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Unstitched: We meet Brother Vellies founder Aurora James

Unstitched We meet Brother Vellies founder Aurora James
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When it comes to sustainable fashion, it can be hard to know where to start. With an endless barrage of information, countless new and established brands to research, and a mass of confusing terminology out there, it’s understandable that anyone might feel a little overwhelmed.

In light of this, every month we will focus on a brand that knows exactly what it means to be a sustainable force for good in fashion today. From debunking inaccuracies to advice for aspiring brands and tips for consumers on how to be kinder to the planet, we cut through the noise so that you don’t have to. This month we’re getting to know Aurora James, designer and founder of shoe and accessories brand Brother Vellies, and the creator of the 15 per cent pledge – a campaign calling for retailers to commit 15% of their stock to Black-owned businesses.

Born in Toronto to a Canadian mother and Ghanaian father, James founded Brother Vellies in 2013 with the goal of celebrating traditional African design practices and techniques, while creating and sustaining artisanal jobs. The label specialises in luxury accessories that pay homage to African cultural history and timeless design through one-of-a-kind pieces that will remain part of your wardrobe forever.

This is a true example of appreciation, rather than appropriation: James’ brand honours the people and places behind its pieces, and the team treats every part of the process with respect and care for its artisans, customers and the planet. You’ll find by-product used like vegetable-tanned leathers, soiling from recycled tires, hand-carved wood or floral-dyed feathers – all sourced carefully from farmers across the globe.

The label also works to lessen the impact of production practices by continually questioning itself and making changes every season – resulting in a conscious fashion brand in every sense.

a woman sitting on a bench: Brother Vellies, sustainable brands, Unstitched, Aurora James, 15 per cent pledge,
© Courtesy of Brother Vellies Brother Vellies, sustainable brands, Unstitched, Aurora James, 15 per cent pledge,

In your mind, what makes a truly sustainable brand?

“I think brands need to look at all elements of their businesses. Some of the companies that refer to themselves as sustainable were also the very first people to lay off their entire staff at the beginning of the pandemic – and that isn’t sustainable. If you have staff that you can’t afford to carry through something like this, then that wasn’t a sustainable business model.

“It’s about looking 360 degrees at your whole business model and questioning what it means. When we talk about corporate sustainability, it’s not just about the materials you’re using, so it’s important to be thoughtful about that too. Some brands use vegan leather and they think that’s sustainable, but a lot of that is plastic that isn’t even recyclable and has a bad carbon footprint, so that doesn’t make it sustainable. It’s about thinking critically about all elements.

“I think we are all trying and as long as we can make small steps, then that’s better than not moving forward, so I’m a firm believer in that.”

What do you want to achieve personally with your brand, in terms of sustainability?

“Beyond just Brother Vellies, I hope that as an industry, we continue to move towards progress and evaluate what sustainability looks like and how we, as consumers, value that in a brand. We should start thinking more about our supply chain and how we are actually treating the people we work with, as well as what imagery we are putting out there to inspire people to shop. A lot of it has been rooted in trying to make women feel less-than, and I think we should try to focus instead on having women feel like the best versions of themselves.”

Brother Vellies, sustainable brands, Unstitched, Aurora James, 15 per cent pledge,
© Christopher Sherman Brother Vellies, sustainable brands, Unstitched, Aurora James, 15 per cent pledge,

What advice would you give to those wanting to make their business sustainable?

“I think brands really need to discover what sustainability means for them. It could be reflected in the amount of product they make, or how they operate their supply chains, or even in what materials they choose. You need to start with one thing and go from there.”

What’s the smallest change a consumer could make to become more eco-conscious?

I don’t want to ever tell someone how they should consume, I know everyone’s means are different. But investing in a solid, well-made piece that will last for years and years is one way to become more eco-conscious. That doesn’t mean purchasing expensive items, it means just investing in items that are well made.”

a woman posing for a picture: Joan Smalls models for Brother Vellies
© Adrienne Raquel Joan Smalls models for Brother Vellies

What are the most common inaccurate “facts” about sustainability you see promoted?

“I just think that is important for people to realise that sustainability is not only about our impact on the planet, but also our impact on society. You can be the most “sustainable” brand out there, but if your workforce isn’t treated well and with respect, you’re not really doing your job.”

What should consumers look out for when shopping sustainably?

I think customers should start by doing some research and find out what is important to them when purchasing from a brand. Then discover those brands that uphold those ideas and support them.”

What’s the biggest misconception about sustainable clothing and what would you say to counteract this?

“At Brother Vellies, we don’t design for seasons or trends, which is why we never put our products on sale. We believe in assigning the value of our products based on materials and fair labour practices, which is unaffected by the traditional consumption cycle. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t have fun with our styles.

a man and woman sitting next to a stone wall: Aurora James, Brother Vellies, 15 per cent pledge, sustainable fashion
© Christopher Sherman Aurora James, Brother Vellies, 15 per cent pledge, sustainable fashion.
“I think another common misconception is that sustainability is more expensive. Some of it is, yes, but there are some great brands out there making more affordable sustainably driven products, you might just need to do a little digging.”

Where do you turn to when you feel confused about sustainability and need more detail?

I think there is a lot of vague and incorrect information out there. So what I try to do is shop or design with the ideas that are important to me and I look for brands that encourage those ideals.”

What’s next for you?

“I’m really excited to be growing and working on the brand Brother Vellies through designing and creating niche things, so we are going to be creating more. I love our ‘Something Special’ programme, that people can participate in, so just continuing to tell stories and create products that women can keep in their wardrobes forever. That’s the most important thing to me; building that forever wardrobe.”

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