This past Saturday, Aurora James, the founder of sustainable accessories brand Brother Vellies, was sitting on her porch and talking to a friend on the phone about the George Floyd protests sweeping through U.S. cities. The conversation quickly turned to more pragmatic ways in which the fashion industry could be of service, beyond the Black Lives Matter statements that were beginning to hit Instagram feeds.
“I had brands reaching out saying, ‘Hey, girl, how do you think we should handle this?’” James remembers. “You know, that kind of call-your-Black-friend energy. We were talking specifically about Target, and I said if we’re thinking about big retailers that are starting to offer solidarity with people of color, we hold a trillion dollars of spending power in this country. Black people represent 15% of the population, and so stores like Target should make sure they’re hitting 15% of Black-owned business on their shelves. If they agreed to do that in a major way, which isn’t even that major—it’s kind of the bare minimum, in fact—then a whole ricochet effect could take place. Why not try?”
Four days later, and the 15 Percent Pledge was a registered charity, with its central petition already accruing thousands upon thousands of signatures. “That’s what Black women can do when they put their mind to something,” adds James. “We’re just not usually empowered in situations where we are able to move and act this quickly.” By drawing up a list of major retailers from whom support for Black-owned businesses could bring about seismic change—including Whole Foods, Sephora, Shopbop, and Walmart—the three-step plan at the heart of the 15 Percent Pledge manifesto has already begun crossing the radar of corporations outside of fashion’s rarefied bubble.
If there’s one reason for James coming up with concrete solutions so quickly, it’s the ingenuity and conviction of her Brother Vellies philosophy, upheld since the brand was established in 2013. Founded on a series of progressive principles that include a central mission of sustainability, a commitment to honoring and fairly compensating African artisans and their traditional design practices, as well as a policy of no sales or discounts, Brother Vellies has become a shining example of a brand sticking to its ethics even as it has continued to rapidly scale.
At the end of April, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, James applied this lateral thinking to establish her Something Special service, providing limited-edition treasures from Oaxacan mugs to cloud socks on a monthly subscription for her community. “We were all in such a tough spot, and the only financial support that I got was through A Common Thread—I couldn’t get any business loans because I wasn’t eligible for any of them, and I knew I wouldn’t be,” she explains. “Ninety-five percent of Black businesses aren’t.” Another reason for James to embrace the subscription model is as a sustainable method of selling, with items made to order based on how many have signed up each month.
While the 15 Percent Pledge emphasizes the lack of representation for Black-owned businesses in nationwide stores, its impetus also stemmed from the challenges James faced as a Black woman establishing a luxury brand and navigating the upper echelons of the fashion industry. Even with Something Special, this was at the front of her mind. “My biggest fear in launching that program, if I’m honest with you, was that people were going to look down on it because it was a subscription model and therefore wasn’t considered luxury. The fashion industry is really tough, especially as a Black woman who’s selling a luxury product. There’s a lot of pressure on me personally as a designer to always stay in that space.”
All the same, it’s something that James has been pushing back on from the very beginning of her career. “There are so many systematic things that are put on Black women when we walk into any environment,” she continues. “We’re often viewed as slightly less than, which is why there are fewer Black women in our industry, because it’s extra hard for them. And so when I do something that isn’t typically considered luxury, I get a lot of feedback. I remember being told that I shouldn’t have a website, because luxury brands didn’t have websites back in 2013, but I needed to have a website because it was the only way that I could afford to run my business. I didn’t have the money to wait around to hope that Bergdorf was going to pick up my shoes.”
It’s this fearlessness and conviction that has made James such an important voice in American fashion—and given her track record of being a few years ahead of wider industry conversations, one that should be keenly listened to as the world of luxury gears up for an unprecedented sea change. “There has been a lot of talk over the past however many months about retooling the fashion industry and what that might look like in terms of sustainability,” says James. “But no one was really asking how people of color and Black people fit into these new business models in a really impactful way. People weren’t putting metrics on that.” It’s also visible in James’s impressively rapid work to get the 15 Percent Pledge program up and running, offering a practical solution for retailers within less than a week of the first Black Lives Matter and anti-racist protests that have now spread across the world.
One element of the project James is keen to emphasize is that it’s simply logical. “I’m not actually very radical,” she adds. “I consider myself a pragmatic optimist. I’m not out here telling fashion retailers that they need to do this tomorrow—I’m saying there are three particular steps they can take.” Indeed, the proposition of 15% of Black-owned businesses sitting on the shelves of major retailers as a direct reflection of U.S. demographics is really, as James previously put it, the bare minimum. “If you’re not hiring right now or you have a small team that’s not very diverse, that’s okay, just speak to that,” she continues. “Acknowledge where you’re at and say, moving forward, I’m going to make every single effort to make sure I am interviewing three Black candidates for every position from now on. This isn’t about cancel culture—it’s about holding each other accountable.”
As James so clearly puts it, the time when the fashion industry could insulate itself, or remain neutral or detached from politics, is now a thing of the past. “The real barometer of luxury today is the care that someone puts into something and the values that a brand stands for. I’m not afraid of it because I’m also not interested in entertaining anyone or creating for anyone that doesn’t value me as a human or my rights. I don’t want their money. I’m not a ‘sell the shoe at all cost’ type of designer, and I would never want to be. Life is too short for that.”
Source: Vogue Hope