Random penguin house
Three years ago, fashion designer Aurora James created the 15% Pledge, urging retailers to dedicate 15% of their shelves to products made by Black-owned businesses.
The murder of George Floyd in 2020 had created a tidal wave in social justice. James also wanted to challenge corporations to commit to economic justice.
Since she started this quest, more than two dozen major retailers like Nordstrom, Macys and Sephora have signed up.
James is the designer of the Brother Vellies brand, luxury shoes she designed on a shoestring until sales took off.
“What most people don’t know is that I work with artisans around the world who have historically been excluded from fashion,” she told NPR’s Michel Martin. “So the people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Haiti and I are really working with them to do things that they’ve been doing for many generations.”
Fashion was familiar to James – she had a brief stint in modeling and worked for Fashion Television. She also embarked on a modern gardening business. When James met someone at this job who was wearing a pair of veldskoens, sports shoes made in South Africa, the trajectory of his future changed. Most South Africans call veldskoens “Vellies”, pronouncing the “V” like an “F”.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund awarded his brother Vellies the top prize in its annual competition in 2015. But while demand for his shoes was huge, James felt constantly in debt. She tells this story in her memoirs, Wild flower.
James said she only achieved her current success after years of jamming. Long before she established herself in the fashion world, she sold marijuana to make ends meet. After her mother married a man she believed abused her and her mother, she was forced to find her own way.
“I’m incredibly proud of everything I’ve managed to accomplish,” she said. “And not being completely transparent about how incredibly difficult it was would only do a disservice to other people doing the work who don’t have an easy path themselves.”
A condensed version of Michel Martin’s interview with Aurora James follows. It has been edited for clarity.
Michel Martin: You come from this atypical background. Let me put it this way: it’s kinda dazzling. And I just wonder if other people reacted like me when they found out that you really had to scratch and claw your way into everything.
Aurora James: You know, I think we spend so much time as humans straightening out our own identity suits, okay, to be presentable to others. And I think for me, there’s always been so much that I wanted to accomplish in my own life. And, you know, dropping out of high school, not getting into college – that I didn’t graduate from college at all, like I ended up behind bars at some point. Like, all of these things are not really conducive to being in the rooms I wanted to be in in this country. And I didn’t really want to let my past stumbles keep me from achieving what I knew I could achieve in the future.
One of the points you repeat over and over again in the book is that talent is spread all over the world. But access to resources to put them to use are not. And that seems like a lesson that you learned early on, but it’s also a lesson that you seem to want to talk about very candidly in a way that other people at your fashion level aren’t. And I just wanted to ask you how you came to this conviction?
Well, I think I spent so much time in museums. My mother always took me to museums. And we would even go to the native reservations and watch the women beading, okay. And she would tell them about the beadwork and what it meant to them and what level of expression it was.
And she told me this Nigerian proverb which says: “As long as the lion has no historian, the hunter will always be the hero. And she said, I want you to think about the most marginalized people in the world and the fact that their archives don’t exist in the books that you’re going to read, or even in many of the museum collections that you’re going to see in the way which they planned. And so you’re going to have to look for that.
And I think because, you know, I’ve consumed a lot of fashion media, we’ve all seen these ideas of Parisians, designers and all that. When I started traveling around Africa and seeing people making Vellies, the desert boots I work with, or carving beads out of cow bones, like for me, that level of artistry is everything as fantastic as what they do in Paris or what they do in Italy. And the only difference was really that it was colored hands in countries that we didn’t equate to luxury.
There are a few stories that stuck with me… Once you applied for a scholarship and one of the judges rejected your application because she said that the fact that some craftsmen could do the work at the house meant they could abuse their children, as if they could make them do the work. And you’re like, wait, what? You know that means they don’t have to hire babysitters… Then the other was later as your business got more developed someone who created a very expensive business loan for you that ended up costing you more than you got out of it.
My grandmother said “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. And I was always like, “Wow, that’s so dark.” But when you think about it as consumers, I also talk in the book about how the clothes donated by Americans actually killed nearly 70% of manufacturing across Africa. When I was younger, I was told to give all my clothes to, you know, “the poor people of Africa”. I remember doing that and the spring cleaning. And I had no idea that there would be all this American clothing in landfills there and it would kill their local manufacturing industry. LAW. It was well intentioned, but the end result was not good.
And so for me, it’s much more interesting to empower a community to make shoes, and then they can decide how they want to try to use their own resources that they have then.
As for something like the loan I took out, it was a $70,000 loan that cost me over a million dollars to get out of it. Really so depressing. The more I worked after the fact, the more I began to realize how commonplace this was and that women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color are the hardest hit by predatory lending.
And I think over the years a lot of people have really applauded this idea that I started this company with $3,500 and started and, you know, now vice president of the CFDA and all that jazz . And it sounds really good.
But when you look under the hood of what it really means to grow a small business in this country, it’s a lot more complicated, isn’t it? People tell you that you should fundraise from your friends and family. But what if you don’t have friends or family who can give you $10,000, $30,000, or $50,000? Where are you going to get it from? And who are the people ready to exploit this situation? And how can we create more structures in this country that will actually support small businesses in a meaningful way?
The audio version of this story was produced by Ana Perez and Shelby Hawkins. The digital version of this story was edited by Lisa Lambert.