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On Monday night, Industria, a satellite hub for New York Fashion Week 2018, transformed into Wakanda, a fictional third-world African nation dreamt up by Marvel Studios for its latest film, Black Panther. The movie house joined forces with a handful of fashion houses to celebrate the pan-African styles featured in the film. But this fashion collective strove to highlight designers of different backgrounds, including Cushnie et Ochs, Ikiré Jones, Sophie Theallet, Fear of God, Chromat, TOME and Laquan Smith. They were selected for weaving cultural narratives into their brand messaging. Walé Oyéjidé and Sam Hubler of Ikiré Jones, for instance, print African tribal patterns as well as tapestries of African Renaissance art onto cotton and Italian silk; their pieces are fine-tailored and finished in Philadelphia. And their scarves and jackets are currently featured in Black Panther, a movie that celebrates African culture.
For emerging designer Aurora James, the Black Panther fashion show was an opportunity to debut her accessories, which have been inspired by the entire continent – from the Western country of Burkina Faso and its handwoven fabrics to the intricate beadwork of the Masaai tribes of Eastern Africa (complex artistry that has influenced collections by Valentino and Louis Vuitton).
James, 33, is founder of Brother Vellies, a shoe and accessories brand with a mission to preserve African fashion while supporting eco-friendly and fair-labor textile jobs throughout the region. During a trip to Africa in 2013, the Toronto native turned Brooklynite realized many of the people she met were wearing clothes donated from America (the old Ed Hardy and Sean John logos were a dead giveaway). During a stroll through a market in South Africa, she discovered locally made vellies, a light desert boot made with vegetable dyes, rawhides and rubber soles.
The vendor informed her that Africa’s reliance on Western hand-me-downs was affecting his shoe business and crippling the local clothing industry. Last year, The New York Times reported that East Africa imported $151 million worth of used clothes and shoes in 2015, mostly from Europe and the United States. According to Oxfam, at least 70% of all donated garments end up in Africa.
In addition to shutting down clothing manufacturers, James says, this trend was also pushing Africa’s skilled artisans into obsolescence. “That’s a problem,” she says. “Culture is where fashion comes from.”
James started by ordering 50 pairs of vellies from the shoemakers but made slight tweaks to the sizing and choice of vegetable dyes in order to cater to the American market. She returned to NYC and displayed them on a table at the Hester Street Fair in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The vellies sold out within a day. “I never in my mind was launching a fashion brand per se,” says James. “I was literally trying to help a group of South Africans stay employed.”
Once she saw the market potential, though, she gathered roughly $5,000 in savings from gigs in retail, fashion journalism, and a planting company. She invested in a website and trips to Africa to discover more handcrafted goods and traditional makers. “We partner with workshops that are at risk of going under and need support,” James says. “They must be owned by locals and employ a local workforce. We basically hire them to create products with us.”
After being written about in The New York Times and Vogue Italia – and scoring clients as big as Beyonce — Brother Vellies managed to take in roughly $200,000 in annual revenue in 2014. Soon after, James left the Hester Street flea market to partner with New York City’s Seaport District and open her first brick-and-mortar store.
In 2015 she applied for the Vogue Fashion Fund and beat hundreds of other applicants. As a finalist, she was awarded $300,000 to expand production. Her annual revenue topped $1 million in 2016. According to James, Brother Vellies has been profitable since last year.
Today, she works with artisans from different cultures and tribes from South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Haiti, among others. “Through my travels I discovered their traditions and art forms that are so beautiful I wanted to find a way to see them not die,” she says. “If I tweak them a bit, maybe I can give these products new life in America.”
While James is a firm disbeliever in charitable models, she decided to forego donating a percentage of sales to her African partners or adopting the TOMS Shoes one-for-one model. “The most valuable thing we do,” she says, “is give someone the opportunity to support themselves by creating jobs and bringing them business.”
Like most designers who deal with foreign partners, James has run into production hiccups but says using WhatsApp, Viber and Line has kept miscommunication to a minimum. (She has to use an array of messaging apps because each one works better in different countries.) “I use these texing apps to communicate with workshops practically everyday,” she says. “It helps make things more seamless. But you have to stay positive through the mistakes.” She also focuses on logistics by shipping in bulk and scheduling packages together.
One issue James faced early in her business was high temperatures sparking blackouts in South Africa. It forced her to search for production methods that are less reliant on electricity. For instance, the Burkina sandal, her bestseller, is handcrafted, hand-woven and hand-dyed and doesn’t require electricity until the last stage of assembly. “The most amazing things can come out of people when you listen to them and focus on their strengths,” says James. “We’re so busy trying to change people and trying to get people to do what we want them to do instead of focusing on what they’re naturally good at.”
James is also on a quest to shut down “vegan leather” because, she says, clothing companies fail to inform consumers that it’s made from synthetics that leave a devastating carbon footprint. That’s why she scours Africa for sustainable leather-making processes that respect animal lifespans and the methods people use to hunt and consume meat. For instance, she works with a family-owned crocodile farm and only harvests skin when the reptiles die of old age, which can be as old as 100 years.
She also learned of government-mandated cullings of springbok antelopes in Namibia, so teamed up with local hunters to gather the fur as by-products of meat. “Some collections are limited and we can’t always chase profits,” says James. “It depends on the rain. If the springbok is not overpopulated that year then we won’t create any Burkina sandals and that’s completely fine.”
To date, 40% of her revenue comes from online and brick-and-mortar sales, while 60% comes from wholesale sales to other outlets. She says one of her biggest channels is fashion site Net-A-Porter, which reaches young female shoppers who are more likely to experiment with new luxury collections.
“At the end of the day we are still selling a luxury product,” says James. “I can tell people about the luxury story and the handcrafted effort, but when these shoes are sitting alone at Harvey Nichols, the story is not sitting there with it. It’s competing with Prada and Miu Miu so it has to sell itself.”
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