LIFE

Aurora James Wears Heels on Airplanes, Not the Beach

The accessories designer packs light–except when it comes to shoes.


Jason Eric Hardwick

Aurora James produces all of the pieces for her footwear line Brother Vellies in Africa—so naturally, she’s on the road at least every other month for several weeks at a time to meet with artisans and get inspired. At this point, the designer has packing down to a science. “I usually pack thirty seconds before I’m out the door—as an accessory designer, I usually roll with like seven pairs of shoes, but it’s part of the fun. And about eight dresses. I never bring anything black with me,” she says. “Why would you travel and wear black? It’s like a waste of life. You have to bring color, you can wear black in New York.” Her key to traveling light? “I totally utilize the hotel’s cleaning services. It’s shocking to me how many people do not!”

On a recent trip to Punta de Mita, Mexico–as part of W Hotels partnership with the CFDA fashion incubator program–James shared even more of her travel secrets, from why she always wears heels on airplanes to her favorite treehouse in Africa.

We’re in Mexico now, but you’ve been on the road for a few weeks. Where are you coming from? Before Mexico, I went to Haiti to look at the artisanal skills there, and before that I went to Cuba and did the same thing. They have a totally different technique of beading in Haiti than they do in Kenya, which is really interesting, so I thought that was really cool. Their weaving is also really fantastic there. People always ask, “are you always going to make stuff in Africa?” And yes, 100%. I am always going to make things in Africa. But I am totally open to branching out to other countries that have artisanal skills that we could use. I’m really into working with people who are working with their traditions.

How often do you go to Africa? Like every two months. I now have a production manager, supplied by the UN. She’s in Africa all the time now on my behalf.

Where is your favorite place to go in Africa? That’s like trying to say who’s your favorite baby! I had one favorite place where I used to design all of my collections. It’s called Ngong House in Kenya, and it actually just closed down a few months ago. There has been so much bad press about Kenya lately, and the tourism has just shut down. It has forced a lot of the local businesses to close, so that’s a major bummer for me. It’s heartbreaking. There’s a series of treehouses on this property and I used to go and sit and design my collection for two weeks.

What is your travel secret? I totally utilize the hotel’s cleaning services. It is shocking to me how many people do not. As soon as I get to a place I try to unpack everything, so that it’s hanging. Also, all these hotels have steamers, you can always ask to borrow one and it only takes two seconds to steam something and it makes a world of difference. depends on how much time i have, I am usually packing 30 minutes before my flight.

What do you always bring with you? Fun dresses. I think I have eight dresses with me for two weeks. I never bring anything black, because why would you travel and wear black? It’s like a waste of a life. You have to bring color. You can wear black in New York. I have certain dresses, like a maxi dress with a slit all the way up the side, that you could never wear on the G train, but is amazing for Cuba or Punta de Mita. As an accessory designer, I usually roll with like seven pairs of shoes, too. You have to have flats, and you have to have heels, but who wants to be the girl in awkward five-inch heels on the sand? Everyone sees that girl, but no one wants to be her on vacation, so you have to bring a proper shoe selection.

Favorite mode of travel? I love helicopters in Africa. Especially on safari, you can look down at the most incredible animals. The little girl in me is always freaking out

What do you wear on a plane? I am the worst, because a lot of people are like I’m going to wear a one-piece velour snuggie. And I’m like really? I’m going to wear a dress and heels. Because yes, I know the flight exists and it’s real, but I’m kind of pretending that it is not happening. I just need to get off the plane and be ready to roll. I usually dress for what i’m doing immediately afterwards.

What’s your go-to travel shoe? Brother Vellies Lamu Sandals. I can dress them up or down, they’re easy, light and travel well.

And travel outfit: I have a slew of Simon Miller jeans that I pair with low heels and a vintage shirt. What’s your summer vacation destination? I have spent a lot of my summer so far in Los Angeles. You can typically find me by the pool at Chateau. Or in Venice at Cafe Gratitude. At night I sneak out to one of my favorite haunts, Pace in Laurel Canyon.

