FN Exclusive: Designer Aurora James and Sarah Sophie Flicker on Fashion and Activism

Is it possible to hash out today’s hottest topics — from the royal wedding to the Women’s March movement — during an hourlong hair and makeup session at an FN cover shoot? For Sarah Sophie Flicker and Aurora James, it was just another girls’ afternoon out during a week chock-full of appearances.

A couple of nights earlier, the pair attended a CFDA bash in Brooklyn, where James — the woman behind the sustainable Brother Vellies brand of handmade African footwear — was being honored as a Swarovski Emerging Talent nominee. Flicker, one of the national organizers of the Women’s March and an ardent activist, accompanied her close friend to the New York event, where the two were inseparable — their yin and yang sensibility spilling over onto the set days later.

Flicker, the self-described “white woman with privilege,” and James, a self-taught black female entrepreneur who is vocal about her struggles, might seem like an unlikely duo. They met four years ago when several like-minded women would convene over dinner for “open dialogue about all of the s**t going on in the world,” explained Flicker.

Aside from it being a femme-focused think tank, it’s where James and Flicker began tuning in to each other’s standout qualities. The designer’s persistence to “push forward things that affect people of color, making sure that voice is represented in fashion” piqued Flicker’s interest. James was impressed by Flicker’s knack for “taking the bull by the horns, whatever horrible bull it is, and fighting.”

Aurora James and Sarah Sophie Flicker
Aurora James and Sarah Sophie Flicker.
CREDIT: Annie Tritt

Here, the two revolutionary women discuss activism, entrepreneurship, companies getting political and how women are at the center of it all.

Aurora, the CFDA honor marks a huge moment for you. As the only woman of color nominated, what does that mean to you?

Aurora James: “It feels great. I’ve made it to this point as a business owner, and that’s amazing. I hope we can see more women of color, and women in general, supporting each other, paying attention to female designers and actually trying to think about who you’re wearing instead of focusing on consuming so much. Think about who you are, what your identity is, and are you bringing something into your wardrobe that’s going to last a long time? It’s great to read articles about how to get the look for less, but there’s a really high cost to low pricing.”

How do you juggle between representing the “female entrepreneur” and the “black designer”?

AJ: “Last year was difficult trying to balance them. I had to make a really tough choice: ‘Am I addressing it through my company or am I not addressing it?’ As a business that sells women’s shoes — 98 percent of our shoes go to women, and they’re made largely by women of color — how can I not [tackle] these things? If someone says something about s**t-hole countries and I want to send out a newsletter immediately about what we make out of these places, that’s going to happen. Have I lost customers? Yeah, I’m sure. Do I care? No.”

Sarah Sophie Flicker: “In the first few weeks of organizing [the Women’s March], we had a meeting at my house, and a bunch of my friends in fashion came and did the first fundraiser for it. I was so touched and impressed that [designers like] Aurora, Rachel Comey, Ulla Johnson and Mara Hoffman were so willingly vocal to support it. I understand the ways in which that could alienate the people in their communities, their customers, so it’s been heartening to see brands take that risk because now is not a moment to be silent. [Film director, author and activist] Paola Mendoza and I started a company called Firebrand, which is birthed out of our work at the Women’s March, and part of what we do now is consult brands on how to have a political voice. It has been interesting to see so many getting on board.”

The #MeToo movement has defined 2018 so far. How is it redefining relationships?

AJ: “I just had one interesting conversation with a friend of mine whose concern about it is, they just don’t want romance to die.”

SSF: “We’re helping you with romance. Just listen. If you want to have better sex, get down with women about what works and what doesn’t work. It’s as simple as that. If anything, the place the conversation will hopefully go is allowing us who are in any relationship to care about what feels good and what people like — and what doesn’t feel good. Things that we’ve been messaged maybe don’t work across any spectrum of gender or sexuality. It’s all about mutual respect and believing each other.”

Aurora James and Sarah Sophie Flicker
Aurora James and Sarah Sophie Flicker
CREDIT: Annie Tritt

How do we keep other important movements, such as Black Lives Matter, at the forefront?

