New York–based designer Aurora James , the founder and creative director of Brother Vellies and 2015 CFDA Fashion Fund Finalist, gives a behind-the-scenes look at her made-in-Kenya shoes and the sustainable story behind them.
What is the concept behind the name “Brother Vellies”:
I started the brand making the vellies—which in South Africa they actually pronounce “Fellies,”—when I started that was the first shape that we did and when I was spending time in the workshop talking to some of the guys there about some of the other traditional shoes they have in different parts of Africa, they were really inspired by the vellies, and so was I.
This shoe has roots in South Africa and Namibia, but in other places, they also consider that shape to be very native to them. You’ll meet people from Northern Africa that will say, “Oh, that’s our traditional shoe,” so I really liked the idea of uniting through a brotherhood of shoes and having a common bond through what we have all organically chosen to wear because the desert boot shape is very intuitive to people. The vellies started as the most basic shoe that you just wrapped your foot in with leather, and then it evolved over time to putting soles on them. So it’s really sort of the genesis of shoes.
How does travel affect your design and inspire you and your creative vision?
It is only through travelling that I am able to make new shapes and work with new materials. For this season, Spring/Summer ’15, for example, I went to Kibera, which is a large slum in Nairobi, and I found this amazing guy who was hand-carving bone. And so I had his talents, and I also found another person who was melting down old brass locks. Together, I had them carve beads out of bones and then we melted down the brass locks and created these spheres. Using those materials we then created this really amazing sandal. So it’s only through travelling and discovery that I’m then inspired a lot of the time to create different items.
How do you gain rapport with these artisans? You’re going into their villages as an outsider—how so you get them to trust you, to tell them about your trade?
I think it’s just about having an appreciation for what they do and trying to understand what they do. I didn’t go to school for shoe design—I went to school for journalism. My background is in asking questions and trying to understand, so everything I learned about making shoes, I’ve learned from these people on the ground. They have been my teachers. I think that they understand my genuine curiosity and interest for what they’re doing, and my appreciation for what they’re doing. Also, just sharing with them that I see them, I see the value in their talent. I don’t care that they’re not in some amazing building, I still see what they’re doing. When you’re carving beads out of bone—that’s couture, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Like, that is really, really, special shit. Nobody is doing that in America; no one is sitting there doing that by hand. We don’t have an appreciation for that. So I think I’m really in awe by them, and hopefully they can relate to that and feel appreciated.
What is your brand’s relationship with the artisans who craft the product? Does Brother Vellies utilize the same artisans across seasons?
Longevity is a really important thing with anybody who is going into an emerging market. I have been seeing a lot of trends where people will come in and are like, “Oh, I’m going to make a capsule collection for one season in Kenya,” which is actually really damaging. I think it’s important to form long-term relationships, and that’s also why I don’t create an insane amount of new stuff all the time, because I want to stay grounded in the things that we’re already working on and really develop strong businesses for these people. In the beginning when I started, it was really about building my own workshop, but I’ve since changed and I’m really more interested in working with other workshops that are owned by locals and established by locals and just helping them build their own business on the ground.
How do you insure that you’re sourcing products ethically?
It’s important to always visit your farmers and to know where things are coming from. There is a lot of blindness that goes on with people just going places and picking things up, or going to New York and buying things, and a lot of times people don’t ask questions. It’s important to ask questions! If you’re looking at getting something like ostrich or nile perch, go find a farmer! Drive around and go find a farmer and ask them what they’re doing with it, because you’re going to learn more too.
What made you branch your brand market out to baby shoes?
Well, you know, we aim to please from smallest to tallest and it’s just great to be represented the whole way. That education is really important—not only for the kids that are on the ground on that continent, but also for the kids that are on the ground on this continent. I feel like if you start choosing things consciously for children and explain to them the story of where their items came from, they’re going to have more of an appreciation. And I also really like the idea of hand-me-downs so I really hope our kids shoes will see multiple children through their lifespan because they’re made to last.
Aesthetics aside, what is the core takeaway behind everything that you’ve set out to do with Brother Vellies?
The message is just about education and empowerment. I have something that I started that’s called, “The Brother Vellies T-Shirt project.” Just to summarize it, it was basically going to Kenya and seeing all these t-shirts everywhere, just like extra t-shirts. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, and even still now, there’s this whole thing where you donate your clothing to poor people in Africa. Now they just have this huge overage of clothing there and it has killed a large percent of the local manufacturing industries, because of this overage of American donated goods that nobody there wants. I’ve had people say, “Tell your American friends to stop sending their stuff here.” It has also killed a lot of the desire of a lot of people to wear their traditional, local apparel. It’s not a huge help.
I know a lot of what we do in Western society comes from a really good place and I have definitely donated stuff before with the intention of it being helpful, not realizing how damaging it can be to the local economy. So we’ve taken a whole collection of these now vintage t-shirts and brought them back, and we’re selling them on our website and in the store with the proceeds going towards skills development.
The project is all about us educating ourselves together and really getting to the core of how can we help, what are we doing to help, and where our money is going when we spend it. And maybe it’s more about trade instead of aid. Every time a person goes to the store and spends a dollar, that’s an exchange of power and I think that it is very important that people understand that. There are a lot of people in this country and around the world who are feeling very powerless, and they need to know that they have a voice.
Interview by Rachel Hislop