What are five essential beauty products when you travel? Argan Oil, Coconut Oil, Lucas’ Papaws, Fish Oil capsules, Bumble & Bumble Dry Spun

What’s your favorite swimwear brand? Chromat.

What’s a big packing mistake to avoid? Bringing a blow dryer – just let it live. Also, I guarantee the hotel has one if you’re that desperate.

What’s the best souvenir you have ever picked up on a trip? The Himba people in Namibia gave me a pot of the clay they use on their bodies once. I still have it, that was a very special gift. Favorite airport lounge or restaurant? The pfofferjets at Schipol

Airline with the best food? Trick question.

What’s your favorite hotel in the world and why? Giraffe Manor in Nairobi Kenya. Eating breakfast with Helen the giraffe remains among my top 10 favorite things to do. She’s getting progressively more demanding though. Can I eat?? Most luxurious hotel bathroom you’ve ever seen? Four Seasons Beverly Hills is no joke. But you also have to give it up for some of the safari bathrooms, the fact you can have a hot shower out there at all is pretty luxurious. Someone is basically boiling water over the fire for you. What’s something that always saves you when you are traveling? My ability to let go of what I ‘need’ is what saves me. I don’t need my phone, I don’t need to eat a certain way, drink coffee always or have that perfect shower. I just need to be present for the experience. Life is about the journey, not just the destination.

Read more travel tips from the CFDA Incubator designers here:

Secrets of the Jet Set: 10 Up-and-Coming American Designers Reveal Their Travel Tips

Aurora James produces all of the pieces for her footwear line Brother Vellies in Africa—so naturally, she’s on the road at least every other month for several weeks at a time to meet with artisans and get inspired. At this point, the designer has packing down to a science. “I usually pack thirty seconds before I’m out the door—as an accessory designer, I usually roll with like 7 pairs of shoes, but it’s part of the fun. And about 8 dresses. I never bring anything black with me,” she says. “Why would you travel and wear black? It’s like a waste of life. You have to bring color, you can wear black in New York.” Her key to traveling light? “I totally utilize the hotel’s cleaning services. It’s shocking to me how many people do not!”

Photo by The Coveteur, courtesy of CFDA and W Hotels.

Model-turned-fashion designer Thaddeus O’Neil is an avid surfer—and takes sunscreen really seriously. “It’s essential. Neutrogrena is one that I bring a lot. I use, like 60+ on my face, for sure. I also put zinc on my face, because when you’re out on the water the sun is so bright. I look almost tribal, covered in white.” Other travel essentials include a surfbord, lots of books (“I’m not really a kindle person.”), a journal, sandals, sunglasses, a hat, a watercolors set, and plenty of his own designs. “I wear my own brand 90% of the time,” he says. “Look at these pants! They’re made for travel.”

Photo by The Coveteur, courtesy of CFDA and W Hotels.

Korean-born, New York-based women’s wear designer Ji Oh lived in London for years—but her favorite place to shop is in Sweden. “Whenever I go to Paris for work, I go to Sweden for two or three nights to shop. I buy a lot of t-shirts. Like, a lot. They are really well made, the fabrics are amazing, and the cut is never off. In other countries, quality really varies depending on the price, but nothing is ever bad in Sweden.” She also likes to pick up little tchotchkes, such as keychains or bathing suits, when abroad. “They aren’t necessarily rare, but they are special to me!”

Photo by The Coveteur, courtesy of CFDA and W Hotels.

Molly Yestadt, the founder of luxury hat label Yestadt Millinery, always wears baseball hats and a scarf on a plane. “If I take a nap, I just pull the hat over my face and then you don’t get bothered!” she says. Yestadte also has advice for how to bring hats on a plane, without ruining them. “You can wear it, or put it in a tote under the seat in front of you or in an overhead compartment, or carry in a hatbox—which is fabulous! We also make packable pats, that can go in a suitcase with a t-shirt in the crown. It’s classic, but it’s stable and it works!”

