Aurora James’ Wildflower: A Different Kind of Founding Story

Wildflower is not your typical founder story. Sebastian Kim

The ethereally beautiful face of Aurora James has graced the covers of fashion, business and news magazines around the world for nearly a decade. Her story was that of the founder of the fairy tale: James, born in Toronto and living in New York, built Brother Vellies from her bedroom into an internationally renowned Vogue success. But her new book Wildflower: a memoir, challenges this story. By telling her own story, James strips much of the shine off her entrepreneurial journey and exposes the devastating experiences she had as a child, switching homes and surviving abuse at the hands of her stepfather.

It’s evening in Los Angeles when we meet, and James is going out for dinner with a friend. She has made a conscious effort to spend more time nurturing her personal life, which she admits is dominated by work. Still, she’s humble and generous during our conversation, telling me she’d casually considered writing a book, “like most people.”

But most people have not founded two successful companies. Far fewer have been on the cover of Vogue and hardly anyone has been unanimously elected to the Council of Fashion Designers of America besides designer Prabal Gurung. It’s part of James’ charm that she doesn’t seem to see herself, her eye for design, her activism or her spectacular work ethic as particularly special.

However, the Penguin Random House editors saw how remarkable she was and contacted her in the early days of the Fifteen Percent Pledge in 2020. After hearing her speak on NPR, the publisher invited her to write a memoir .

“It took me a while to wrap my head around the concept,” she admits. “I knew I had to be very transparent about my journey and that’s hard, especially in fashion and the world in general. People are so critical. I was really scared to share parts of my story that aren’t as glossy as what people are used to seeing on social media. The world says you should always put your best foot forward, and not only did I fail to do that, I also recorded backward steps.

Taking the first step took courage, and that means it took James some time to dedicate herself to writing her story. Once she did, it became a passion project that she threw herself into for two and a half years.

‘Wildflower’ reveals hard truths about James’ journey

In 2020, determined to respond meaningfully to the Black Lives Matter protests taking place outside her window, James launched the Fifteen Percent Pledge. While some brands settled for posting a black square to their Instagram grids before moving on to the next pet, James invited America’s largest retailers to commit to allocating 15% of their shelf space to companies that owned by Black. “We represent 15% of the population and we should represent 15% of your shelf space,” she wrote on her Instagram. At the time, less than 1% of shelf space at major U.S. retailers was reserved for black-owned companies.

Three years later, the nonprofit Fifteen Percent Pledge has 10 full-time employees and 30 key signatories (including Nordstrom, Sephora, Ulta Beauty, Macy’s and more) and is working to increase the wealth of Black entrepreneurs and business founders to nearly $ 1.5 trillion by 2030.

But the story of James didn’t start with the Fifteen Percent Pledge or with Brother Vellies, and winning the CFDA/Fashion The Fashion Fund Award – or Anna Wintour’s applause – didn’t come overnight. It was not an easy decision to reveal the truth about how challenging her journey has been and how many times she has been exploited or stolen.

“I think it was kind of heartbreaking,” James tells me. “I talk to many entrepreneurs who are inspired by my story and Brother Vellies, and they call my journey magical. I was afraid to burst that bubble of a beautiful founder story.

It’s easier to believe in a fairy tale, she says, but she believes that covering up the difficulties does other entrepreneurs a disservice. In Wild flower, James recalls a childhood marked by instability, anxiety, and aggressive or absent men. At the age of seven, her mother married a man who promised his wife a blissful home on the island and instead cheated on her, assaulted her and kept her isolated in the house she largely paid for. James sought refuge with her maternal grandmother in Toronto, but her mother’s plight was a constant source of anxiety and grief. Her stepfather had also abused her, and when she finally worked up the courage to tell her mother, she was met with disbelief and blame.

Though James eventually built a loving relationship with her mother—one in which they sought mutual advice and comfort—those early traumas forged the first links in a chain of adult experiences in which James was abused, falsely accused of causing her own problems. exploited and misrepresented.

It must have been difficult to remember and then share that period of her life, I suggest. She readily agrees, but adds that you should consider how her experiences are relevant to the larger story of her life.

“Most people who pick up the book do so because they’re interested in Brother Vellies or the 15 percent pledge,” she says. “Was the story of my childhood necessary to get you even to the core of why most people try to read it? And I think ultimately we have to tell these stories because of the experience of [child sexual abuse] is actually much more common than our hearts and minds would have us believe.”

