“The other day I was listening to that TLC song ‘Waterfalls,’ ” Aurora James tells me. On her feet are pink over-the-knee boots, in her hand a shearling purse with enough fluff to double as a pillow. “And I had this epiphany — what is that song really saying? ‘Stick to the rivers and the roads that you’re used to’? It’s crazy!”
James is proof that chasing waterfalls sometimes works out. Having followed an unconventional career path — after dropping out of college, she worked for an arts nonprofit, at a celebrity news show, and as a builder of vertical gardens — the 32-year-old Toronto native is one of the buzziest voices in ethical design. Brother Vellies, her line of shoes and bags handmade in several African nations, won a Council of Fashion Designers of America award in 2015, defying the stereotype that sustainability can’t be stylish. James takes inspiration from the African artisans who produce the pieces, which are traditional with a twist. One boot, a version of the South African vellie, comes in patent cork and a holographic leather.
The woman helping keep Africa’s footwear traditions alive says she’s “all about rituals” in her own life. Her secret to a good day: comfortable footwear. After swearing off high heels for years, James rediscovered them. “I used to think it was some kind of mysterious process to make heels comfortable, like witchcraft,” she says. “It’s not actually that hard.”
Here’s a look at a day spent walking in her shoes.
James lives in Brooklyn these days, in a two-bedroom on Greene Avenue in Bed-Stuy. Her boyfriend, a stylist for basketball players, is around the corner. While walking her dog, Cupid, a Yorkshire terrier, she stops by Clementine Bakery for an almond milk latte. After checking in via WhatsApp with Brother Vellies’ workshops in Morocco, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Mali, South Africa, and Haiti, James heads into the city to visit her store at South Street Seaport.
In the afternoon, James heads to her office in the CFDA Fashion Incubator space in the garment district, where she works on sketches and moodboards. When it’s time for dinner, she cooks at home — five nights a week. “I’m into oils — nuts, cheeses, avocado, coconut — and pastas made of veggies instead of grain,” she says. If she does go out, it’ll be somewhere like Pie- tro Nolita, whose all-pink décor matches more than a few Brother Vellies shoes. “The color,” she says, “makes me happy.”
James grabs a drink — preferably the Devil’s Garden — with a friend at the Hotel Delmano in Williamsburg. “I love mezcal,” she says. “If they don’t have it, I’m probably not going.” When she gets home, James turns on her humidifier, infused with a bit of lavender, to wind down an hour before bed. “I love the idea of coming into my room when it’s humid and smelling nice,” she says. “And it’s great for your skin.” Not to mention your plants, of which James has better than a hundred.
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