Aurora James’ ethereally beautiful face has been on the covers of fashion, business and news magazines worldwide for nearly a decade. Her story is that of the fairytale founder: James, Toronto-born and New York-based, building Brother Vellies from her bedroom into an internationally renowned, Vogue-championed success. But her new book, Wildflower: A Memoir, challenges this narrative. In telling her own story, James strips much of the gloss from her entrepreneurial journey and lays bare the devastating experiences she had as a child, moving between homes and surviving abuse by her stepfather.
It’s evening in Los Angeles when we speak, and James is headed out to dinner with a friend later. She’s been making a conscious effort to spend more time nurturing her personal life, which she admits is dominated by work. Even so, she was humble and generous during our call, telling me she had casually contemplated writing a book, “like most people.”
But most people have not founded two successful enterprises. Far few have been on the cover of Vogue, and hardly any have been unanimously elected to the Council of Fashion Designers of America alongside designer Prabal Gurung. It is part of James’ charm that she doesn’t seem to see herself, her eye for design, her activism or her spectacular work ethic as particularly special.
Editors of Penguin Random House, however, saw just how remarkable she was and reached out to her in the early days of the Fifteen Percent Pledge in 2020. After hearing her speak on NPR, the publisher invited her to write a memoir.
“It took me a while to wrap my head around the concept,” she admits. “I knew I’d have to be really transparent about my journey and that’s hard, especially in fashion and the world in general. People are so critical. I had real anxiety about sharing parts of my story that aren’t as glossy as what people are accustomed to seeing on social media. The world tells you to put your best foot forward always, and not only did I not do that—I chronicled backward steps, too.”
Taking the first step took courage, and that meant it took James some time to commit to writing her story. Once she did, it became a passion project that she threw herself into for two and a half years.
‘Wildflower’ reveals hard truths about James’ journey
In 2020, determined to respond meaningfully to the Black Lives Matter protests happening outside her window, James launched the Fifteen Percent Pledge. While some brands were content to simply post a black square to their Instagram grids before moving on to the next pet cause, James invited America’s biggest retailers to commit to assigning 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. “We represent 15% of the population and we need to represent 15% of your shelf space,” she wrote on her Instagram. At that time, less than 1% of shelf space in major US retailers was dedicated to Black-owned businesses.
Three years later, the non-profit Fifteen Percent Pledge has 10 full-time staff and 30 major signatories (including Nordstrom, Sephora, Ulta Beauty, Macy’s and more) and is working toward increasing the wealth generation of Black entrepreneurs and business founders to nearly $1.5 trillion by 2030.
But James’ story didn’t begin with the Fifteen Percent Pledge or with Brother Vellies, and won the CFDA/Vogue The Fashion Fund Award—or the plaudits of Anna Wintour—didn’t happen overnight. Revealing the truth of how challenging her journey has been, and how often she was exploited or stolen from, was not an easy decision.
“I think it was a little bit heartbreaking,” James tells me. “I talked to a lot of entrepreneurs who were inspired by my story and Brother Vellies, and they referred to my journey as magical. I had anxiety about bursting that bubble of a picture-perfect founder’s story.”
It’s easier to believe in a fairytale, she says, but she believes that obfuscating the difficulties does a disservice to other entrepreneurs. in Wildflowers, James recalls a youth defined by instability, fear and aggressive or absent men. At seven, her mother married a man who promised his wife a blissful island home and instead cheated on her, assaulted her and kept her isolated in the home she was largely paying for. James sought refuge with his maternal grandmother back in Toronto, but his mother’s plight was a constant source of anxiety and sadness. Her stepfather had abused her, too, and when she finally worked up the courage to tell her mother, she was met with disbelief and blame.
Although James eventually established a loving relationship with his mother—one in which they mutually sought advice and comfort—those early traumas forged the first links in a chain of adult experiences in which James was taken advantage of, wrongly accused of instigating his own problems, exploited and misrepresented.
It must have been difficult to recall that period of her life and then to share it, I suggest. She agrees readily, but adds that one has to consider how her experiences are relevant to the larger narrative of her life.
“Most of the people who are picking the book up are doing so because they’re interested in Brother Vellies or they’re interested in the Fifteen Percent Pledge,” she says. “Was the story of my childhood necessary to even get you to the crux of why most people are trying to read it? And I think that ultimately, we have to tell these stories because the experience of [child sexual abuse] is actually far more commonplace than our hearts and minds would want us to believe.”
