As the founder and creative director of the three-year-old shoe company Brother Vellies, Aurora James often travels to different countries in Africa — such as South Africa, Kenya and Morocco — where she sources fabrics and manufactures all of her products.
For her most recent trip, the New York-based designer traveled to Ethiopia, where she is producing much of her spring/summer 2016 collection as part of a joint venture with the Ethical Fashion Initiative division of the United Nations. She visited indigenous communities — especially in the Omo Valley in the southeast — where she met with Mursi people as well as with Karo people, who live on the banks of the Omo River. “Traveling to the Omo Valley has been a dream of mine for years,” she told T in an email. “But it’s no easy task — it’s several flights and a couple days of driving.” (For on-the-ground coordination, James turned to Abercrombie and Kent). “I was surprised at how old the land felt,” she said, reflecting on the experience. “There is a feeling you get there that I have never experienced before. It genuinely feels like we evolved from this very special part of the planet.” She added that a highlight of her trip was meeting women from the different tribes. “There is a bond that women have that is unshakable. An innate understanding that resonates with you through eternity.”
James said that she only visits countries in Africa where she plans to produce shoes by sourcing materials or employing local craftspeople. “I am really turned off by the idea of taking inspiration from someone and not involving them in the inevitable commercial aspect. Particularly when you’re talking about underprivledged people. If I’m going to make a sandal inspired by the Maasai tribe in Kenya, I’m going to employ people in the community in the process.” (Working with the Ethical Fashion Initiative, Brother Vellies provides living wages for all of its employees.) She added: “I spent some time with the people who are making our shoes for spring and I met some new people I hope to involve in our fall collection. It is always a work in progress though: Development in Africa takes much much longer than people typically realize. But, you know, life is about the journey — not the destination.”
“Young men from the Bena tribe. They mounted these sticks by climbing trees and the tallest stood about 12-feet high when he was up there. It’s both astounding and graceful to see in person. The sandals they are wearing are made entirely from car tire. They were the basis behind the first sandals I made at Brother Vellies, which are constructed in a similar fashion with car-tire soles. We produce these in Ethiopia as well as Kenya using recycled car tires typically pulled from nearby beaches and dumps.”