There's a pervading sentiment among many young fashion arbiters that involves making the world not just a more beautiful place, but a better place as well. Helping to lead the charge is Aurora James, a Brooklyn-based designer from Mississauga, Ont.who's turning heads in New York with her innovative approach to exotic footwear. The 31-year-old former Ryerson University student was recently announced as one of 10 finalists for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund – an honour that will mean a $400,000 (U.S.) prize to the top winner, with two runners up fetching $150,000 (U.S.) each when the awards are presented in November.
Given that hundreds of applicants having vied for this attention, James says that she's amazed the Brother Vellies label (which she founded in 2013) made the cut, though when it comes to both originality and a compelling story, it's not that hard to understand why. All handmade in South Africa, Kenya and Namibia by traditional artisans, Brother Vellies footwear is inspired by the communities who help create it. And by employing these craftspeople, James is not only creating jobs and stimulating the local African economy, but also bringing a refreshing air of authenticity into the high-fashion arena. I spoke with James, who spent a summer interning with FashionTelevision a decade ago, about her escalating success, her Canadian roots and what she's actually gleaning from Anna Wintour.
What does being chosen as a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund prize mean to you?
It's crazy. I mean, literally 10 minutes ago Anna Wintour left my studio, which is insane! I always tell people I spent a summer in the tape library at FashionTelevision, watching all the behind-the-scenes stuff that never made it to air. When you watch all of this, and you're so young and you work so hard to do anything you can to be a part of this industry, and then you finally start making things and you just put it out there and hope that somebody likes it and you're going to be able to pay your bills somehow…to then have an organization like Vogue and the CFDA and people like Anna Wintour saying what you're doing is important and it has a place in the industry – well, it's all pretty insane and so humbling.
What did it feel like to be in the presence of Anna Wintour and what did you glean from your encounter today?
She was telling me to focus on some of the higher-fashion designs that I've done, like the Maasai sandal, which is all beaded by women in Kenya. I started with basic staples, like redoing desert boots and slides. That was the backbone of the company and those are the things that sold really well, so I had to maintain a focus on those items to keep my company alive. But now, to have Anna Wintour really push me on the more creative side of things and be really inspired by those pieces, that's amazing. You make a sandal like the Maasai and you wonder if anyone's ever going to wear it or like it. But to have someone tell you to keep going in that direction is really helpful. You have to listen.
We're at a time in fashion where we are all craving great originality because there's so much of the same that's around. So I can see how you putting out a sandal of that haute caliber would really inspire someone like Anna, who gets to see it all. And I guess that's what's necessary today when it comes down to cultivating young talent: They really have to be pushed to the limits.
Totally. And I think that for young people, it's about finding people early on who are going to support you and say, "No, that's not crazy. There is a place for this. Keep going."
Your mother was a landscape architect, so I imagine you were born with an inherent design sensibility. But you studied journalism for a while. Was designing something you always wanted to do?
I always loved design and I always had ideas for things that I wanted to make, but I had so much respect for all the designers that already existed in that space that I never entertained the idea that I was capable of anything on that level. I just respected them so much, I didn't want to insult anyone by trying. It sounds crazy, but that's where I was coming from. But you have to try and put something out there, and it's also really important to maintain respect for all the people who have done amazing things and just know your history and try to make sure that you're adding something more to the space. That's part of the reason I've decided to work with other communities in Africa.
Right off the bat, you were inspired to push your personal parameters. You wanted to design shoes, but it wasn't like you were going to Milan to study shoe design. You went to Africa. What inspired you to do that?
I feel like it's a very intuitive thing for someone who's from Canada, because Canada is such a mosaic instead of melting pot. People still maintain so much of their culture here. I've always been really inspired by that. I had friends from everywhere growing up, of all different ethnicities and religious backgrounds, and I always paid attention to those things that people did that were different from what I did. Also, I grew up with World Vision commercials on TV that were saying, "You can save a child for pennies a day…" and my grandmother always sponsored droves of children. But as I got older, I also realized that it's not a sustainable idea and that it would be much more beneficial to try and create jobs.
And that's exactly what you've done. Our taste for the unfamiliar in fashion really seems to have escalated with leaps and bounds these past few years. What do you attribute that to?
Through social media especially, people are just exploring so much more and becoming fascinated by things that they don't know. I think earlier on, people were scared by what they didn't know. But now, there's this voyeuristic element of being able to look inside other people's lives and at other cultures; we want to learn and embrace that. Brother Vellies has a store in Manhattan and people wander into the store all the time and say, "What's going on in here?" Because they can tell it's a little bit different and they're intrigued by that versus being like, 'Oh, it's not Abercrombie and I'm not going in.'
How particularly Canadian do you feel at this point in your life and career?
I'm the most Canadian. My operations manager is also Canadian, and my publicist is Canadian. And my art director is Canadian and still lives in Toronto. I am the great pusher of Canada to the point where it's like, 'Okay, calm down, girl.'
Why is that so important to you?
Because it made me who I am. I wouldn't be who I was if it wasn't for Canada. I lived in Jamaica for three years growing up and that was such a huge culture shock for me. Even moving to America was a huge culture shock for me. It was the first time I ever felt I actually had to categorize who I was. And I never had those confines in Canada, which doesn't put these sorts of boundaries and restrictions on you that growing up in New York tends to do to people. I'm really proud to be a Canadian.
This interview has been condensed and edited.