It’s the fleeting ritualistic moments that start our day on a high note, a period of reflection and foresight that serves as a grounding precursor to the day ahead. For Aurora James, now, and especially in 2020—when the world was confined to their living quarters—it’s the first sip of a perfect cup of coffee.
Each morning, in a short video, nestled in her Brooklyn, New York apartment, the Toronto-born designer would gently swirl her caramel-colored iced coffee in a clay artisan mug from Oaxaca. “I was really trying to not totally spiral,” James says. The signature caffeine ritual became a personal grounding routine for her, as well as her quarter-million Instagram followers, too. “When I stopped doing it, people got upset.” Leading up to the launch of her highly anticipated memoir, “Wildflower”, she brought back an expanded version of the series with a run of Zoom “Coffee Dates” inviting BIPOC female entrepreneurs like Emma Grede (CEO of Good American) and Misty Copeland to discuss challenges faced as Black and brown women in business.
As founder of the non-profit advocacy organization, Fifteen Percent Pledge, which funnels billions of dollars into Black-owned businesses, James is an unwavering champion of equity for women of color in the workplace. But she got her start as a designer and founder of the luxury accessories brand Brother Vellies. In 2021, she designed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Met Gala gown that read “Tax the Rich,” which shook coattails on the carpet and in Congress. She was the first Black female designer to win a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award, and in January 2023, was appointed Vice Chair of their American division.
“People see what you’ve achieved, but they never see what you’ve given up to get there,” she writes in the book.
James wrote “Wildflower” to unearth her truth. Stemming from childhood familial trauma, she learned what it meant to survive at a young age. On a journey of self-discovery, the seemingly endless hurdles established her aptitude to pivot and garner a relentless ambition to create with a bigger purpose and social impact.
Her story is similar for many Black and brown women, consisting of a bitter base of economic disparity, and racial injustices frozen into glass ceilings. She spontaneously flipped Vellies at the Hester Street Fair in the Lower East Side, and in 2020, challenged some of the largest retailers to dedicate 15 percent of their shelf space to Black businesses. Which set in motion a chain of events that aims to eradicate the fiscal inequality faced by BIPOC entrepreneurs. And just as people have watched James’ instinctive creations with the same visual splendor that guided her morning routine, the greater meaning behind them has simultaneously woken up the world.
It was noon for NYC folks, but for James, it was 9 AM and sunny in Los Angeles, California when she signs on to Zoom. She’s shortly greeted by her friend and mentor, Bethann Hardison. Ahead of “Wildflower’s” release, Hardison spoke with James on her foray into literature, breaking barriers in fashion and business, and their fated destinies to create permanent space for Black women to succeed.
Read the full conversation, below.
BETHANN HARDISON: You’ve had quite an amazing trajectory from breaking barriers with your brand Brother Vellies and your charitable work with the Fifteen Percent Pledge. Why do you feel like now is the best time to tell your story?
AURORA JAMES: I think that in some ways it’s a pretty obnoxious thing to do, to be in your thirties and write a memoir. But more women of color need to do obnoxious things and not be so beholden to this idea that we have to stay in our place and wait our turn. Because the men aren’t doing that. Also, there were a lot of misconceptions about me that I didn’t really realize. When you’re launching a fashion business that has a luxury price point, you have to project a certain level of luxury. Which is important, but at the same time it doesn’t really do young BIPOC women any favors if I don’t speak clearly to the realities of some of the hardships that I’ve had to overcome in order to get to where I am now. Often, as humans, we make a lot of excuses as to why we’re not the right person to do X, Y, or Z. When the reality is, if that’s the dream you have, you are the right person to do it. You only [have] that dream because of the experiences you’ve had. Those experiences are what make you perfect for executing the dream. When I originally started writing this book, I thought it was going to be much more focused on the later years of my life. I didn’t know that I needed to discuss being seven years old. But being seven years old with the lenses [through] which I saw the world was exactly what enabled me to execute the things that I’m doing now.
BH: For those who aren’t familiar, can you tell me about your upbringing and formative memories of fashion growing up?
