The designer who's morphing African footwear into high fashion

Kanye West was there to see Brother Vellies, a line of shoes based on traditional African styles, make its debut at New York Fashion Week. Founder Aurora James tells Robin Givhan how and why she got started

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 September, 2015, 11:42am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 September, 2015, 1:49pm

Aurora James  was raised in a small town near Toronto and spent much of her youth reading National Geographic. “We always had a subscription,” she says. “It was big entertainment for me growing up.”

Her mother was not the glamorous sort who wore Vogue-approved stilettos and slingbacks; instead, she had a prodigious collection of mukluks  and clogs. There is little in James’ background that would suggest that she would be a shoe designer and one of the  10 finalists in this year’s CFDA-Vogue Fashion Fund  competition.

But in 2013, James launched Brother Vellies,  a line of shoes based on traditional African styles. They hit a sweet spot in pricing, aesthetics, romantic anthropology and high-minded global production. As the spring 2016 runway shows began in New York last week, James was in the thick of the action.

Over nine days,  200 brands are expected to present collections. Those include American behemoths such as Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors, struggling mass market label J. Crew, young guns Prabal Gurung  and Jason Wu,  as well as the venerable Givenchy, the Paris-based luxury label that’s parachuting into New York for a season. James mounted her first formal presentation on Thursday. As a Fashion Fund finalist – and self-funded designer – the stakes will be high.

Twitter reaction to the Brother Vellies show

The winner receives business mentoring as well as a cash award of US$300,000. Its alumni includes some of the most promising brands on Seventh Avenue – Proenza Schouler,  Alexander Wang,  Altuzarra.  Most importantly, finalists receive the attention and ministrations of the industry and the presumption of a winning concept.

Brother Vellies’ signature shoes are the veldskoen  or “vellies”, which give the company its name and are worn throughout South Africa and Namibia. They are stitched in three parts from kudu leather, which is from a species of antelope. Most people will recognise them as reminiscent of desert boots, which were popularised by  Clarks.  

Brother Vellies also includes sandals inspired by those worn by the Maasai tribe and slides  modelled after Moroccan slippers called babouches.  The women’s shoes are priced between US$195 and US$650, with a few special styles priced higher. They are produced in South Africa, as well as Kenya, by artisans that James found through word of mouth and just plain wandering about – even skulking around tanneries and ostrich farms.

“It’s a matter of going there and spending time on the ground and seeing if anyone there would be interested in working with you,” James says. Not all artisans wanted to – at least not immediately. It often happens, particularly in Kenya, that companies come in for one season, perhaps because they are  emphasising beading. They make all sorts of requests of master craftsmen. And by the next season, the companies are gone; they’ve moved on to the next trend.

“I wanted to be sure we’re building long-term partnerships,” James says. “If we’re not focused on desert boots one season, that’s  OK because they still make up a huge part of my business.”

Before becoming a shoe entrepreneur, the Canadian worked for a model agency and in publicity, helping to produce Hood by Air’s  debut show. But she had never designed a fashion collection or built a company from the ground up. Brother Vellies was the quintessential passion project, and only naivety convinced her that she had the skill and the mindset to take it on. She has been known to e-mail strangers she thinks might be able to help her solve a problem.

“We had a problem with shipping and logistics and I thought,  ‘Who at the United Nations could help me?’” So she fired off one e-mail and then another. “And now I have a really amazing partnership with them and their sustainable fashion programme,” James says.

James is not trying to transform skilled artisans into high-fashion designers: “We’re saying, what you’re already doing is exemplary.” The goal is to fine-tune those ideas so they have a position in the broader marketplace. She has encountered some unexpected psychic hurdles. “We had a website that I think was great. But there was this weird thing with anything related to Africa. We’d get emails asking,  ‘Is this legit?’ or  ‘Is this an African scam?’ We knew this was not going to be a regular fashion launch.”

Twitter reaction to the Brother Vellies show

James is sensitive to having the Brother Vellies  categorised as do-gooder fashion. “People are used to feel-good things where it’s, ‘Here’s your eco-fashion,’ and you think hemp,” she says. “When these shoes are sitting on shelves and it’s not a Brother Vellies store, they’re not sitting with their story” written out next to them.

“We want them to sit next to Miu Miu  shoes,” James says, “and they have to hold their own.”

Twitter reaction to the Brother Vellies show

Like every fashion brand today, Brother Vellies has collaborated on special collections, such as with artist Mickalene Thomas,  photographer and illustrator Todd Selby  and womenswear designers Darlene  and Lizzy Okpo  of William Okpo.  

For her debut presentation, James worked with the Brother Vellies team, which numbers three, including her. 

“I love models,” James says. “When I was at Next  [model agency], there was this girl scouted in Africa. She didn’t want to [model] for a long time, but just long enough to get an education. Models are sort of like the modern-day Cinderella.

“I always loved fashion [but] I wanted to find a way to do it that would be empowering and uplifting.”

Seeing the fashion world’s Cinderellas wearing Brother Vellies is part of her vision.