SSF: “The Women’s March wouldn’t have existed without Black Lives Matter, and to a lesser extent, Occupy Wall Street taught people how to be out on the street. Black Lives Matter has consistently been out on the street, being super-vocal and launching brilliant campaigns for years. One thing I’m really proud of that the Women’s March did is push the idea of intersectionality very hard. We put out our Unity Principles, which were created by leaders from all different communities to show the ways in which women’s lives are interconnected and you can’t just talk about one issue if you’re talking about women. You need to be talking about immigration and disability rights, and not just reproductive rights but reproductive justice and Islamophobia, anti-Semitism — you have to be talking about all of it. So that’s the way you do it: You show up for communities outside your own. For me, personally, I’m a white woman with a lot of privilege. I just show up and I listen and I don’t try to tell stories that aren’t mine, but I do uplift other people’s and other women’s stories.”

AJ: “Also for me, I have this conversation all the time. Even for people of color, when it comes to Black Lives Matter, we need to go out of our way to support each other. And if you have a voice on any level, if you’re a black celebrity, you should consider wearing black designers. It’s kind of a no-brainer, but it’s also something that we don’t think about that much.”

Have you faced backlash over the years from being vocal about certain issues?

AJ: “When it was Bernie [Sanders] versus Hillary [Clinton], I was losing friends, especially in California. They were really upset, and I was like, ‘Listen, I’m from Canada. Everything I hear Bernie talking about I’m on board with. I have not seen a clear road map, and I understand how different Canada is versus America.’ Even with free health care, that can’t happen in four or eight years. We’re going to have a lot of disappointed people.”

SSF: “I just wasn’t going to fight with people about it. Certainly there were heated and painful conversations around the election, but I’m happy to say I don’t think I lost friends. If anything, we gained understanding, and if we’re talking about a mass movement, it’s critical that we don’t agree on everything. If we understand that the goal is uplifting our shared humanity and pushing forth this idea that we’re all connected and our liberation is truly bound in each other, it’s OK if we don’t all agree how we get there.”

How can companies navigate between supporting causes they care about and protecting business interests?

AJ: “My situation was more cause and effect. I started working with artisans, and it was through working with those artisans that Brother Vellies was born. With other companies, there’s so many different levels to look at. Even with Steve Madden — to [touch on] the idea of shaming versus being constructive — when he would knock me off, [I said], ‘I know that you are intending on selling thousands of these sandals, but would you consider moving your production to my workshop in Ethiopia?’ and made an appeal on that level. How can we do it in a way that’s not going to take jobs away from the people in Ethiopia that I work with? Obviously, he didn’t respond because that’s not the type of company that they are, but something like that [is an example of how you can] change your business model so that it’s not hurting anyone. Even forget helping sometimes — how can we make companies not hurt?”

aurora james
Aurora James
CREDIT: Annie Tritt

Social media has become a key vehicle for activism. What’s good and bad about that?

SSF: “We would not have been able to organize the Women’s March and [create] national movements without social media. It’s a way of connecting to each other, and if I push something out, I try to have an action item that goes along with it. It’s certainly not enough, but this administration is using social media as an absolute weapon, so it’s part of our toolkit.”

AJ: “It is a great tool in terms of use and disseminating information, but you have to do more than post a picture. But also understand you are manifesting your own reality. On your explore page, you are not exploring; you’re just rebubbling around your own bubble because things are tailored to you. You think you know what’s happening, but there’s a lot more outside of your own sphere, and you need to figure that out.”

What advice do you have for women who want to join these big conversations in a meaningful way?

SSF: “A lot of the trepidation comes from fear of being uncomfortable. If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably not doing it right. When there’s more representation and inclusivity [in fashion], then that has a real ripple effect and can be intimidating. Whatever industry, whatever your platform is, there’s many entry points to these discussions and a place for your voice. The more we have these conversations, the more we can shift the narrative and have real cultural changes in a moment where we may not be seeing policy changes.”

AJ: “You don’t necessarily have to move your production somewhere different, but there’s little ways to start doing things. Even with sustainability, people were slamming some designers because they weren’t ‘green enough.’ As women, it’s always, ‘We’re not X enough.’ We need to not be so hard on each other and not be afraid if we don’t know the answers, haven’t made our minds up on something or have questions.”

SSF: “To that point, there’s a real difference between calling people out and calling people in. In these kinds of conversations, it’s important to come from a place of lacking judgment, being grounded in love and speaking from your own experience — accountability without shaming. [Research professor] Brené Brown was talking about this — shame is a tool of the oppressor. Being a parent has helped in this area because it’s important for my kids to understand you can do something bad and not be a bad person.”

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