A couple of hours in to the Brother Vellies presentation, a few models were getting somewhat fidgety (who could blame them?) — but in their place throughout the crowd, a few attendees picked up the still slack. Aurora James, the founder and creative director of Brother Vellies, had carted in a rabble of butterflies to accompany her collection, and those with the patience of a statue were rewarded with a visit, one which landed atop one camera lens, another on a show goer’s red hat. The romantic symbolism of the butterflies’ flitting between perches at this presentation was not lost on us — as was stated in the collection’s press release, the show was about “the secret language of women,” nonverbal communication, and the “celestial beauty” of falling in love.
In line with its naturally romantic essence, the bags, shoes (and a fur poncho made with leftover fur trimmings that took 400 hours of hand weaving to create) were presented in hues of sand, stone, green, pink, with a touch of sparkle. Fans of the brand will note an expansion of the collection via the high heeled boot and over-the-knee boot, new shoe shapes for Brother Vellies.
The designer, who sources inspiration and produces her collection entirely in Africa, answers questions about her new collection, her business, and her ties to Africa here.
What’s new in the collection this season?
“I focused on a more elevated boot. We’ve never done a high heel boot before, and I was excited to bring in the over-the-knee boot, as well as some of the lower boot styles. We’re making all of the boots in Ethiopia, which I really love.”
How have you found your fashion business to be transformative?
“All of my collection is made by people in Africa, mainly by single mothers. It’s it about saying, how can you make something beautiful, in a really beautiful, empowering way? As artists, we all have a responsibility to leave a positive impact through our work. So it’s the shoe first, but then how can we take this and make this really amazing? Our leathers are mainly sourced locally, we use a lot of vegetable dying processes. That Springbok fur over there is an animal byproduct in South Africa. They eat the Springbok, so now we utilize the fur to make the boot. It’s really about creating other sources of income for people in Africa, too.”
Tell us about some of the success stories you’ve encountered from working with these African artisans.
“The embroidery [seen on the moccasin] was done by a group of women in Ethiopia that has been embroidering for themselves in their villages. Now that we’ve used that in the collection, we’ll go to production with it, which means that those women who were embroidering are now going to be teaching other women in their community how to embroider. A lot of times in these places in Africa, women never really see themselves as being able to earn an income, so many of them don’t continue with their education because they don’t see a point. So when the women in the communities are working, there becomes this trickle down effect with the daughters that are in that community as well, because they see their moms working and they say, ok, I can stay in school and potentially get a job in the future as well.”
Are you considering setting up anything formally when it comes to women’s education in Africa?
“In South Africa we make children’s shoes, and we use some of the money from the children’s shoes to help pay for our artisans’s children to go to a really amazing private school there. But for the most part it’s really about creating jobs for people so that people can support themselves. That’s been important.”
Last year, you won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, and gained a mentor in the process.
“I have an amazing mentor through the Fashion Fund, Neil Blumenthal, who is the founder of Warby Parker. He’s amazing. He’s an out of the box thinker, like I am. I think sometimes people are really stuck in their rigidity of what fashion is or what it’s supposed to be. and he’s like no, just do it like this, or keep going, and I think that’s good because we all need to challenge ourselves, especially because who knows what the future looks like. So much is changing right now.
Actually, my customers came to me online first. My online commerce is still the backbone of my company. My direct customers are still my biggest clients, which is different because a long time ago, a lot of designers had like, Bergdorf [Goodman] as their biggest client, so they were servicing Bergdorf all the time. Now we’re servicing our Instagram followers, because they have bigger purchasing power than any of our other wholesale accounts. That’s really transformative, That’s the reader, that’s who’s coming to us.”
Can you speak to your philosophy toward Africa and the balance of taking inspiration and giving in return?
“I think that it’s just really about a commitment, and there’s a lot of people who go to Africa for one season and do a capsule collection, and that doesn’t create a long term change. It has to be about going there and continuing to be there, and showing that you’re going to be reliable and not create a whole system and then let it collapse. The more time that I spend there, the more they begin to trust us. And I’m never going to take my production out of there. I’ve been asked to do collaborations where it hasn’t been produced in Africa, and I always say no, because to me, the shoes are rooted there, I take my inspiration from there, so they belong there. That’s first and foremost.”
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