ring (left), $85, Misho. Photography by Royal Gilbert
As the founder of Brother Vellies and the Fifteen Percent Pledge, the Canadian-born entrepreneur and activist is shaping the future of economic equality. Meet the fashion industry’s number one disrupter.
When her first book, Wildflower: A Memoir, hits shelves next month, Aurora James will be doing more of what she does best: empowering others while infusing the world with optimism. “You can totally mess up everything and still have the exact life you want,” declares the Canadian-born fashion entrepreneur and activist on a Zoom call from Los Angeles. “I dropped out of high school and got kicked out of Ryerson [now Toronto Metropolitan University] — both signs that were not pointing to me being one of Glamour’s Women of the Year,” she says, referring to an honour bestowed on her in 2022. (She was also named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2021.) “But you can’t count yourself out. We spend so much time thinking that we’re just too bruised to be the thing that we want to be or do what other people are doing, and it’s entirely untrue. Your own unique set of experiences actually makes you the perfect person to do the thing you want to do.”
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As we chat, the 38-year-old appears effortlessly fresh-faced and energized. She has just spent Martin Luther King Jr. Day contacting and announcing the 10 grant semifinalists of her game-changing non-profit organization, the Fifteen Percent Pledge (15PP). James’s life, like the lives of so many others, was drastically altered in May 2020. As North America reeled amid the racial disparity following the death of George Floyd and citizens on both sides of the border were looking for a way forward to greater equality, her now-historic Instagram post created seismic change in a flash. In it, James put forth a simple ask: that a handful of major retailers commit 15 per cent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. She chose that number because it represents the percentage of Black people in the U.S. population. “When an institution is broken, you have a few options: You can leave it as it is, you can try to burn it down or you can try to rebuild it,” she says. “So, how do you use that structure to lift up more people?” With that goal in mind, 15PP was born. Having since gathered commitments from 29 notable retailers, including Hudson’s Bay, Indigo and Sephora Canada, 15PP has become one of the fastest-growing social-justice non-profit organizations while redirecting $10 billion in revenue to BIPOC-owned brands. But the effort it takes to reform a retailer with upwards of 80 stores plus a robust online business is not lost on James. “The Bay taking the 15 per cent pledge was big for them because it’s a lot easier to just not do it,” she acknowledges. “The Bay has to confront all these different things that, quite frankly, are painful. That first step is really what it’s about, because so many people are afraid to take it.”
Forward-thinking, fearless leaps and a love of fashion are part of James’s DNA. She recalls bantheplasticbag.org as one of the first URLs she bought as a teenager. “That was a lifetime ago, but sustainability and thoughtfulness around consumption have always been really important to me,” she says. James, whose father passed away when she was a young girl, was raised in Mississauga, Ont., by a single mother who instilled in her a deep appreciation for sartorial craftsmanship. “My mom was adopted at birth, and she spent a lot of time trying to understand different cultures through apparel,” James says. “She would collect all kinds of different things, like Japanese kimonos, Danish clogs and cowboy boots. She would talk to me about them — why they were made and how their materials were sourced. She really taught me about fashion almost through an anthropological lens of understanding different groups of women — where they came from and how they use clothing and accessories as tools of communication.”
Jeanne Beker is another female figure who played a key role in James’s journey. Watching Fashion Television, hosted by Beker, was a regular family affair in James’s house. “The way that Jeanne covered fashion, she was very serious about it, like a war correspondent backstage,” says James. “That was really when I felt that fashion was something I would likely spend large swaths of my life working on.” Years later, Beker and James would connect IRL at a Yorkville gym in Toronto, where James worked the front desk. Their casual conversation led to Beker’s offer of an internship, which landed James behind the scenes of the iconic show. “Canada really nurtured the fashion lover in me and made it happen,” she says.
In 2013, James founded the Brother Vellies accessories brand with $3,500 of her savings. Her premise was to create sustainable jobs for African artisans by featuring traditional African design practices and techniques at the luxury level. “For me, at least, it’s so much better to find joy in community and to win together,” she says. “I’ve always had a tough time advocating for myself. I do a lot better advocating on behalf of others.” She started selling her designs at a New York City flea market and just two years into her venture was named a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards winner. The $300,000 award, plus a year of mentoring, elevated James’s brand on every level. “When you’re an entrepreneur, you throw your heart and soul into it,” she says. “I was probably working 18 to 20 hours a day. Half the time would be spent on my business and the other half on part-time jobs to be able to cover my bills.”
These days, her work hours are just as hefty as she splits her time between L.A. and NYC. But the tasks that demand her attention have evolved. Last December, in a full-circle moment, James was elected one of the vice-chairs of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), along with Nepali-American designer Prabal Gurung. In addition to creating opportunities for new designers to enter the fashion space, her to-do list includes helping shape the future of luxury. “With the rise of the conscious consumer, our standards are changing,” she says. “We’re really starting to redefine luxury under a new set of criteria. It’s not just about interlocking letters anymore.” The exclusionary era of branded logos and the values behind them is over — a message loudly broadcast by the Brother Vellies gown emblazoned with “Tax the Rich” that James designed for Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the 2021 Met Gala. For James, who counts Christopher John Rogers and Canada’s Greta Constantine among her fave labels, ensuring that people are paid sustainably and fairly, leaving the planet in better shape than you find it and advocating for the rights of consumers and the community are integral to her definition of a modern luxury brand. “In our company, it’s something that we’re always going to be working on,” she says. “People are always going to want to buy things. I just want to make sure that consumers have more positive options.”
James’s impact on the lives of others is only destined to amplify, especially with the first Fifteen Percent Pledge Achievement Award given out this year. Five Black business owners, including Christina Funke Tegbe of beauty brand 54 Thrones and red-carpet hitmaker Sergio Hudson, received nearly $400K in grant support to scale and grow their companies. “It’s really difficult for people to become successful entrepreneurs and even more difficult for Black Americans, people of colour and women,” James says. “Trying to do anything that we can to level that playing field is critical.” This latest initiative — celebrated during the star-studded second annual gala in February with a dress code of black tie and Black designer — underscores James’s biggest accomplishment to date. “I’ve talked to a lot of those women,” she says, referring to the growing number of Black female founders who have raised a million dollars or more in venture capital in recent years, “and they tell me how much the pledge has impacted their business, their access and their opportunities. Knowing that the work the team’s doing is actually driving change — that part is everything to me. Having actual receipts for the work is really what I’m most proud of.”
James hopes that sharing her own challenges in Wildflower: A Memoir will provide inspiration and guidance while encouraging perseverance. “Part of the reason I wrote my book is so that people can track the journey of my life — see how I did it — and maybe learn both what to do and what not to do,” she says. The book’s title serves as a gentle call to action, summoning others to reach their full potential. “It’s about being able to bloom in places where no one would ever expect it, under the harshest climate, and blooming in your own way,” she says. “Be wild about it, because it’s your own personal self-expression. That’s really where the beauty of life is.”
Photography by ROYAL GILBERT. Creative direction by GEORGE ANTONOPOULOS. Styling by TIMOTHY LUKE GARCIA. Hair by JACOB AARON DILLON. Makeup by UZO for A-FRAME AGENCY/NARS. Photo assistants: HUEY TRAN and TIMOTHY FERNANDEZ. Fashion assistants: ALEC MALIN, BROOKLIN PHELPS and ANYESE KIRKLAND. Producer: NALIMA TOURÉ.
The full April 2023 issue will be available March 20. Click here to learn more.