell it.

Here too I fell in love with Babuch. I first noticed the slipper-like shoe when I saw a group of men entering the mosque in a marketplace in the city’s central Medina. These men, elegantly dressed in their djellabasses and kaftans, would quickly take off their shoes before going to pray. I looked at the line of soft leather slippers and saw that the back heels were pushed all the way down, as if they were stepped on. It makes sense: Muslims pray all day, so they need shoes they can slip on easily. I thought about all the items my mother had collected over the years, often the clothing had a purpose that extended beyond its beauty. When form and function marry, something as simple and beautiful as Babuchi is born.

I started looking for shoes everywhere, in markets, shops, on people. Often, I would see the back heel was steamed, giving it a mule-like effect. Some, however, were sewn or glued down. Flashier versions were common on the street, but I was drawn to sun-bleached suedes that were naturally dyed, creating dusty rose and terra-cotta hues. I started buying pairs, not even checking to see if they would fit me. I just wanted to appreciate them. As each pair was handmade, no two were identical, and yet, they all shared the same easy-on-off effect. I loved how a person’s daily rituals would blend into their clothing, so that the small style details became embedded in the culture handed down from the ancestors. Evidence of life and a rite of passage.

Of course, among the babuches, Moroccan rugs, copper teapots and mosaic tiles for sale in the medina were lots of Ed Hardy T-shirts and True Religion jeans. Western influence has always been there. But before we left Morocco, I went deep into the medina in search of babuche artisans, to watch them carefully cut and sew. I asked one of my favorite vendors to get in touch for his contact information. I had a vague idea that I could open a shop in the East Village to sell the various things I had discovered during my travels, such as Babuche.

Back in Brooklyn, I wore my Babuchi to get coffee around the house and around the house and started thinking about what design elements I wanted to change to adapt the shoe to New York City life. I started sketching in a notebook, took some of my babuchi apart and made tweaks so they would hug the rug a little better. I added extra padding to the insole and even toyed with adding a heavier outsole. As I sketched, I realized that this modified Babuch was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to offer in my dream shop. So I reached out to the Marrakesh vendor and requested that he make me a special pair out of denim. He asked me to send him the material, and I replied, “Can you find and use an old pair of jeans?”

The first pair wasn’t quite right, and I contacted my sketch and middle high school French via WhatsApp to ask for some more changes. He sent four or five different samples, each pair slightly different, as he worked to figure out what he thought was right. Everyone got a little closer to what I imagined. I finally asked him to put the denim seam in the middle of the shoe. He did, and I didn’t know it at the time, but it would become the prototype for my first Brother Velise shoe.

From the book “Wildflower: A Memoir” by Aurora James. Copyright © 2023 by Aurora James and Bruised Fruit LLC. Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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