Aurora James: Rethinking luxury fashion and activism

Meet Aurora James: creative director and founder of Brother Vellies, creator of the Fifteen Percent Pledge, activist and now, bestselling author.

But she wasn’t always that successful. In fact, she started her career with nothing more than a piece of luggage.

“I had a suitcase full of shoes and I brought them to the Hester Street Fair and launched a stall there. And, two years later, ended up winning the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund while I was still living in my apartment in Bed Stuy,” she said.

She sat down with Jamie Stelter on this episode of “Extra Shot” at Buunnii Coffee – which has three locations in the city – in Inwood, saying she puts a lot of thought into the local  businesses she supports.

What You Need To Know

  • Aurora James is the creative director and founder of Brother Vellies, creator of the Fifteen Percent Pledge, activist and bestselling author
  • She created the Fifteen Percent Pledge, which asks businesses to reserve 15% of their shelf space for Black-owned brands
  • She’s also known for creating controversial fashion looks, but prides herself on authenticity

“I really believe as consumers we hold so much power,” she said. “And for me, I really think about who are the people in the community that I wanna support? And when I think about the founder of this establishment, who’s Ethiopian, I love Ethiopia. I also have a workshop for my accessories brand in Addis Ababa, where he was from. So I just wanna see more Buunnis in the world thriving.”

That mantra is the basis for the Fifteen Percent Pledge, which James started on her Instagram page just four days after the murder of George Floyd and has since become one of the fastest growing nonprofits in the country.

The idea is simple: Black people make up 15% of the United States’ population. So, the nonprofit encourages businesses to dedicate 15% or more of their shelf space to Black-owned brands.

“We’re in the process of moving over $10 billion – that’s billion with a ‘B’ – of annual revenue to black owned businesses. And we’ve placed over 625 black owned businesses onto the shelves of retailers all across the country,” said James. “And you know what the best part is? So many of these black owned businesses are based right here in New York City.”

James is also known for her creation of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s infamous Met Gala dress – which had “Tax the Rich” written in red ink down the back.

“I think that what’s so important as a designer and what I’ve learned is that my job is to help women feel like the best versions of themselves and to show up in every single room authentically as they are,” James said of designing the dress for the congresswoman.

“That’s her message. And she’s gonna have that message whether she’s here at Buunni, the coffee shop, or whether she’s at the Met Gala,” she added.

But it’s not all glitz and glamor. James’ memoir, “Wildflower,” documents all parts of her life – the good, the bad and the ugly – in part so everyone understands that it’s not all the happy perfection you see on social media.

“Struggling to make payroll, having all of those issues that are real for entrepreneurs, having to close things down sometimes, like that’s all a real part of the journey. And we need to share those stories too because in the same way that the wins are universal, the hurt is also universal for us all too,” she said.

“Especially as New Yorkers – ‘cause New York is a tough city, right? And that’s what makes us resilient and beautiful, because we’re getting through them together.”

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