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Aurora James launched accessories brand Brother Vellies in 2013.Jason Hardwick/Handout

Aurora James is not someone who does things in half measures. The Canadian designer launched accessories brand Brother Vellies in 2013 and, within two years, went from selling shoes at an indie flea market in Manhattan’s Lower East Side to winning a major industry grant worth US$300,000.

So it’s no surprise that James, now based in New York and Los Angeles, put that same fervour into a different undertaking a few years later. In May, 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and days after the murder of George Floyd, James posted a challenge on Instagram asking retailers to source 15 per cent of their products from Black-owned businesses, noting that Black people make up the same proportion of the U.S. population.

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Aurora James at the Fifteen Percent Pledge Gala. In May, 2020, James posted a challenge on Instagram asking retailers to source 15 per cent of their products from Black-owned businesses.Matteo Prandoni/

Less than three years on, 29 companies including major retailers in the U.S. and Canada such as Hudson’s Bay, Sephora and Indigo, have signed on to the Fifteen Percent Pledge. The organization, now a registered non-profit with James at the helm, gave away US$295,000 in grants in early February through its inaugural Achievement Awards for Black-owned businesses.

“It was so important to be able to actually give back in that way,” says James. After all, the money she received as a winner of the 2015 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund helped her business survive and grow, against many odds.

James remains clear on the challenges racialized entrepreneurs face, and in particular, women. A recent social-media post by Fifteen Percent Pledge, for example, points out that in the U.S. in 2021, Black women represented 42 per cent of new women-owned businesses but received only 0.34 per cent of the total venture capital spent.

And she views fashion as an especially tough field for starting a business. “Fashion is a really complicated industry,” says James. “It’s really hard to raise money in, because not that many people have an exit, there’s not a lot of opportunities for investors to get their money out.” What’s more, “People of colour have a harder time playing in that specific lane, because it’s not a lived experience that a lot of them had in their families growing up,” she says. “Often they tell entrepreneurs, ‘Oh, you should raise your first money from friends and family.’ But if they don’t have any money, then what are you supposed to do?”

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Springbok Erongo Vellies or 'Vellies' are the South African shoe that started it all.Handout

In her memoir, Wildflower, released this month, James chronicles her own financial challenges building and growing a fashion business. She founded Brother Vellies, which offers shoes and accessories made by artisans around the world, with just US$3,500, and faced a slew of setbacks. Stolen shipments, temperamental retailers and a contract with a “loan shark” all threatened the emerging brand – even as James was racking up industry accolades, and celebrities such as Zendaya and Nicki Minaj were slipping into Brother Vellies shoes for magazine shoots and red-carpet events.

She has told some of the stories that appear in Wildflower before – such as how James got her first break working at FashionTelevision when she met host Jeanne Beker during a shift as a receptionist at the Yorkville Club in Toronto. But others James is sharing for the first time.

“I realized that a lot of people were making assumptions and projections about my life and my story, which normally is fine, but because of the Fifteen Percent Pledge and Brother Vellies and so much of that work being about community and trying to inspire people to really follow their hearts and what they’re passionate about, it made the most sense for me to just be honest about the struggles that I’ve had in my own past,” says James. There were rocky years in her childhood, which included an abrupt move to Jamaica and time living with an abusive stepfather.

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Aurora James and her mother. James shares the relationship she has with her mother in her memoir, Wildflower.courtesy of Aurora James/Handout

She hesitated to share “the whole five first chapters, the whole beginning part, and also the relationship that I have with my mom,” says James, who was raised by her mother and grandmother. “My friends are all very fascinated with my mom, because for years, I’ve told them all of these anecdotal stories about how she would expose me to different pieces of art or ideas, religion, and the way that she did so much of it was really brilliant and inspiring from a parenting perspective,” says James. In the book, she recalls visiting Indigenous reservations in Northern Ontario with her mom and watching women doing beadwork, and thrift shopping together in Kensington Market in Toronto.

Fast forward to her life as a Black designer, entrepreneur and activist, and James is energized by the progress she has been made in her own career and more importantly, for Black entrepreneurs at large. So far, more than 600 Black-owned brands have been added to the shelves of participants of the Fifteen Percent Pledge. “Even when you walk into a Sephora, it looks so different than it used to look. Sephora in Canada committed 25 per cent of their shelf space to BIPOC-owned businesses,” says James. “I’m really proud of the opportunities that it’s created for other entrepreneurs that have historically been excluded.”

From the beginning, James wanted Brother Vellies to be a sustainable luxury brand that creates meaningful long-term employment for artisans. “I am really committed to making things that feel like they’re going to be able to live and exist in someone’s closet for a really long time, not just something that’s hyper trend-based that you’re going to have to throw out and you won’t be able to actually mend,” she says, such as the current Springbok version of the brand’s namesake shoe, which is handmade in limited quantities in South Africa.

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Ashley Graham, Aurora James, Emma Grede, Selby Drummond and Karlie Kloss at the Fifteen Percent Pledge Gala.Matteo Prandoni/

And there are other signs that things are continuing to move forward. In mid-April, James attended her friend Jerry Lorenzo’s first runway show for his luxe ready-to-wear label Fear of God. The star-studded event at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles included performances by musicians Sampha and Pusha T.

“I couldn’t help but think, this industry actually has come a long way, whether it wanted to or not,” says James. “It’s so amazing that he’s been able to build this brand as this Black man … and be in the city that he wanted to be in, instead of the city [New York] that everyone told him he needed to be in,” she said.

The fashion industry “has changed and is changing, because also society is changing,” says James. “So for people that don’t want to keep up with that, that’s their loss.”