PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN & MARK SOMMERFELD
WORDS BY ELIZABETH CABRAL
For accessories designer Aurora James, finding a bigger purpose in an industry she loved, meant building a business on sustainability and ethical sourcing. Since launching Brother Vellies in 2014, she has won the 2015 CFDA/ Vogue Fashion Fund, opened a flagship store in New York, and amassed a loyal customer base. But most importantly, it’s given this artist an active role in empowering marginalized communities and artisans around the world.
“Growing up in Canada with a mother who championed the three R’s, recycle, reuse, reduce, this way of thinking was common place for me. My mom was a landscape architect and it was about how the infrastructure interacted with nature, how in development you find ways to support an eco-system versus tearing it down. That translates for me in a place like Africa, where you’re surrounded by nature and the way of life there is about working with and prospering from the land, and making use of everything.”
Not surprisingly, James’ design and sourcing process is intrinsically purposeful and thoughtful, while never compromising on style. All leathers are byproducts of government mandated culling or the edible food industry, nearly the entire collection is vegetable dyed, cottons are organic and hand crafted beading and weaving are done by local artisans. This production chain is paying it forward as it not only employs the local people in communities across Africa, but also maintains traditional artisan skills that are quickly disappearing in many parts of world, due to an infiltration of used clothing cast-off’s from North America.
James describes Brother Vellies as “slow fashion”, creating “forever pieces that are designed and crafted to last.” This buy less, wear more philosophy segues to what James considers to be the most critical issue in the fashion industry today – waste. This is the more urgent problem in her eyes and the industry in general, especially fast fashion behemoths, need to simply stop producing hundreds and thousands of pounds of unwanted clothes.
According to a 2016 Newsweek article, in less than 20 years, the volume of clothing Americans toss each year has doubled from 7 million to 14 million tons, an astonishing 80 pounds per person. The Environmental Protection Agency says that 84 percent of those unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator.
James thinks there should be regulated caps on the amount of discarded clothes that apparel companies create. And while sustainability initiatives are being touted by luxury conglomerates and fast fashion retailers alike, James thinks the industry has not made much, if any, progress since she started four years ago. “It was a small group then, and it’s a small group now” when referring to designers who are genuinely creating sustainable and ethical business models. “I think brands need to be cautious about making blanket statements, creating one sustainable sweater is not enough to lay claim to being a sustainable brand.”
How does James address the matter of waste when she is in the business of creating things? She communicates to her customers her design philosophy of keeping as many shapes and styles for as many seasons as possible, and promotes that shape for several years so customers won’t buy something that’s “out of fashion” a year later. By encouraging consumers to buy products that they can have for years and that becomes part of their intuitive style DNA, her hope is that her customer won’t feel inadequate and succumb to the pressure of having to buy something new all the time. She believes in making something in a way that it will be able to live on and survive and become a vintage piece.
It’s not surprising that James values a personal attachment to things and surrounds herself with memories and only the items she truly loves. Her most cherished possessions are driven by nostalgia – childhood teddy bears and a photo album she compiled from seventh to eighth grade.