On Dec. 8, Aurora James will be honored as Person of the Year at the first virtual FN Achievement Awards. Below is an article from the magazine’s Dec. 7 print issue about her unrelenting drive to level the playing field for minorities in fashion and beyond.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in New York City at Penske Media Corp.’s HQ. Aurora James has been on set since 8 a.m. for her FN cover shoot, and she is in her third look of the day.
The photographer, Sage East, has just knotted her own arms and body in a ballerina- meets-contortionist position, suggesting a pose for James that would both emphasize the bespoke Brother Vellies boots on her feet as well as symbolize the strength and vision she has personified in 2020.
“Let’s try it,” James responds after taking a quick glance at the daring position.
That phrase was easily becoming a theme for the day’s shoot — James said it no less than a dozen times — and an apt descriptor for her attitude toward business, leadership and social justice. For instance, that fearlessness compelled James — three days after the police killing of George Floyd — to issue a challenge across social media to major retailers: Commit 15% of your shelf-space to Black-owned business.
“As a Black woman living in America in 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and many other people’s senseless murders, that was what I needed in order to feel like corporations were supporting Black people,” she explained. “So I wanted to make a clear ask and I wanted to give people the opportunity to step up and meet me where I am or to quite clearly disappoint me.”
Her resulting nonprofit, The 15 Percent Pledge, has made headlines for its bold mission, but James is quick to emphasize that the focus extends beyond arbitrary quotas.
“Black people are substantially less likely to get bank loans and [most] did not get access to the [Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program],” explained James, emphasizing her focus on educating companies to become more effective allies to Black brands. “Even how [a company] structures its financing terms can be inherently biased. Or [in areas such as] customer service, people sometimes say racist things on the phone. At the 15 Percent Pledge, we ask questions like, ‘What language have you empowered your customer service team with to talk about race?’”
So far, major companies such as Sephora, Rent the Runway and, most recently, Macy’s Inc. have signed the pledge. The latter is the largest retailer to take up James’ call to action — a huge affirmation for the entrepreneur- turned-philanthropist, who executes every major ask put forth by her organization.
But James admits that hands-on involvement does, at times, take a toll.
“There were seven or eight days consecutively over the summer where I was throwing up every day,” James recalled. “The emotional labor became too much for my body. It’s important that we also address those moments — those lows can be very low – but that’s part of the process. When people think about the work, they think about computers and tasks that can be delegated. But there’s an emotional labor from having to inspire people to change the way that they run their businesses.”
What’s more, James said she continues to hear a lot of “nos,” which can amplify the weight of the work.
“When you try to explain to people your value as a human and your community’s value to this country, and they still say ‘no,’ or they try to twist [what you’re saying] or tell you what they’ve already done — that is emotionally draining to me,” she said.
Still, James’ will to disprove naysayers is what drove her in 2013 to launch Brother Vellies — her luxury footwear brand that inspired the fashion world with its unique focus on craftsmanship, sustainability and equality. And it’s been the very thing that keeps her going now.
“People have told me — with such conviction — that I couldn’t do all kinds of things that have now happened in my life, like sourcing footwear in South Africa for Brother Vellies,” she said. “Right now, with [the COVID-19 crisis], I don’t have time to figure out if the economy is going to come back. Lots of people sit around and speculate about what the move is. I’ve made many moves while everyone was still speculating.”
James’ stubborn resolve to do the undoable is contagious to friends like fashion model and activist Bethann Hardison, who met James four years ago as both women were deeply involved with the CFDA.
“I’m happy to have her in my life — it’s almost like taking a vitamin supplement. She inspires me,” said Hardison. “The other day, she told me she wanted to be a venture capitalist so that she could help [minorities] get funding to start their own companies. The idea that she would even think of something like that — she has this natural sense of being an advocate.”
Hardison has endowed James with the title “daughter,” a label she has only bestowed upon on one other person: Supermodel Naomi Campbell. And it’s with good reason. “She’s young, she’s busy and she’s of a different generation than I am,” Hardison said of James. “It means something that she takes the time to reach out to me [consistently] and check in. It does my heart good.”
But even as James fortifies her ties with fashion industry veterans, it’s her ability to speak for those in her own generation that has propelled her to the front of her class, according to Steven Kolb, CEO of the CFDA.
“Aurora combines her curiosity and creativity to create change,” he said, noting her participation in several CFDA programs, including the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, the Fashion Incubator, the Investment Series, and the Fashion Initiative around sustainability.
“Her determination to make beautiful products while investing in communities and empowering artisans is a testament to her own sense of humanity,” Kolb added. “She is a voice of a generation that is not uncomfortable having uncomfortable conversations with our industry, pushing fashion and holding it accountable for real diversity, equity and inclusion.”
And as she looks ahead, James said her plan is to continue to address fashion’s critical issues — particularly sustainability and racial equity.
“We all need to think about who we want to be in this world, what it means to design things, what kind of tempo we want to be producing things at and what else is on our balance sheet that we don’t realize, [such as] debts to women, to the world and to each other,” James said. “If you’ve been manufacturing in a way that’s not great, you have a debt on your balance sheet that hasn’t been written yet. And at some point, all of that is going to come due.”
She continued, “If you’re still standing right now after this pandemic, if you still have space to take time to read this, what else do you have space and time to do?”
For 34 years, the annual FN Achievement Awards — often called the “Shoe Oscars” — have celebrated the style stars, best brand stories, ardent philanthropists, emerging talents and industry veterans. The first virtual FNAAs will air online on Dec. 8 at 6 p.m. ET and are presented in partnership with The Style Room Powered by Zappos, and sponsors FDRA, Deckers Brands, Soles4Souls and Foot Locker.
RSVP here for the biggest night in shoes! [LINK: https://fnaa.splashthat.com]