AJ: Well, my mom was adopted at birth, so she didn’t know her biological parents. My earliest memories of fashion are of her using it as a tool for cultural exploration of women and history. We would go to museums and really focus on different types of Indigenous apparel. She was a big feminist and spoke to me a lot about the fact that women’s lived experiences were not archived in the same way. She always said, “You have to look for women’s histories in the crevices of the books.” Fashion offered these really subtle ways that women could communicate themselves without it actually being documented in the history books.
BH: When did fashion design become something you wanted to pursue? How did it become a passion?
AJ: Do you remember Fashion Television, the show? I used to work there and one of my big responsibilities was transcribing the tape library and helping to digitize it because it was all VHS. For me, that was my MBA in fashion. Like, transcribing old Karl Lagerfeld interviews from backstage B-roll that never made it to air.
I never said, “I want to be a designer.” Those words had never come out of my mouth or entered my brain, ever. When I started traveling across Africa, very modestly, with my mom’s weird timeshare that she had inherited from my grandmother, I fell in love with a bunch of traditional African shoes. [For example], the Moroccan babouche, which you know quite well, and the Southern African Veldskoen, which we call a “Vellie”. And when the British were in Southern Africa, they saw it, fell in love with it, brought it to the UK, renamed it a desert boot, and then launched the company that we all know today as Clarks.
When I was in Jamaica, the Rastafaris would say, “It’s an African shoe.” And I would say—I thought I was so smart—“No, it’s a British shoe.” When I got back to Africa and saw those shoes, I was like, holy shit, they were right. In Southern Africa, I was seeing this shoe only very rarely and started realizing that all of those workshops were going out of business. They couldn’t really compete with the American-donated Toms that were getting dropped off in giant buckets, or used Nikes. I just fell in love with this shoe, and was like, “If we make some tweaks, let me work on some different colors, buy a batch, we’ll make them together, and maybe we can keep this workshop open.” I brought [the batch] back to the Hester Street Fair in the Lower East Side, and that’s how I launched the brand.
BH: There you go. That first collection, what did it feel like to launch it?
AJ: Well, I didn’t know I was launching a brand. I moved out of the house when I was 17 years old, I had to sell [marijuana] in order to pay my rent. When I came to America I didn’t have a visa. I would just go to St. Vincent DePaul’s and find discarded Seven For All Mankind reject jeans that corporate dropped off, repair them, and then flip those onto Melrose. I was used to trafficking in fashion or contraband. To me, it felt insane that people don’t know that Clarks are essentially an appropriation of an African shoe. Some people are really going to want the [original] version because, it’s made infinitely better.
BH: What was the process of writing this book like? And how did the opportunity come upon you?
AJ: The process was definitely painstaking. It really hasn’t ever taken me two and a half years to put out a body of work. In fashion, it’s like, “Met Gala is one week away, make something elaborate that no one’s ever seen before. Go, go, go!” It’s as if you have two seconds to do everything. I really thought this was going to take me six months. I thought: everyone writes a book, it can’t take that long. But it really did take me a very long time because…
BH: [Laughs] I’m sorry to laugh. You are my north star because you took two and a half years. I’m saying to myself, okay, I can breathe then.
AJ: Right, and I’m a little self-critical. I’ve read this book so many times, it’s had so many changes. It came about because I did a whole thing on NPR and a publisher––the Crown Imprint at Penguin Random House––reached out to me through an agent. They asked me if I would consider [writing a book], and it had been something that I had considered. I just didn’t really feel like I had the time or the rite. But they talked me into it and here we are.
BH: You titled this book “Wildflower“, which I think is genius. I’m curious as to what the name signifies and means to you.
AJ: My mom and I used to make these things called seed bombs, where you take all of these wildflower seeds and you put them with clay. Then, when we would go on road trips, every time we would see an empty piece of land, we would whip them out the window. She would always say that part of our job as humans is to show up in the spaces that were least expected and bloom with reckless abandon. For me, it’s been about how you go into those spaces and show up as you are when people tell you that’s not going to work, or that’s a dumb idea. Just do it anyway.
BH: What was your experience like putting [the memoir] all together?
AJ: Painful. The problem was that there were things that I just did not want to share about my life. But when you try to take those things out, it just feels super inauthentic. Then you wrestle with, “Oh my God, I have to put this in.”
BH: Do you feel you’ve grown from writing the book because you had to expose certain things?
