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Spring Training with Brother Vellies designer Aurora James

May 16 2016

Aurora in ChromatAurora in the Neoprene Sports Bra and Accelerator Bungee Pant

We first crossed paths with Aurora James–Creative Director of Brother Vellies–when Chromat and Brother Vellies were nominated for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2015. Aurora and Chromat founder Becca McCharen were the only 2 female designers in the top 10–and they instantly bonded.

 
Brother Vellies was founded by Aurora with the goal of introducing the rest of the world to her favorite traditional African footwear, while also creating and sustaining artisanal jobs within Africa. A Toronto native, Aurora has assumed different roles within the fashion industry, from model agent to curator and now Creative Director of Brother Vellies. Currently based in Brooklyn, James’ travels to Africa–particularly South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Morocco–every few months to work with the local artisans, experience the diverse culture of the continent and discover new inspirations for the brand.
 

With spring in full bloom, Aurora took Becca, photographer Lanee Bird and makeup artist Kerrie Bearcat Murphy on a tour of the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, and talked to Becca about working out (in Chromat SPORT of course), Fashion Fund memories, diversity in the fashion industry, and her experiences empowering others.

Becca McCharen: I’m in awe of how you have created a world where you do not compromise in sustainability, empowerment and development of Africa. I felt this way when I watched you walk up to the stage to win the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund–no one deserves this award more than you. You are making such a huge difference, not only in the lives of the people working in the Brother Vellies factories, but also to people like me in Brooklyn who are inspired by your belief in helping others and being the change they want to see in the world.
Where did you go on your very first trip to Africa?
Aurora James: My very first trip to Africa was Morocco actually. It's Northern Africa so it's a little different than the experience people traditionally associate with ‘Africa’, but it was amazing. I celebrated my birthday dancing in the medina with champagne and tambourines. I think that’s when I fell in love with Africa.
Are there any women in your life that inspire you? 
In New York our entire team is comprised of women. Granted, we have a small team, but its all female energy all day, which is really refreshing from a lot of the environments we’ve all found ourselves in previously. Honestly, its the women I meet for the first time in a lot of cases that inspire me. Women who introduce themselves on the street or a new friend you meet at a weekend BBQ. Sharing and hearing stories of womanhood is always an otherworldly experience for me.
Who were some of your female role models when you were growing up?
My Mom. She is incredibly smart and creative. I have always looked up to her. She is the woman I always wanted to be.

You just starred in the Amazon Prime unscripted series The Fashion Fund. What has your experience been sharing your work through that medium?
When we were all recording that show I basically resigned to forget about the cameras and just be myself. I think if I had tried to be or come across a certain way, it would have been really torturous and at the end of the day I’m running a business and really didn’t have time to overanalyze how my actions might play out on tv. They say one of the most amazing things about having a partner in life is having someone to bear witness to your actual lived life. I am grateful that the show was there to capture a 4-month period of my life that I will never forget.
Aurora James, Becca McCharen and Kanye West at the CFDA/ Vogue Fashion Fund Chateau Marmont Runway Show
What is one new perspective or piece of advice that you gained specifically during the Fashion Fund experience?
To listen to your own gut. DVF told me she thought my store was wonderful and the location was great. Andrew Rosen said I needed to pack up tomorrow and move my store to Soho immediately. I think if anything, I really learned that everyone has to take their own path in life. Its good to bounce ideas off of others and get advice from time to time, but ultimately we got ourselves here and we have to get ourselves through everything else. If I listened to 90% of the people who gave me advice along the way, I wouldn’t be producing sustainable accessories in Africa that's for sure. I’d be making silk blouses and lace dresses in China. Also cool. Just not for me.
Aurora in Chromat Yoko Top
In conversation with Man Repeller, you said "I have a great deal of respect for women in certain countries in Africa where women have to defy cultural norms and become the breadwinner, or take on work they wouldn’t traditionally perform. The daughters of these women are also seeing what they are capable of doing and being in the future, which is incredibly powerful."
Through your work in Africa, you are helping women gain skills and education. When did you realize you had the power to empower others?
My Grandmother always fostered children in Africa when I was growing up, they were my pen pals which was very cool. I saw the effect that her support had on them firsthand. Later in life I worked at a modeling agency and was very much in awe by how that industry could totally transform the lives of woman. Farming in a small village in Burkina Fasso one day and then walking a runway and supporting her community with her earnings the next month. There have been some insane rags to riches stories from that industry that I found incredibly inspiring. Working at the agency was the first time I saw fashion change people’s lives on such a grand scale.
You told Glamour Mag "growing up, I didn't see a lot of people that looked like me. Scary Spice was the only one, and she had a special place in my heart." How do you think the fashion/media industry is changing and how do you think it's staying the same?
Its changed a lot I have to say. Literally her and Lisa Bonet were the ONLY celebrities I saw that I related to. Now there are so many young inspiring African American and mixed women on television–Zendaya, Amandla, Solange, Misty Copeland. I think it's the fashion industry that is the slowest to be honest. They still fetishize everything. So one season certain ethnicities are more 'in' than others, hair types, etc. It's actually quite disturbing.
If you weren't in the fashion industry, what other profession could you see yourself in?
Probably gardening, working with plants. I built school gardens for a year before starting Brother Vellies which was amazing. You know, life is short and long at the same time. Who knows what the future holds. I have a lot of dreams for the future. I think being a Mother is also an amazing profession too, by the way.
What's your favorite music to work out to?
Hmm… I typically am victim to whatever they are playing on the speakers at Equinox. But if I were choosing I might go with late 90's Jay Z or even early Kanye. Working out is actually really the only time I would listen to rap music.
What's your workout routine?
I have an amazing trainer who has a background in yoga. We do a lot of resistance work and circuit training. I am trying to be stronger, that is the goal. I want to be a ninja.
What article of clothing or way of presenting makes you feel powerful?
Shoes always.
What is your favorite Chromat piece and why?
Super into the mesh sports bra which is simultaneously sexy and functional. Which is sort of an anomaly. I need more Chromat in my life.
Neoprene Sports Bra
What would you say has been your biggest accomplishment thus far?
Being alive and happy. It's not easy to be happy. It alludes many, many people. Things happen to all of us in life and it takes a great deal of courage to put those things aside and be your best person everyday and be as grateful as your heart can be. I can honestly say I am genuinely and truly happy and I’m incredibly proud of that.
What projects are you interested in exploring in the future?
A Brother Vellies & Chromat collaboration.

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Photos by Lanee Bird
Makeup by Kerrie Bearcat

Chromat's Conversation series highlights the voices of women who are shaping the world with their creativity and ingenuity.