Hello, and welcome to Be Your Own Boss! From time to time, I will be interviewing business owners about what it’s like to run a company, and I’ll be focusing on sharing the stories of founders who are female, non-binary, or minorities. We’ll discuss how they started their company, the struggles and the rewards, and what steps you can take if you’re interested in entrepreneurship, too, and want to be a CEO some day.
Our first interviewee is Aurora James, founder of Brother Vellies, a shoe and handbag line that practices sustainable fashion. James, who is from Canada, founded the company when she saw artisanal workshops in Africa closing down and wanted to support them and the traditional African items they made. What started out as an order of 20 pairs of desert boots known as “vellies” turned into a whole range of slides, clogs, boots, and handbags. Brother Vellies practices sustainability by using leathers and furs that are byproducts of Africa’s food industry. The company sources leathers locally and dyes them with vegetable dye to reduce the production’s environmental impact. Read on to learn about James’s dedication to sustainable practices and how she wants to change the fashion industry for the better.
SHRIYA SAMAVAI: Hi, Aurora! I wanted to start out by asking what you were like when you were younger. Were you interested in business? Or were you more the creative type?
AURORA JAMES: I was definitely both. My mom is a landscape architect and an architect, so she’s done a really great job at balancing the creative side and also the business end of it. The thing with architecture is that you’re being creative, but there needs to be that structure. She taught me about creativity and the inner structure of fashion. When I was in grade six I started a babysitters’ club. I didn’t babysit, but I got other girls to babysit! I organized all the marketing materials, and met with the [school’s] principal to get her to agree to send our pamphlet out to all the kindergarteners. So I’ve always been a little entrepreneurial. I also outsourced all my chores. I had to mow the lawn every week, and I outsourced all of my chores to [a classmate] for half the price. So I definitely had that side of me! At the same time, it made me a little bit disenfranchised from high school. My mom always taught me to question authority, and to question what people are telling you, so that made it difficult for me in high school. I always thought, Who are you really to be telling me that?
There are 13 grades in Canada, and when I was in grade 12, I realized I could drop out and finish by correspondence, so I did that. My mom was disappointed because she really values education. But I realized it wasn’t an environment I could learn in, and I really wanted to be more hands on. I started interning when I was 14—and that was before The Hills and TV shows where that was shown. I wanted to started doing the things that I planned to do with my life. So I dropped out of high school and then I went to college and dropped out of that, too. I was interning at [Canada’s] Fashion Television, and I felt like I was learning more there so I was putting more effort into that.
I read that you were a model agent and a curator, and you just mentioned that you worked in television production. How did all of these jobs lead to you becoming a designer?
When I was little, 13 or 14, I was a model—as much as you can do when you’re a tiny child. I said to my agent, “I really actually would prefer doing what you’re doing instead of modeling.” So I interned in the summers during high school there, and then they hired me when I was taking breaks from college. It was really informative because I realized at that point really what the fashion industry was, what it was doing, and what it had the potential to do. I was seeing it from a lot of different angles. When I was in high school I also suffered from an eating disorder, so I was seeing that side of it—how women feel a lot of pressure based off what they see in fashion and media. I was the same age as these girls who were modeling, and a lot of them moved to big cities at a young age by themselves and knew no one, had no family with them. Sometimes they’d make a lot of money, and sometimes it was nothing. But in a way, these girls were like modern-day Cinderellas. They are given a lot of opportunity, and so I saw that positive side. You have a girl who just wants to take care of her family and now they can give them a better quality of life. That, for me, was really special to see, and I wanted to focus on that. How can this industry that I care about so much actually empower people around it instead of making people feel like how I felt in high school, when I felt like I wasn’t good enough?
How did Brother Vellies start? Had you been thinking about it for a long time, or did it materialize on its own?
I wasn’t really thinking about it. In my early 20s, I didn’t have anything really, and I would go to St. Vincent de Paul, a donation store in Los Angeles, and I’d wait for J Brand to send over their reject denim every week. I would get those and fix them and sell them to a consignment store on Melrose called Wasteland, and that was how I paid my rent. My focus was always taking things day by day, but I was always a dreamer and I always worked really hard. I ended up moving to New York and had a bit more money and was traveling a bit. So I started traveling to Africa, and that’s when I started seeing a lot of the traditional things that they were making with the traditional skills they had.
I went to one workshop and they said they were losing their jobs because the shoe workshops locally were closing down. And I said, “Well, I think what you’re making is amazing.” It was a shoe called a vellie, which is a traditional African desert boot that Clarks based their desert boot off of. But it’s actually an African shoe. I was really inspired by that, and I was so sad that they were losing their jobs. A lot of times what was killing it too was donated American products. A lot of those companies that say, “When you buy this, we’ll donate one to a poor person in Africa,” when they go and dump a bunch of product in Africa, they kill their local economy. So all of these workshops in Africa were really suffering. It kills their local traditional cultural apparel, so it obliterated their traditional industry—which is another dark side of the fashion industry. I have been trying to balance my true love of this art form with a lot of the damage that fashion has done on a larger scale.