James’s memoir helped her see what motivated her mother’s choices while still acknowledging the long-lasting damage of those choices. She hopes readers will understand that unless people actively unlearn and correct, the systems that worked against her will continue to perpetuate themselves. “It’s like saying ‘hurt people hurt people’. How does it look? How does that work out? How does it play out in families? How does it work in children? How does it work in adults? And what can I do to stop those cycles?”

A beautiful woman with dark hair and striking eyes, wearing a cream colored blazer, stares into the camera
James says telling her story took courage and time. Thanks to Aurora James

Fair fashion versus fast fashion

While reading Wild flower, it can sometimes be hard to see how James conjured up the determination and determination to keep going in an industry notoriously marked by privilege, exploitation and fierce competition. High street shops and even major labels would sell her Brother Vellies designs with cheap, mass-produced ones claiming to be “African sandals.” James had to be clear early in her entrepreneurial career that her products would not compete with cheap fast-fashion imitators.

But Brother Vellies was more than a fashion label. Working closely with African artisans and communities, James was able to pay fair wages and ensure good conditions for the men and women who made her shoes and bags. Her products were not only influenced by traditional African shoes and textiles, but made by artisans with a history and heritage that supported the production.

Her pieces were – and remain – relatively expensive, because that is the cost of honest business. She is committed to paying her partners and using sustainable and resilient textiles while earning enough profit to grow Brother Vellies. Is it a challenge? Yes, but James is confident in making the hard decisions because she’s always had to make the hard decisions.

“I think the desk I realized I had at a young age because I had to have it stayed with me,” she says. “Besides, my mom was the way she was, she was firm about Pollyanna’s idea that I could be anything I wanted to be and I honestly believed that. I think that agency in me evolved from a survival mode as a kid to later translate to the business world.

Success as defined by Aurora James

Fashion is arguably an industry that requires professionals to maintain a degree of Pollyanna-esque imagination and ambition in order to stay competitive. It is also complex and set up to make it financially challenging for people to enter without their own capital, making it ripe for bad actors.

“Capitalism poses a really challenging situation because bad actors believe they’re doing a good job, which is insane,” James explains. “I will come back to that in the book. Clothing donated by Americans kills 70% of manufacturing in Africa. You think you’re doing well, but you don’t realize what a predator you are.”

And then there are the predators whose intentions are anything but good. In Wild flowerJames describes the many predators who took advantage of her sexually, financially and professionally…stealing her designs, coercing her into disastrous business deals and making off with her money.

“It’s easy for some people to take advantage of others,” she muses. “Because I’m a woman, and a woman of color with the voice I have, people underestimate me and try to take advantage. Most of the time they are not successful, but when they are, they are really successful.”

Not nearly as successful as them, though. James’ label and her activism have garnered so much critical acclaim that it’s probably safe to say she achieved career success, but her KPIs were based on measures beyond the financial. From the beginning, James defined success not as making the most money, but keeping artisans employed and getting more work for them than before – which she has achieved both.

But her dedication to running two companies and fulfilling her duties on the CFDA board does take its toll, James admits.

“I’d be lying if I told you my work-life balance is going well,” she says. “I think there is a season for everything and in 2019 I crushed work-life balance. In 2023 I am not. But that doesn’t matter, because everyone has a different leg in the relay. As women, we need to grab the torch and run with it as far as we can. This journey started generations before us, and we have to run as far as we can when the wind is at our back.”

While James hasn’t always had the benefit of the wind at her back, her Fifteen Percent Pledge has become the wind that helps many black women entrepreneurs move much closer to the finish line. Sephora, Macy’s and Nordstrom have signed multi-year contracts that allow James and her team to audit them quarterly and recommend black companies to stock up. The Fifteen Percent Pledge was part of reallocating more $10 billion in annual revenues to black-owned companies. In the past two years, more than 600 Black owned brands have been picked up by major US retailers.

Finally, Wild flower is more than a founder’s story. It’s James’ way of reassuring people like her that they are not alone in their struggles, plans and dreams and to show them that they have the ability to realize their wildest ideas.

“I remember I was the only person in the room,” she concludes. “And now I work from a different place.”

Aurora James breaks the fairytale founder Memoir Mold

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