As the old edict goes, “you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes,” but we think you can tell even more about the person who makes them. We spent an afternoon with Aurora James, founder of the footwear line Brother Vellies, and covered a lot of ground, from sustainability to starting her own company to clothes as a second language.
The title “CEO” might not conjure images of a cheerful Brooklynite who takes work calls from a hammock in her backyard, has a closet full of handmade flats and thinks everything is cuter in miniature form (like her Yorkie, Cupid), but that’s Aurora James for you: refreshingly unexpected and committed to just doing her thing. For the past three years, her thing has been Brother Vellies, a popular line of footwear handmade by the African artisans who inspire the designs. We stopped by Aurora’s place in Bed-Stuy to talk about the merits of sustainability and how to dress when your work takes you around the world.
Aurora’s appreciation for global style began right at home. In fact, it can be traced to one tiny room: her mother’s closet. “As an architect, my mother traveled all over the world and brought back the most beautiful handmade clothes,” says Aurora. Scouring her mom’s racks, she ended up wearing everything from Dutch linen tops and Guatemalan blouses to African shoes. “The fabrics and details were clues about the places they came from, and I’d daydream about the lives of the women who made them.” Twenty years later, those daydreams launched Brother Vellies, with one of her mother’s wearable souvenirs—the traditional Namibian desert boot—at the heart of it.
Since her first interpretation of the desert boot, the line has grown to include backless mules and ankle-wrap sandals. “I started the company to create and sustain jobs that would support local production within Africa,” says Aurora. She travels internationally three months out of the year, often to the countries where the styles originate, to meet with the artisans who handmake her designs. It was Kenya that inspired the Tyre sandal, which has recycled car tires for soles and straps covered in printed calf hair, a byproduct she sources to support local farmers. “When you buy a pair of Brother Vellies, you’re giving someone a chance to work,” she says. “There is so much value in traditional well-made clothes. They stay with you forever.”
That hand-touched quality also runs through her nomadic wardrobe, along with a focus on comfort. At home, that means she’s in oversized sweaters or silk button-downs and jeans. When she’s traveling for work, she lives in neutral colors and conservative shapes, like linen bell-bottoms or midlength cotton dresses that allow her to move around comfortably. There is one common thread, though, no matter where she is: cropped hemlines, which aren’t solely meant to show off the handmade details of her shoes but to get people talking about where they came from and how they’re made.
You don’t need to join her on a global sojourn to catch those infectious good-natured vibes or to give back. Wearing shoes that honor and empower faraway communities is a good place to start. As the sign outside her downtown New York store reads, “We’re all in this together.”
Shop our entire assortment of Brother Vellies here.
Photography by Thomas Neal.