Not much could upstage Megan Fox at the Met Gala, but Aurora James got it done. The 37-year-old Canadian designer and founder of the 15 Percent Pledge embroidered a white dress with scarlet letters that blared "Tax the Rich," fit it on congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and hit the red carpet just behind the rising icon. The wall of flashbulbs twisted. The hashtags on Twitter turned. And suddenly Aurora James and her brand Brother Vellies became mainstream household names.
It may seem like overnight success, but James has been working for nearly a decade to become a designer who creates platform heels and builds political platforms — and it seems as if her shoes have been fashion-set favorites for just as long. In 2013, her signature furry mules began appearing on celebrities like Zendaya and Kendall Jenner; soon, similar versions (read: copies) were on the runways of certain Italian trend machines.
"As a designer, I'm painfully aware of trends," she sighs from her studio in LA. "But I think a key difference between a trend and a movement, culturally, is the intention and longevity behind it." She still sources her shoes' springbok fur from South African tribal hunts, and maintains economic partnerships with women in Kenya and Morocco. Last month, she paired with Michelle Obama's go-to designer Sergio Hudson on runway boots and heels that matched his vibrant printed dresses. ("Aurora is my muse," Hudson recently proclaimed.)
16 months ago, James created the 15 Percent Pledge, which retailers like Nordstrom and Sephora have signed to show they actively dedicate at least 15 Percent of their shelf space for Black-owned brands. (InStyle has also signed onto this pledge in acknowledgment of how we allocate space in our pages.) She is also a public advocate of Planned Parenthood and an outspoken champion of sustainable fashion materials, even when they're not as convenient as synthetic (read: plastic) leather. In the past year, she's posed for a Vogue cover painted by contemporary artist Jordan Casteel, been chosen as one of Time's most influential people, and been slammed by Fox News. As for her Met Gala dress (which also came with a matching bag)? James has no regrets.
"Obviously, we hoped the look would encourage real conversations about wealth and power in America," James says. "But it's hard to predict that level of attention." The dress sparked op-eds in the New York Times, social media debates about the boundaries of socialism, and reportedly, more than a few high-fives from 1% celebrities inside the Met Gala itself.
It's very easy to come at me, because I tend to be very bold about who I am, and I really pride myself in standing in my own truth.
"It takes a lot of energy to keep talking about these big issues," James says. "Believe me, some days, I'd rather talk about Britney Spears than systemic racism and poverty!... Don't you think I want to just talk about TV — I mean, if I had time to watch TV right now?!" she laughs. "But we need to keep confronting these issues and exploring how we can do better. Even when it's uncomfortable." Which is why even after conservative tabloids went after James's tax documents, the Toronto native persisted — and why she braves the barrage of trolls that still pounce on her Instagram comments as if that will silence her.
Though James won't bend to the accusations, she's thoughtful in how she reacts to the recent pile-up of online trolling in general. "It's very easy to come at me, because I tend to be very bold about who I am, and I really pride myself in standing in my own truth."
James is also "internet famous," with over 220,000 Instagram followers; she has appeared front row at Dior and on the Madewell website, giving the fashion CEO the same kind of visibility as an actress or style influencer. "But the best way that you can kill a movement is by individually attacking the people who are pushing movement forward," she says. "And what I learned over the course of the last month is that some people are very, very, very scared of what can happen when two women of color with a platform like us get together and decide to send the message… People are afraid of women getting together and being vocal. And when it's women of color, they'll get together even more quickly to attack and tear you down. [But] I think that ultimately, people are smart enough to see that kind of attack for what that is."
Still, James admits the last month has been a lot, which is why she's heading out on a weeklong writing retreat to finish her first book. "I'm ready to turn off my phone and get some learning from the experience," she says. "The pushback from this [Met Gala dress] reminds me a lot of some of the pushback I got at the very beginning of the 15 Percent pledge and even, to some extent, the pushback I got as a young woman of color trying to start a fashion line at all."
I don't want to live in a world where my favorite things are merely 'less evil.' I don't want to live in a world where that's the best we've got.
It's nothing she hasn't seen before — and nothing that'll break her or distract from her larger goals. "People keep trying to silence your ideas, your vision, your success. And in the book, I want to be honest. Young women ask me all the time, 'How do you do it?' And I don't want to tell them that running a business and trying to make real change is easy. It's not easy. It's a marathon. Sometimes the terrain is really rocky. But it's so worth it, because it shows other young girls they can keep their light shining, even when people try to dim it. And it's worth it when you see huge brands stepping up and saying, 'Yes, I believe in supporting Black talent — not just models in ad campaigns, but talent in the company itself,'" referring to the pledge but also the considerable effort it takes to make meaningful change of any kind.
"It's so worth it," she sighs, "Even though there's always that one meeting where some archaic man is like, 'Well, this shirt is made with some sustainable materials.' So it's a less evil shirt!" she laughs. "But come on. We are all incredibly powerful and privileged. I don't want to live in a world where my favorite things are merely 'less evil.' I don't want to live in a world where that's the best we've got. Come on now. Let's actually try to do good."