AJ: Yeah, totally. It’s sort of your last comfort blanket that you have to let go of. I think we spend so much time as humans just sort of straightening out our own costumes of identity. Especially in New York and in fashion, there’s no win for an individual human to tell the world about some of their shortcomings.
BH: That’s very true. Beyond your story, what did you want to say with the book? Do you think that you’ve been able to really identify, even though you’ve stepped further than you wanted to go?
AJ: I actually orally told my entire life story to a tape recorder and then had that transcribed–I included everything. Then I arranged it all into different chapters before I started cutting anything out. My editor was like, “Well you shouldn’t cut that part about how you got into that physical altercation with your mom.” Like, no girl. I’m definitely cutting that out.
BH: Now that you’ve looked at your life and all that you’ve accomplished so far—part of what took you so long to write the book––and you’re putting it on display, I’m wondering what you hope your legacy will be.
AJ: I hope that my legacy has been about opening the door for others to come into the room. Not in an aggressive way, but in a really warm, welcoming way. Like the most beautiful, softest, open dinner party that you’ve ever been to. When you walk into a house you’ve never been to before, and it’s so inviting.
BH: Is the correlation between your struggles to grow as a designer and Black creative one of the reasons you decided to start the non-profit The Fifteen Percent Pledge?
AJ: They’re the same exercise because both of them are about advocating for people who have been historically excluded from the proposition.
BH: When you say historically left out––I need to say this too––that there have been many people who came along that were people of color who basically made collections, did things and survived. Surely, no one survived forever. But what you did, when you became a designer, you notice things that happened to you that you wouldn’t want to happen to someone else.
AJ: Regardless of their color.
BH: No matter the color. That’s exactly right. You started this based on pure experience. How did it feel to use your growth and your success to shine a light on the younger creatives of color, like yourself, and give them the support that you’ve given them now?
AJ: I won the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund and every single day since then, I’ve felt like I owe a debt of gratitude there. So I just keep pushing. When someone gives you an opportunity, you need to show up, go into the ring, knock it out and over-deliver. I really feel that, have that, and expect other people to have that too. Not that they owe me anything, but that they owe themselves something.
BH: Just when I was falling asleep last night, I was saying to myself, I never asked you what you think of my film (Invisible Beauty). Because we used your image, talked about you, and you didn’t know any of that until you sat there and watched it. But also because you think of yourself being an extension of my word. When I see the film, it sort of told your story in a nice little way too.
AJ: Bethann. What do you mean? I was hysterically crying the whole time. It reminded me that now, in 2023, if I cast a stone and take something down, I was only able to because you had been throwing them for years that it cracked and ruptured the foundation so much. I was so angry that [we’ve] had to devote so much of our lives to this. It’s a privilege, but it’s fucking irritating because maybe I just want to lay in the field with flowers [or] be like Wes Gordon, where I can just design really pretty things, have babies, and not have to do this work.
BH: Yes, that’s true. Certain people are called to earth to do these things. It’s emotional for many people who have seen the film, but I don’t think we’re going to cry when we read your book. Only certain people who come to this particular side of the fence are meant to move the pendulum and make sure it keeps swinging. I’m very proud of you for appreciating what I’ve done, but also for what you’re doing, because sometimes we have to get out of our own way. I was not trying to change the world, but sometimes you just gotta do it. Somebody’s gotta do it.
AJ: Well thanks for making the film, Bethann. It’s phenomenal. Everyone needs to see it. It’s such a critical piece of work and it’s not just a fashion film, it’s a civil rights film. People are so quick to brush off fashion sometimes. And I’m like, y’all… Only a fashion girl can do most of the stuff that we’ve done because fashion is the most impossible thing. Keep underestimating us, because you have no idea what we’re capable of.
Wildflower: A Memoir by Aurora James is available now
This feature appears inside the pages of V142, now available for purchase!
Photography Michelle G. Gonzales
Fashion Aisha Rae
Interview Bethann Hardison
Text Dania Curvy
Makeup Uzo for NARS Cosmetics (A-Frame Agency)
Hair Mirna Jose (See Management)
Photo assistants Bryan Martinez, Steve Limones
Makeup assistant Tanya Bures