Of all the labels in the fashion world, the one applied for designer Aurora James is the most eye-catching. At 38, she’s been called the fashion industry’s “number one disruptor,” someone 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, raised eyebrows around the world.
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The story of James’ meteoric rise has been documented by others, but now he’s telling it himself in a memoir called “Wildflower.”
He admits that others have asked if he is a little too young to be writing 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-terrible job of showing what it means to be a successful woman in today’s society,” James said. “It’s like, you have to be buttoned up; you have to be photogenic. And it’s like, we can’t all expect to be perfect.”
James’ own story begins with a less-than-perfect, itinerant and what he describes as a traumatic childhood spent between Canada and Jamaica.
He said he remembers praying to God, “I’ll find myself in a place that’s safer and more comfortable and can really make something of my life.” One year he read the Bible from front to back three times. “Looking for salvation and hope,” he said. Years later, those prayers were answered.
In 2011, he was 26 years old and traveling in Africa, when a shoe changed everything.
“The full word is veldskuna, or veldskoen; we call it Veli for short,” said James. “I saw it as an opportunity to actually work with the artisans in a meaningful way, instead of just putting them on a mood board, as fashion brands usually do.”
And so, James took his life savings, modernized the classic shoes, and sold them at street fairs in New York. “I was just taking a leap of faith, and trying to do something,” he said.
And some of that paid off. These handmade shoes were the first step towards his own luxury accessories brand: Brother Velis, acclaimed for its focus on sustainability and empowerment of local artisans.
He is now far 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 has earned herself a seat at fashion’s most elite table. Still, he wasn’t ready to sit back and relax, especially in 2020, when he started thinking about racial justice versus social justice. “Black people are about 15 percent of the population,” James said. “Major retailers should devote 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. Since then, hundreds of black-owned brands have been added to the shelves of major retailers like Nordstrom. “It’s not just checking a box and then moving on,” he said. “It’s how we make sure they actually do well in the environment.”
This commitment has been called “era defining” by Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue.
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 that was fighting back in the day, what would you say?”
“I think just keep going,” she replied, “and everything you’re going through is going to be really helpful in understanding the world — and maybe tweeting the world a little bit.”
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The story was produced by Sara Kugel. Editor: Mike Levine.