The multi-hyphenate shares the inspiration behind her accessories brand and how she continues to support Black-owned businesses through the Fifteen Percent Pledge and a new subscription service.
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portrait of brother vellies foudner aurora james
Credit: Courtesy of Brother Vellie's / Christian Cody

Have you ever wondered how to turn your dreams of owning your own business into a reality? We can help. Each week, as part of our Self Made series, we showcase female entrepreneurs—as well as their quality, handmade goods—and share their best advice related to starting, maintaining, and growing your own business.

From a young age, Aurora James, the founder and creative director at Brother Vellies, knew that fashion played an important role in the world. "My mother always said that fashion was a tool for women to communicate with each other about how they're feeling and their culture," she says. "I was always fascinated by beautiful things, and I got the idea for my sustainable accessories line while backpacking through Africa in my 20s." During this trip in 2011, James drew inspiration from the locals, as she witnessed how they pieced their garments together. She also heard about the multigenerational business owners' fears that their shops would end up closing due to boosts in mass production. After helping a workshop in South Africa with their design of veldskoen shoes, also known as Vellies, she created her Brooklyn-based brand and began selling shoes at a market on the Lower East Side. "I launched Brother Vellies in January 2013 with a goal of promoting the amazing work of these and other artisans, always making sure their work stays authentic, recognized, and supported," the fashion designer says.

The stunning shoes, such as the Brother Vellies Togo Heel in Dandelion ($615, brothervellies.com), are all made with tradition in mind; their production models the practices James learned from African locals over a decade ago. Over time, the entrepreneur continued to expand her ventures to support Black-owned brands and local artisans in every part of her work. Ahead, learn about the Fifteen Percent Pledge and her latest venture, Something Special, which is rooted in the home goods space.

Creating the Fifteen Percent Pledge

James founded the Fifteen Percent Pledge, a non-profit advocacy organization that initially began as an Instagram post, to combat the injustices Black people face in the world. "After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, countless corporations issued statements of solidarity claiming they stood with the Black community," James says. "Too many of those statements were filled with promises or one-off donations with no transparency on how each company would hold themselves accountable to their commitments." As a result, James took matters into her own hands with her social media post, tagging some of the biggest retailers across the globe, and writing, "We represent 15 percent of the population and we need to represent 15 percent of your shelf space." The call-out turned into the launch of the Fifteen Percent Pledge, an organization dedicated to ensuring Black brands are represented in stores, "because the corporate playbook of releasing statements and writing one-time checks was not enough." She explains that the Pledge is not "a quick fix or band-aid solution for companies; it's a tangible, contractual commitment to tackle the systemic inequities that have historically locked Black businesses out of economic opportunities."

Over the past two years, the Pledge has partnered with the large retailers across the fashion and beauty industries with the goal of supporting Black-owned businesses and closing the racial wealth gap. "We're working to create an ecosystem that holistically supports Black entrepreneurs and brands—it's not just getting Black businesses on shelves, but ensuring they have the capacity to meet demand and ultimately succeed," James says. "Not only have we gotten over 400 Black brands on the shelves of major retailers, like Sephora, Macy's, and Ulta, but we've been able to shift nearly $10 billion of revenue to Black-owned businesses."

brother vellies something special coffee
Credit: Courtesy of Brother Vellie's

Making Something Special

Brother Vellies is growing, too—but the brand, and its entities, will always connect with one primary mission. "The Brother Vellies ethos is that of keeping traditional, cultural design processes alive. I want to enable these communities to continue to create, which leads to new jobs and empowers their economies," James says. "I am only looking to create designs that will be in the closets of our consumers for a lifetime and passed down through generations. Many brands are tapping into this space, but I want to inspire others to design with intention and think through the waste so many are emitting."

Through this pathway, James started thinking of a way to support the artisan communities that have been a part of her world for years. She knew that the talented creatives she worked with had a wide range of skills that could contribute to the home goods space. After this idea came to her in 2020, she decided to turn it into an extension of Brother Vellies. "Something Special is a monthly subscription program where you can score a bundle of expertly curated items that are ethically made by artisans in the Brother Vellies community," James says. Each month brings a new surprise: Previous offerings featured a hand-carved mini hand broom and dustpan from Kenya and sustainably harvested Sonoma sea salt. "Each of our artisan partners have such specialized design methods and they all work from the earth," James says. "Their natural materials and generational practices lend themselves to many designs, so partnering with them for this subscription service felt like a no-brainer."

Building for the Future

With the launch of Something Special, James is even more excited about how her businesses will continue to branch out. "I am enjoying expressing my creativity and becoming even more intertwined with my artisan partners," she says. "Something Special is a natural extension of the brand, as I am always looking for new avenues to celebrate cultural histories and timeless design." At the Pledge, the entrepreneur notes that they are homing in on growing their Business Equity Community, which now has over 1,500 Black businesses and eases connectivity between retail partners and Black brands—and they are also bringing on more companies across all industries. "We're proud of the impact we've been able to make in such a short amount of time, but we've just scratched the surface," adds James. "By 2030, we hope to drive $1.4 trillion of wealth generation by Black entrepreneurs and increase Black business representation by nearly 15 percent." For those who are working to create businesses of their own, the founder suggests being curious and asking plenty of questions. "Never be afraid to ask for help," she shares. "You have to be passionate and hardworking in this business. Only pursue something if you cannot live without it."

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