Aurora James fell in love with shoes by listening to the stories of local craftsmen.
The former curator and fashion consultant, 29, founded fledging Brooklyn, N.Y.-based brand Brother Vellies in 2013 with a focus on African-made footwear.
“It came about from traveling and being curious about what people are into. Instead of treating the line as a production opportunity, it’s more about working with the skills that [the shoemakers] already possess and combining that with contemporary style,” James said, adding that the label also has helped preserve jobs for longtime makers of traditional African footwear and has promoted equality in the workplace. “The fact that we have an environment that is so open-minded and friendly is a big deal to me.”
Nordstrom’s Pop-In, Exodus Goods and Moda Operandi all stock her twist on local signature shoes — such as mixed-media espadrilles and ankle-wrap sandals. Most pairs retail from $195 to $395, and the offering extends beyond women’s to include men’s and children’s footwear as well. (Kids’ sizes start at $95.)
“Our customer loves Aurora’s product,” said Moda Operandi brand manager Emilie Ghilaga. “It can be a very vast audience that appreciates it. There are a lot of talking points, whether it’s the taste level or the social consciousness and eco-friendly aspect of, say, her recycled-tire crisscross sandals. Our lady loves it.”
Olivia Kim, director of creative projects at Nordstrom, said Brother Vellies will be part of the retailer’s September Pop-In, which will highlight sustainable fashion.
“I was drawn to the fact that she was doing something involving artisans in Africa. The concept felt special and the product looked really incredible,” said Kim. “The designs, colors and unique materials stood out to me.”
The brand takes its name from the desert boots that came to South Africa via Dutch colonization and were later trademarked by Clarks. Brother Vellies’ handmade Erongo version harkens back to the style’s roots with checkered kudo skins and Namibian Springbok fur. Other items that take cues from local codes include unisex laceups inspired by the uniform shoes of schoolchildren — updated in denim and cork — and luxe slides made from wild fur or South African hornback crocodile, the latter topping out the collection at $1,450. “It’s very rare,” James said of the look. “I wanted to make sure we were getting [the crocodile] from a good place, so it was about meeting the farmers and actually talking to them about their process. ”
Tamsin Smith, a leading social impact entrepreneur, current head of partnerships at Yerdle.com and former founding president of (RED), said she was impressed immediately when she first saw James’ work at New York’s Hester Street Fair. “The way she has taken a heritage item that means a lot to the craftspeople and brought it up to date, it’s pretty singular,” Smith said. “She’s also built this effort from the ground up, which is pretty remarkable. And she’s done it in a very authentic and thoughtful way.”
Since Brother Vellies launched, friends at LVMH-owned charitable brand Edun have helped connect James with a production manager, who now runs her factory in Tulbagh, South Africa. To facilitate a constant exchange of ideas with the on-the-ground experts, the designer visits every two to three months.
Rotimi Akinyemiju, former head of U.S. operations at Net-a-porter and COO at Moda Operandi, is working with James to secure investment to take Brother Vellies to the next level.
“I believe this is not a niche business and that Aurora has the ability to grow Brother Vellies into a global brand,” said Akinyemiju. “I see a lot of potential based on her strong offering and differentiation in the market.”
Still, James, who grew up in Canada with a Ghanaian father, said the societal learning curve has been steep. “[Canada is] a very multicultural place, but I still didn’t fully understand the scope of apartheid when I started this project,” she said. “It’s been an education for me.”
Currently, James has set her sights on expanding production to touch different parts of Africa, including manufacturing some kids’ styles in Kenya.
But she is cautious when considering the recent push to industrialize Africa. “I applaud everyone who is moving their production to Africa because people need the jobs, but for the most part, it’s about having [their product] made there as opposed to reinterpreting what they are already making,” she said. “So many people want to turn it into China — this mass-production thing. There are so many skilled artisans that I want to make sure don’t assimilate into an assembly line factory way of life.”
As a result, she added, Brother Vellies teaches everyone to make a shoe from start to finish. “The aim is that my footwear empowers people on a variety of levels,” said James.
Birthplace: Guelph, Ontario
Go-to collaborators: “The William Okpo sisters [Darlene and Lizzy], Solange Knowles and I are all friends. We just worked together on special styles for Exodus Goods, their store in New Orleans.”
Southern (African) hospitality: “I stay at the Tulbagh Hotel. They consider me family and I work up the street. There are wild peacocks everywhere, which have become the Brother Vellies logo.”
Sweet charity: “A portion of my proceeds goes back to my employees to help fund education for their children. Brother Vellies is committed to offering financial support.”
Language barriers: “It’s hard if there are seven different languages spoken in a workshop. There are a lot of words that I am picking up, such as how to say “good” in Oshiwambo. They speak bits and pieces of English, and some people are better than others. We’re making it work.”