This post originally appeared on Girlboss.
The perception that cult-favourite shoe brand Brother Vellies was an overnight success isn’t entirely wrong; it was, after all, founded a mere four years ago, and in the time since, it’s found fans in Kanye West and Beyoncé (find me a stamp of approval better and I will eat a furry sandal).
But one would be remiss in thinking that any of this came easily to founder Aurora James. A high school dropout, Aurora dabbled in studying fashion, advertising and journalism in university, to little avail. And after spending a few years working in the fashion industry, she left it all behind. For plants.
“I was like, ‘I’m leaving fashion. I just want to do plant stuff,'” she tells Sophia Amoruso on an episode of Girlboss Radio. “I want plants to be all over my walls indoors… so I talked to my boss at Gen Art, [an arts and entertainment non-profit], and I was like, ‘You know what? I really just need to devote some time in my life to plants because I feel really disconnected in life.’”
After spending two years getting reconnected to life via plants, Aurora took a trip to South Africa, where she discovered a traditional shoe called a “vellie,” with which she fell wholly in love. The problem was, production of these shoes was in dire straits; the manufacturer was on the brink of closure. And so James bought 50 pairs and worked with the manufacturers to alter them, eventually bringing them back to New York to sell at the Hester Street Fair.
The next time she went back to South Africa to source some more, she came across a woman who wanted to buy a pair for her husband. And as it so happened, this woman was a writer for the New York Times, who listened to Aurora expound on the rich and complicated backstory of the “vellie.”
After insisting Aurora build a website on which she could sell her shoes, the writer filed her story and it was published in the Times. The shoes sold out almost immediately.
In 2015, Aurora went on to land one of the most coveted honours amongst young designers in the fashion industry: The CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund. And in the two years since, she’s created a widely acclaimed, oft-copied brand that is a leader in the fashion industry when it comes to sustainability and commitment to sourcing materials ethically and traditionally.
On turning art into commerce:
“If you’re going to monetise your art, you have to find a way to sell it.“
On coping with, and learning from, failure:
“Failure is something that is finite. When you keep going, you’re still writing the story. You’re still turning it into a win.”
“You didn’t fail. You fell off the bike. You’re getting back on the bike, and now you know how to fall.”
On keeping perspective as an entrepreneur:
“The win is not about you. It’s about other people who’ve been marginalised for so long. You have to find what you have that can make you light up.”
On having the fortitude to be yourself through ups and downs:
“No matter what, I’m still going to be me and do me, even if everyone else is telling me not to.”