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: