On the morning after the Met Gala, a debate is raging over Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s statement “Tax the Rich” dress, created by Brother Vellies designer and ardent activist Aurora James. While some observers are applauding the viral moment, others claim the dress — and Ocasio-Cortez’s attendance at the over-the-top fashion event — is out of touch.
But the real takeaway here is that these formidable female leaders know how to get people talking. Google searches for AOC, James and “Tax the Rich” are skyrocketing.
While AOC has been a social media magnet ever since she landed on the political scene, many people, particularly outside of fashion, are just discovering James for the first time.
FN has been chronicling the designer since 2014, when we were one of the first publications to discover her as a passionate young talent who wanted to change the world.
Ever since then, she has used her platform to rally behind women and people of color — whether its her artisan factory workers in Africa or the Black founders she has championed through her game-changing 15 Percent Pledge, which has signed on retailers from Nordstrom to Sephora to West Elm, who have pledged to dedicated 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses.
James has also been vocal about her important role in helping revolutionize America at a critical time.
Case in point: When the designer, FN’s 2020 Person of the Year, arrived at her cover shoot last November, James was eager to discuss a very meaningful look: her over-the-knee stars-and-stripes boots. She had created the style to mark the momentous election of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
“I really feel that we need to make sure that we can, to some degree, reclaim and claim the American flag,” James said of the boots. “There are certain situations where it’s almost felt like it’s this partisan symbol, and it shouldn’t be that way. Because I think America at its best is a country that can work for everyone, if we are willing to actively do the work to make sure that it stays and is equitable for everyone,” she said in 2020.
Read on for exclusive quotes from James, as documented in FN interviews through the years.
On being a Canadian in America
“I don’t have to embrace this country as my own. I’m not originally from here. But I do feel, because I have created my business here, and in many ways have come of age here, that I have a responsibility also to this country. I genuinely love America. I love Canada, too. They’re very different, even though we compare the two so much. I want to see it do really well and I think that that also means I have to be willing to put in that work. And I think I am.” — 2020
Founding the 15 Percent Pledge
“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. 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.” — 2020
Taking action & ignoring the naysayers
“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. 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.” — 2020
Standing up for women and people of color
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.” — 2018
How to make a real difference as a designer
“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. 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.” — 2020
The meaning behind your clothes
“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.” — 2018