I really didn’t want these guys to lose their jobs, so I said, “Let’s change a few aspects of the shoe and we’ll do it in a new color of leather and I’ll buy 20.” And then I took those and sold them at the Hester Street Flea Market in New York. Then I took that money and had them make more shoes for me.
So it grew very organically for you then?
Yes, and I’m still doing that. It was basically the same thing I was doing when I was selling jeans. Because I didn’t have any money, whatever I had was all I had to work with. So if someone wanted something and I didn’t have anymore, I would sell it as a pre-order and they’d have to wait for a long time to get it. We only make a certain amount because it’s a slow process; we’re self-funded, and I’m able to go to Africa and make these in a certain way because I run my company and I don’t have to deliver epic profits to a crazy board of investors every year.
Did you fundraise or was it more of a bootstrapping process for you?
I did do a fundraiser one time—it was the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund. But you already have to be pretty successful to get into the Fashion Fund. I was still tiny when I got in—I was definitely one of the smallest businesses out of the 10 of us. I applied to the fund but actually I didn’t think I’d get in. I wanted to apply because I figured if I applied, someone at Vogue would have to look at my application and see my shoes. I had sent them to Vogue once but they told me that my shoes were only for women, not for men. So I thought, OK these people don’t really like me. But you never give up—just because someone tells you something doesn’t mean that they’re right. It goes back to how I felt with my teachers. Just because someone tells you that the sky is blue doesn’t mean you can’t say, “Actually, it’s cerulean!” But you definitely still have to have respect for people who know more than you, and that’s something I’ve always had.
How many people do you have working for you now?
I have four people.
So it’s still a pretty small operation then!
Yeah, it’s just four people in New York, and we have our production manager who’s in Geneva, but she’s actually paid for by the United Nations.
Where is your production based?
We manufacture in South Africa, Kenya, Morocco, Ethiopia, Italy, and Haiti. And our production manager travels to all the workshops. The UN also goes into make sure that all the workers are being paid a living wage and are of age to work. They handle any of the problems that may arise there.
How did the UN get involved?
I sent them an email!
I’m a big cold-emailer—that’s the thing to know about me. I cold-email everyone. I guess people’s email addresses and send them an email! What’s the worst thing that could happen? They don’t respond? OK, people haven’t responded to me my whole life!
Earlier you mentioned wanting to change the industry for the better, that you weren’t seeing representations of yourself. How do you see yourself doing that today?
I think continuing to make things that you believe in is really important. For me it’s also about educating my customers—saying, there’s a reason why things at Forever 21 are $3. When something is $3, someone else is paying for that, and they’re paying for that with their lives. What happens in Bangladesh is really real! I’ve also seen some pretty messed up stuff in Africa. There’s a lot of companies that produce in a lot of countries and they don’t talk about it. So, if something is really cheap, it was paid for on the back of someone else. We all love fashion, so how do we approach it in a way that’s more sustainable? Is it about wearing more vintage, reworking vintage, or buying things that we love and wearing them more regularly? I don’t get the whole thing where it’s like “that’s from last season.” You buy something that you love, and if it’s designed well it should last you for a really long time! The desert boots I made our first season—I wear those all the time, and they’re five years old!
I know very few people who continue to wear items from that long ago that have remained in good condition.
If you think about people you know—and the older you get the easier it becomes—but the people you know for five years and see wearing the same thing every single year, those are the people who have a true, core personal style. Like Grace Coddington—she wears the same thing all the time, and she always looks amazing. Figure out the things that you see and you think, “I love this, and I want it to be a part of me!” Even our Dhara sandals, which are furry, everyone says they’re so trendy, but I’ve been wearing those for three years.
What do you think young people can do to work toward starting their own businesses?
Interning is really important, and there should be a lot of value placed on that. It’s important to choose internships where you’ll actually learn a lot—don’t go for the internships where you think you’ll be an Instagram star. It’s such a great opportunity to learn, that’s my number-one piece of advice. Find the brands and the companies you love and support and do your best to support them the best that you can. Whether it’s on social media, or however. There’s more that you can do that’s not monetary. Anytime you see a company that’s sustainable, it’s hard! It’s not easy to make these choices. We all need support especially from young people. I’m such a huge believer that young people are really going to be the ones paving the way for more sustainable business practices. Everyone around me is like, “No one cares about sustainability.” But as long as young people do, we can’t give up! ♦