Aurora James Unravels Her Own Story

The Brother Vellies designer and Fifteen Percent Pledge founder gets candid about the fashion industry in her new memoir.

by Kate Dwyer

the designer Aurora James sits at a table covered in baskets and flowers
Courtesy of Brother Vellies

When Aurora James was a child, she and her mother would make “seed bombs” out of wildflower seeds, clay and dirt. If they drove past an abandoned lot or grassy industrial area, they would yell “seed bomb” and throw one of their creations into the field, knowing that “a couple of weeks later, there would be a whole patch of really beautiful wildflowers,” the Brother Vellies designer and Fifteen Percent Pledge founder said in an interview. “My mom would always talk to me about making sure that you view anything that seems barren or forgotten as an opportunity for growth. And to always remember to bloom in unexpected places with reckless abandon.” Those memories are the inspiration for the title of her memoir, Wildflower, out now.

James started the project in 2020, when Libby Burton, an editor at Penguin Random House, reached out after an NPR appearance. “If it weren;t for having a really wonderful editor coax me into believing that my story was valuable enough to tell, I don’t know that it would have happened,” James said. For two years, she took one week off every month to write in her apartment in Brooklyn, her house in Los Angeles, and on vacations in the Caribbean, where she spent a dark chapter of her childhood. “There are some stories that were really difficult to tell,” she said. “So often in fashion, we spend a lot of time trying to maintain our own costume of identity, and make sure that our mask is on straight or everything’s buttoned up. I had to do a lot of unbuttoning and unraveling of things that have happened in my life in order to be honest and vulnerable.”

The resulting memoir covers everything from James’ wayward childhood to the early days of Brother Vellies, the founding of the Fifteen Percent Pledge and dressing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the Met Gala in 2021. With both Brother Vellies and the Fifteen Percent Pledge, she asked, “What does it mean to take these people who have been not just underrepresented — but historically excluded — and involve them in what you’re doing in a way that’s not only the right thing to do, but also really good business?” In her book, she looks inward and reflects on finding ways to excel despite being set up to fail.

How did you choose which stories to share on the page? Or how much to share?

I really wanted to be honest about a lot of the not-great moments. There are a lot of stumbles in my book. I say stumbling is actually evidence of momentum, because they give you the opportunity to pick yourself back up and perhaps pivot what you're doing or rethink your strategy. That’s what makes the dream larger, and what makes the process more real, more vivid, more textural and more honest. If you can build off of what you know to be true — the good, the bad, the ugly — you’re going to end up with a more authentic experience. I started Brother Vellies because I wanted to celebrate artisans, specifically in Africa, but also all across the world. That is how I mark my own success, versus other people who are like, “I want to break glass ceilings, I want to have an IPO.” Creating my own parameters and goalposts for success that feel important to me — versus what's important to society — has been critical. Those things have evolved based on the experiences that I’ve had in my life.

Early on in the book, you talk about how the word “sustainable” wasn’t part of the fashion lexicon when you first started Brother Vellies. How has the conversation around sustainability changed in the decade since?

The concept of someone even tracking their carbon footprint was non-existent at that time, and people would still make these passive, dismissive comments about anything I said in the sustainability realm. And I think that’s because it was threatening — people push back on the things that they feel like are going to threaten their own safety and their way of life. Not necessarily because they're opposed to the idea, but because they feel scared. But in reality, what we really need to do is dispel that fear by having honest conversations and collaborating on how to get to the next chapter together.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Another recurring theme throughout the book is the difference between founders with and without resources. Could you tell me about some of the opportunity gaps in the fashion industry?

The thing that's important for everyone to understand with small business in general is: you’re only going to get investors if there’s an exit opportunity for the business. Because there are so few exit opportunities in fashion, traditional investors, venture capital, and private equity are going to shy away from it. The ways in which people end up raising money are most commonly “friends and family,” or other family offices that are endeared to that person in some way. Within the world of investments and finance, there's also a level of founder bias that happens. There are these archetypes of what founders look like and how they act and what they do and how they spend their time. When you play extremely outside of that, you know, there are going to be fewer opportunities.

“Bart Soloman” [a pseudonym] — who loaned Brother Vellies money that became increasingly difficult to pay off — is one of the antagonists of your memoir from a narrative perspective. Can you talk about the broad strokes of your agreement with this person? And the prevalence of these financial arrangements in the fashion industry?

It’s extremely common, and no one wants to talk about it. And unless it changes, we are going to continue to have issues in the fashion industry because we’re not going to be able to have young designers sustain their businesses. It's becoming less and less common that you can see a designer come up with a lot of fanfare, and then keep their business alive and thriving for 10 years, if they’re someone who came from Boise, Idaho, or whatever.

How did you end up resolving the situation?

I had to pay him a lot of money and it was extremely painful. He’s still doing his thing. It’s a bummer, because what he’s doing is not illegal, so it will probably continue on, unless we are diligent about creating other financial opportunities that are non-predatory from people who truly just love the arts.

If you love the arts, and you’re a philanthropist, or you have a family office, what are the systems that you can put into place to be a little bit more supportive? There are only a handful of actual fashion investors who are true garmentos, who are able to go in and help a fashion business do their thing. Young designers don’t know what they don’t know. Even for me, I created a brand with $3,500 at a flea market with African artisans. Don’t get me wrong, I worked my ass off, and I have a successful business now, but bootstrapping is hard and statistically, basically, impossible.

In Kenya, Morocco, and South Africa, how have the workshops collaborating with Brother Vellies grown? What has the impact been in the communities?

Every time I went to South Africa, I would notice more bikes, and then there were cars, and then some of the people were actually leaving and starting their own businesses. My mom used to say to me, “You can give a man a fish and feed him for a day, or teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” That narrative is so important when it comes to engaging with different communities. And it’s a continued narrative with the Pledge. During 2020, everyone was sort of making these broad donations [in support of Black Lives Matter], and I thought, Maybe a donation isn’t what we need. Maybe it's just an opportunity. Viola Davis very famously said, “talent is distributed equally, but opportunity and access are not.”