[Brother Vellies founder @aurorajames
' favorite way to wear vellies on the weekend: with a vintage dress and Kenyan-made necklace.]
THE THREAD: Why did you decide to start a brand of traditional African shoes?
BROTHER VELLIES FOUNDER AURORA JAMES: "I think that there are a lot of people in the world who are just really talented and making really amazing things. I was inspired by those people and continue to be inspired by them. And that was the impetus behind starting the company: to bring these traditional, classic designs to a broader audience. I think it's really great to try to help someone by giving them something—but it's so much more empowering to help someone by enabling them to work and provide their own income."
Vellie is short for velskoen—the African ancestor of modern-day desert boots. When did you first come across this style of shoe?
"Well, I'd obviously seen the desert boot shape for a really long time. I lived in Jamaica for a while as a kid, where they wear a lot of desert boots, and they always refer to it as an African shoe. I've always been really familiar with a lot of different styles of traditional shoes, like clogs and mukluks. My mom was really into sharing different traditional attires with me when I was growing up."
[Regarding her autumn hosiery of choice: "I'm from Canada, and I actually buy these wool socks from a hardware store every time I'm there. It's called Canadian Tire, and they sell these in jumbo packs of like 12 and 24 pairs." Shop: Brother Vellies Springbok Boot in Tan
Before moving to Jamaica at age 7, you were born and raised near Toronto. What aspects of growing up in Canada do you think stuck with you?
"Being really excited about everyone's respective holidays! I remember coming home from school one day and screaming, 'It's Ramadaaaaan!' And my mom was like, 'What? How do you even know what that is?' At school in Canada, or at least the schools that I went to, they really talked about every different religious holiday, cultural holiday, Kwanzaa, Christmas, what have you. It was just really multicultural—I went to school with Baha'i people, Jewish people, lots of different people, and I think we were all really excited about each other's holidays and customs. I think that's also what has led me to be excited about so many different items and culturally traditional things that I see in Africa."
Tell us about the level of craftsmanship that goes into each pair of Brother Vellies springbok boots.
"A lot of our guys in the workshop have been making these shoes for a really long time. Some of them actually learned from their parents. It takes one person about six hours to make one pair of the springbok shoes. Everything has to be hand-cut very carefully, because you have to basically trim all the springbok fur. It's the most labor-intensive shoe that we make.
"It starts with pairing up the springbok hides and finding two that look similar—and then you take the right foot from one springbok and the left foot from the other springbok. We'll use the same placement on each springbok, so that they look as much 'the same' as possible. If you tried to make the pair out of just one springbok, both shoes would look totally different—which is also kind of OK, and some of our shoes are like that, but we want the fur tufts to be kind of as uniform as possible. So a lot of time is spent, creatively, before any part of the shoe is actually cut. It's really about matching up the hides and deciding how you'll design the layout of each pair. Each springbok is different, so it's a really artisanal product in that way."
Where do the springbok hides that you use come from?
"They come from either Namibia or South Africa. Our rules are that the springbok hides that we get are always an animal byproduct, so it's springbok that's being used for the meat—and in the process, they tan the hides, so that they're also going to be usable. All of the leather that we use at Brother Vellies [for other styles of shoes] is the same way: We work with a rabbit farm that has always just made rabbit meat, and didn't really care about the fur, the leather. And we said, 'Hey, you should consider doing the process a little bit differently, so that we'll be able to use the leather and the rabbit fur. You could actually make a little bit more money that way—you could hire a couple people to do it and start creating more jobs, and we'll also have an additional great product that can be made from this animal.'"
So really, you're making use of something that would otherwise go to waste.
"In Africa, at least the parts that I've been, it's really about being able to use that animal, or whatever that thing is, to its fullest capacity and potential. I think that people need to be a little bit more careful when they say things like, 'Fur is bad'—because it's not about something being bad or good, it's about doing your research and really finding out where everything comes from that we as a people use. What good does it do if you have an animal that you're eating for the meat, and then you're discarding the hide because you don't think that fur is good—even though that hide could have made 20 pairs of shoes for people who need shoes? Or it could have created jobs for people who could have used that leather to make the shoes? In those cases, when it's a material that could be used to empower and clothe people, how is fur or leather a bad thing?"
Do you think that growing up in Canada had anything to do with your outlook on fur?
"[Laughs.] I say it all the time: I'm from Canada! It's different—we use fur there. Fur is the thing that you wear that's the most practical, because it will keep you the warmest, and it lasts for a really long time. I was also vegan for seven years, so I totally understand where everyone's coming from, you know? I've seen all the documentaries, for sure. And I think that a lot of things that can go on in the world are really bad—but a lot of things aren't bad, and a lot of things are actually empowering, too. So it's not so black and white."
How do you deal with potential backlash on this topic?
"Back in July, Whoopi Goldberg wore a pair of our shoes on a talk show, and people on her Facebook page made some horrible, untrue accusations about where the fur came from. Who knows who's going to read that? Maybe the president of Nordstrom reads it and is like, 'Olivia, we can't sell these shoes!' And then maybe that order gets canceled, and then maybe I can't pay my guys at the workshop, and then maybe a kid doesn't get to eat! You know what I mean? It's really serious.
"When people say these things, I think they have to be mindful of their own power—and in that power, they can do really good or they can do really bad. And I think that what's so amazing about the TMRW TGTHR Pop-In
is that it's empowering all the Nordstrom customers to do really good. People can put something positive
out there—if they go to the Pop-In and take a photo of Conway Electric
and talk about it, or Truss
, or my product. So it can also have a positive ripple effect."
Speaking of changing people's perceptions, what do your friends and colleagues in Africa think about Brother Vellies?
"In a lot of places in Africa, people care so much about what's in Western media—and even with vellies, you only wore those in South Africa if you were a poor person. Otherwise, you were wearing Nikes. If you didn't have Nikes, or Jordans, or Converse, or whatever people were seeing on TV, you must be so hard done by and poor. And now, when they see their traditional shoes getting press, and people in America wearing them, and Rosario Dawson wearing springbok shoes, it's a complete game-changer. Because they're like, 'Wow, something that we made actually holds value outside of our town.' I think that it really shows kids, especially, that what they do, and the choices they make, can have a larger impact."
Any proud moments from the Brother Vellies journey that really stand out?
"All the time. When someone wants to work, it's so great to be able to give them that kind of opportunity. But sometimes, it's the smaller things. One of our guys in South Africa has a child who came by the workshop and was looking at all the kids' shoe that we have—and he was like, 'Oh, these shoes are so much cuter than my shoes that I have to wear as part of my uniform at school.' And I said, 'I'm sure that your school uniform shoes aren't so bad,' and he was like, 'They're horrible!' And I looked, and his shoes were awesome. They're like these oxfords that are just amazing, and I said, 'No, I think that your shoes are really special,' and he was like, 'Nuh-uh.' So we took that design from his shoe, and we made our oxfords, our school shoes. They're pretty much exactly the same as his school uniform shoes, and we make them now for adults. And when he saw them, and he saw pictures of people wearing them, he just was so excited by that.