Photo by The Coveteur, courtesy of CFDA and W Hotels.

Daniel Dugoff, the founder of New York-based men’s wear brand DDUGOFF, makes clothes for ”normal American guys who are interested in well-made products, but have a fairly casual lifestyle.” So it makes sense that his favorite mode is pretty low key. “I’m not really a yacht guy, I really like trains,” he says. “There’s something really nice about traveling from city center to city center, instead of taking a cab an hour outside of a city, waiting at an airport for two hours, and flying somewhere just to get back into a city.” Whether on a train or a plane, Dugoff likes to pack light. “I’m kind of an anxious traveler, so I try to bring as little as possible. I never check a bag unless I have to.” He had to make an exception for the trip to Mexico, though. “I wanted to bring a lot of sunscreen,” he laughed.

Photo by The Coveteur, courtesy of CFDA and W Hotels.

Jason and Julie Alkire, the design duo behind women’s wear label Haus Alkire, have been married for nearly twenty years—and in that time they’ve gotten their travel regimen down to a science. “We always take a carryon with some things in it on a plane. A fresh pair of clothes and the three things you each would need to get by for the full trip,” Jason says. “Just in case.” For Julie, that means a versatile Little Black Dress, of their own creation, a red MAC lipstick and “OG black chap stick, it’s like a lip primer,” and Bare Minerals foundation. “If your bag gets lost–you can throw on red lipstick look great.”

Photo by The Coveteur, courtesy of CFDA and W Hotels.

Women’s wear designer Charles Youssef worked for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Gareth Pugh and Cerruti before launching his eponymous collection in New York, in 2014. While running his own business keeps him local most of the time, the young fashion designer is lusting for an inspiration trip to Tokyo or Kyoto, to see the beautiful buildings and architecture. When abroad, he relies on a simple uniform of a “black t-shirt, some black pleated trousers and glasses.” For warm weather, he swaps out the pants for pleated shorts and packs extra grooming products. “I bring a lot of moisturizer, from Shiseido Men’s, and also use Neutrogena moisturizer with sunscreen in it.”

Photo by The Coveteur, courtesy of CFDA and W Hotels.

Alexandra Alvarez, the 29-year-old designer of bodysuit brand ALIX, designs a body-conscious product—but loves traveling in oversized pieces that still look chic. “On planes, I always wear a t-shirt; culottes, because they are big and comfortable but still look decent; a sweater; and close-toed shoes. If not, I have socks in my bags so I can change on the flight.” Once she arrives at her destination—she lives in a linen button-down shirt, tied at the navel. “The best one I ever got was at Massimo Dutti, in the men’s section. It was this white linen shirt—the best ever. I wore it all summer long last season, until the drycleaner misplaced it.”

Photo by The Coveteur, courtesy of CFDA and W Hotels.

Michael Miller and Katie Deguzman, the duo behind sustainable jewelry brand K/LLER COLLECTION, met as students at Parsons—and see eye to eye on just about everything. When asked about the one item they would never wear on a plane, both shouted in unison, “Heels.” “I made that mistake once,” Katie said. “But then again, I’d never wear Uggs either.” “I always wear drop crotch jeans, an oversized shirt, a giant scarf, and some sort of cool slip on shoe,” Michael added. “And tons of jewelry,” Katie said. “I love how you can now go through the 3-d scanner with all your jewelry on, and I don’t have to take it off!”

Photo by The Coveteur, courtesy of CFDA and W Hotels.

Tim and Dan Joo, the brothers behind accessories brand Haerfest, are always thinking about travel with their designs. “Our backpacks are for someone who has a coffee in one hand an an iPhone in the other,” Tim says. But they certainly understand the need to unwind and disconnect. In order to handle the New York grind, the brothers always add a day or two to a business trip, Dan explains, “to visit any museum or restaurants we wanted to go to. It’s all about work life integration.”

Photo by The Coveteur, courtesy of CFDA and W Hotels.
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