Sustainability From Beginning To End At Brother Vellies
NEW YORK, United States - On the back of her second CFDA nomination, this time for the prestigious Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent, Aurora James, founder of Brother Vellies is doing quite well and enjoying the fruits of her labor with some much-deserved industry recognition. However, all of the successes underline some serious business for the 5-year old footwear brand with manufacturing hubs in South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya and Morocco. PROTOChic sat in on her recent talk at The Wing to hear her insights on running and maintaining a sustainable brand.
SUSTAINABILITY ACCORDING TO AURORA
It’s such a loaded word. For me, when I think about sustainable fashion, it’s really about beginning to end. What are the materials? Who is making it? How does it get to the consumer? How does the consumer treat it? How are all the people in the process treated? It’s never going to be perfect. There are so many different variables along the way that make it confusing. We use this term sustainable fashion, but because it is such a broad thing, we need to focus more on what each brand is doing and how each brand is impacting things.
People talk to me a lot about fur because I use a lot of fur and it’s animal by-product fur. Sometimes people will say 'Oh, this is a faux fur thing and it’s sustainable,' but to me, faux fur is not sustainable because faux fur is plastic and has a bad carbon footprint. But it is cruelty-free! People could argue that it is more ethical. We have to increase our vocabulary for what these different ideas are and what they mean.
BUILDING AN ETHICAL SUPPLY CHAIN IN AFRICA
I never really thought about being eco or being sustainable. I think I was just making choices that felt best for me. I’ve always loved fashion, but fashion is a nightmare. It made me feel these horrible feels along the way when I was younger, so I had to reconcile that love affair that I had with it and find a way to make it empower. I travelled a lot with my mom when I was growing up - I’m an only child. She had this amazing collection of artisanal clothing. She would always show me different things like 'This is a kimono - you can’t wear it, but you can appreciate it' or 'These are amazing Danish clogs that were hand-carved and this is the tree that they used to carve it because it’s what grows there.' She gave me that foundation that I continued to build on with Brother Vellies.
It’s literally been about being on the ground and asking questions. I’ve found a lot of factories that I can’t work with. I’ve also started working with some factories and then decided that I need to not work with that factory anymore. People change. Things change. Situations change. It’s always going to be a learning curve, but you really have to go there and do the work. I think one of the reasons why it’s worked for me and why it hasn’t worked with other brands is because I do take that time - to go and sit in Malindi (Kenya), you have to actually just go.
TRANSLATION TO THE END-CONSUMER
We have a lot of customers who generally really care. The difficult thing is that it is expensive to be sustainable and it’s expensive to pay people a living wage. Not everyone can afford to pay $600 on a pair of shoes. The culture also has to change, so that we’re not telling people they need to buy new shoes every month or even every season. Once people can wrap their heads around shopping less and buying things that are higher quality and when designers can start having more continuity in their designs, so that their customers don’t feel like they have to always buy new things as well, then that will be really helpful. Absolutely people care, especially young people - young people are ravenous to know where things are made. There needs to be accountability (for brands). If you’re not doing things in a great way, you’re just becoming a dinosaur.
ADVICE FOR EMERGING BRANDS
Look at the changes you can make and not necessarily beating yourself up about all the things that you can’t change right now. Then communicate that to your customer. For example, 'we’re using a vegetable dye on this or we’re going to use dead-stock fabric because that’s what is available to us.' Fabric choices are a good one. Focus on small batches and going direct-to-consumer. Leverage Instagram and social media as free marketing. Try to sell people directly on your e-commerce and not worry about having to deal with wholesale margins. That's a win.
This interview has been edited for clarity.