James’ memoir helped her see what motivated her mother’s choices while still acknowledging the long-lasting damage of those choices. She hopes that readers will understand that the systems that worked against her will continue to perpetuate themselves unless people are active about unlearning and correction. “It’s like that saying: ‘Hurt people hurt people’. What does it look like? How does that play out? How does it play out in families? How does it play out in kids? How does it play out in adults? And what can I do to stop those cycles?”
Fair fashion versus fast fashion
While reading Wildflowers, it can sometimes be hard to see how James conjured up the resolve and determination to carry on in an industry notoriously defined by privilege, exploitation and savage competition. High street stores, and even major labels, would rip off her Brother Vellies designs with cheap, mass-produced copies that claimed to be “African sandals.” James had to be clear, early in his entrepreneurial career, that his products would not compete with cheap fast-fashion imitators.
But Brother Vellies was more than a fashion label. Through her close partnerships with African craftspeople and communities, James was able to pay fair wages and ensure good conditions for the men and women to craft her shoes and bags. Her products were not merely influenced by traditional African shoes and textiles but were made by artisans with a history and heritage that supported production.
Her pieces were—and remain—relatively expensive because that’s the cost of fair business. She’s committed to paying her partners and using sustainable and resilient textiles while earning enough profit to grow Brother Vellies. Is it challenging? Yes, but James feels confident making the tough calls because he’s always had to make the tough calls.
“I think that the agency that I realized I had at a young age because I had to have it, stayed with me,” she says. “On top of my mom being the way that she was, she was steadfast about this Pollyanna idea that I could be anything I wanted to be and I genuinely believed that. I think that agency evolved in me from being in survival mode as a child to then being translated into the business world later on.”
Success as defined by Aurora James
Fashion is arguably an industry that requires professionals to maintain a degree of Pollyanna-ish imagination and aspiration to stay competitive. It’s also complex and set up to be financially challenging for people to enter without their own capital, making it ripe for bad actors.
“Capitalism poses a really challenging situation in that bad actors believe that they’re doing good, which is crazy,” James explains. “I touched on that in the book. American-donated clothing kills 70% of the manufacturing industry in Africa. You think you’re doing good, but you don’t realize what a predator you are.”
And then there are predators whose intentions are anything but good. in WildflowersJames details the many predators who took advantage of her sexually, financially and professionally… stealing her designs, pressing her into disastrous business deals and running off with her money.
“It’s easy for some people to take advantage of others,” she muses. “Being a woman, and a woman of color with the voice that I have, people underestimate me and try to take advantage. Mostly they’re not successful, but when they are, they’re really successful.”
Not nearly as successful as she is, though. James’ label and her activism have attracted so much glowing attention that it’s probably safe to say that she has achieved career success, but her KPIs were built on measures beyond the financial. From the beginning, James defined success not as earning the most money, but keeping artisans employed and getting them more work than they had before—both of which he has accomplished.
But her commitment to running two enterprises and fulfilling her duties to the CFDA board does take a toll, James admits.
“I’d be lying if I told you my work-life balance is going well,” she says. “I think there’s a season for everything and in 2019, I was crushing work-life balance. In 2023, I’m not. But that’s ok because everyone has a different leg in the relay. As women, we have to grab the torch and run as far as we possibly can with it. This journey started generations before us, and we need to run as far as we can when we have the wind behind our backs.”
While James hasn’t always had the benefit of the wind at his back, his Fifteen Percent Pledge has become the wind helping many Black women entrepreneurs get that much closer to the finish line. Sephora, Macy’s and Nordstrom have signed multi-year contracts that let James and his team audit them quarterly and recommend Black-owned businesses to stock. The Fifteen Percent Pledge has been a part of reallocating more $10 billion in annual revenue to Black-owned businesses. In the past two years, more 600 Black-owned brands have been picked up by major US retailers.
in the end, Wildflowers is more than a founder’s tale. It is James’ way of reassuring people like him that they are not alone in their struggles, plans and dreams and shows them that they have the capacity to realize their wildest ideas.
“I remember when I was the only person in the room,” she concluded. “And now, I’m working from a different place.”