Brother Vellies, The Fledgling Brand That's Already Won Instagram

Meet Aurora James, the woman behind fashion's most covetable shoes

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Instagram was filled with the usual suspects during the SS16 New York shows.

There they were: artistic backstage and catwalk photos of the Torys, the Proenzas, the Donnas and the Rodartes.

And then seemingly out of nowhere came the little known line Brother Vellies, taking over the #NYFW stream with repost after repost of what turned out to be one of the week’s most buzzed-about moments: models with a range of skin tones dressed in a variety of velvet browns against the backdrop of a stark white box room in lower Manhattan.

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On their feet, a modern take on traditional African footwear; all straps, beads, hand-dyed feather, horsehair and springbok fur.

Stare long enough at the images and you’ll see Kanye West looking on approvingly in the background.

‘I only had a month to put it together and I didn’t really have a budget so the furniture that made up the set was mainly from my store and my house,' says Aurora James (seen in the first picture), the brand’s 31-year-old founder.

'The models I used were my friends, and my friend Jenke [Ahmed Tailly, Beyoncé’s Creative Director] styled the show.'

Years of working as the Fashion Director of the US arts and entertainment organisation, GenArt, James scouted for emerging design talents to fund and spotlight, meaning she'd acquired her own rather large built-in fanbase before she struck out on her own.

Her first show for SS14 kicked off a whirlwind of buzz for her, which peaked with a Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and Vogue Fashion Fund win in November 2015.

‘We all pulled together to make it happen. It was such an amazing experience. I went home and cried the whole night,' she remembers.

James grew up in Toronto, but has strong personal links to Africa (her father was born and raised in Ghana).

Teenage pen-pal friendships with children there, who were being sponsored by her grandmother, inspired some extensive travel across the continent; while visiting, James learned about traditional craftsmanship and the potential for creating jobs.

The trip stuck with her well into adulthood and motivated her to launch Brother Vellies in 2013.

She used the velskoen, a traditional African desert boot known as vellies, as her starting point.
‘I didn’t want the artisans to lose their jobs because people weren’t buying them. People wanted to wear Nikes or whatever they saw on TV. So I decided to modernise vellies,’ James explains of her company.

Selling her very first pair to her photographer boyfriend Jason Hardwick and subsequently all her friends, James set about taking the brand to a bigger scale, adding a reinterpretation of the babouche to her roster.

She’s now widely credited with having helped usher in fashion’s current Céline-fueled obsession with the Moroccan slipper.

Despite her work’s African feel, the collection of flat sandals, slippers and boots, she only visits countries – particularly South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Morocco – where she plans to actually produce the shoes and use locally sourced materials while employing craftspeople in the community.

From springbok fur-lined straps and kudu leather soles to the brother tyre sandal made from recycled car tyres, James' designs are unique as well as sustainable.

She finds the Masai women, who are renowned for their beadwork, particularly incredible: ‘I love the idea that anyone can do it, you can do it from home. That level of beading is almost like couture, so I really wanted to incorporate that celebration of their skill into the collection.’

Artisan craftsmanship for the whip-fast Instagram age?

In James’ world, it’s entirely possible.  

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All shoes available at MatchesFashion.com and BrotherVellies.com

@aurorajames / @brothervellies

Photography: Jason Eric Hardwicke 

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