Interviews POP-IN@Nordstrom

Out of Africa: Brother Vellies Lookbook + Q&A

The Brother Vellies springbok boots pictured above—part of our TMRW TGTHR Pop-In Shop—represent not one, but multiple acts of good karma. They create solid jobs for the skilled artisans who handcraft them in South Africa. They offer additional income for farmers providing the hides. They put materials to good use that would otherwise go to waste. They provide a consumer like you with high-quality footwear that will last for years. And, perhaps most importantly, they share a cross-continental story about people’s lives and cultures, which might otherwise go untold.

Keep reading to see more photos that Brother Vellies founder Aurora James (along with her stylish friends and their adorable offspring) shot just for us—and to hear Aurora’s thoughts on growing up in Canada, listening to your mother and the evolving definition of what it means to help people in need.

[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.”

[Aurora’s friend Kadeem Johnson—@kjohn_lasoul—shows one way for guys to segue their vellies into fall: a parka and knit cap over vintage gym shorts.]

Tell us more about the influence your mom had on you.
“My mom is actually a landscape architect, but she was a big hippie, and she traveled a lot, so she has a really great collection of clothing from different cultures. She had a lot of great kimonos. She always had a lot of different clogs. She had mukluks, the Native American shoe, and moccasins, of course. I always grew up with moccasins.

“And then, my grandmother—this was a huge thing in the ’80s—always sponsored children in Africa. I was born in 1984, and from the moment that I first remember the refrigerator was always covered with letters from these children that my grandmother sponsored. They were effectively my pen pals, and I grew up with a lot of them, you know? You’re writing back and forth, and it was a big part of our lives. At one point, my grandmother even had someone who was older, who ended up coming to Canada. So that was always a presence in the house—that idea of these sponsored kids—and we were always sending and receiving letters from them, and just learning about the differences in the ways that people are growing up.”

[“Kadeem takes a lot of his style inspiration from photos of Bob Marley in the ’70s,” Aurora noted.]

Did you carry on that family tradition as an adult?
“When my grandmother passed away in 2004, I had this thing where I wanted to sponsor a child in Africa, sort of in her honor. I was also 20 at the time, and probably the most fiscally irresponsible that I’ve ever been, so it seemed like a really intense commitment to be like, ‘Oh wow, for at least 18 years, I’m going to need to have money to sponsor this person.’ And that idea was actually really depressing to me, because sometimes I only had like five dollars. So I didn’t feel like I would be able to take that on, but I think that was sort of a seed for me—wondering, ‘Is there anything else that I can do?’

“Because there’s got to be something that’s more valuable than just giving someone a handout every month for 18 years, and to have that person be so reliant on you. And I think that’s hopefully what I’m doing here with these shoes. Because now, regardless of whatever happens to me, there are people who now know how to make shoes, who didn’t necessarily know how to make shoes before. And knowledge is something that no one can ever take away from you.”

[“Who doesn’t love a fun sock?” Aurora asked. “I do.” Shop: Brother Vellies Springbok Boot in Black.]

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.”

[Vellies for moms, vellies for babies. Worn by Aurora’s good friend Anja Tyson—@anjatyson—and Anja’s daughter, Matilda.]

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.'”

[We like how these tomboyish boots play against a feminine dress.]

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?”

[Shop: Brother Vellies Springbok Boot in Tan.]

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.”

[Shop: Brother Vellies Springbok Mini Boot for Babies, Walkers and Toddlers.]

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.”

[Kadeem again, expertly channeling his springbok boots’ neutral palette near Brother Vellies headquarters in Brooklyn.]

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.”

[Shop: Brother Vellies Springbok Boot in Tan.]

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.”

[Brother Vellies for brothers and sisters. Shop: Brother Vellies Springbok Mini Boot for Babies, Walkers and Toddlers.]

How else have you seen your work with Brother Vellies change lives for the better?
“We have a guy in our workshop whose wife knits all the time. And he’s like, ‘I am an African man. Why do I need knit sweaters? It’s hot! She needs a new hobby, this is not helpful.’ And I was just listening to them, and he’s going on and on, and their daughter is sitting there, and the mom just feels kind of badly because she’s not really able to contribute. And then a year ago, when I was doing a collaboration with Todd Selby, he was like, ‘What about socks?’ And I was like, ‘What about knit socks?’ And it’s really amazing to be able to then tie in something that a whole community is saying doesn’t have value, and now you’ve given it value—and now that woman, maybe for the first time in her life, is actually earning money, and potentially more money than the husband was earning. It just completely changes the dynamic—and it completely changes the view that her daughter has of what is possible for her as a woman.”

[Pharaoh and Summit are the daughter and son of Aurora’s friend, jewelry designer and fellow TMRW TGTHR Pop-In participant Scosha. Shop Scosha jewelry and follow her on Instagram: @scosha.]

The campaign imagery that you guys shoot on location in Africa is so good—it represents the brand so well and paints a really unique picture of personal style. Tell us about how those photo shoots come together.
“My boyfriend shoots them all—I’m really lucky. A lot of times, we just find people who are local to the community where the workshop is, or people who are working in the workshops themselves, and those are the people who we’ve shot. That was the case with the photo that you guys used in your window displays—that guy lived around the corner from a workshop that we were at, and yeah, we took his photo. I’ve worked in fashion for a long time, and I used to work at a modeling agency—but with this brand, it felt so much more powerful to just photograph the people who we see every day when we’re there. One of the things that struck me really early on, traveling to Africa, was how happy everyone was. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of people who need help. But there are a lot, a lot, a lot of people there who are happy, even with minimal things.”

[We had to ask about the artwork in the background. “That’s a painting by an artist in Kenya that I bought on the side of the road,” Aurora said. “I was like, ‘Agh! Stop the car!’ I brought it with me on the plane the whole way back—from Nairobi, to Lamu on the coast of Kenya, to the Masai Mara, and then it flew with me back to Nairobi to catch my flight to Amsterdam, and then from Amsterdam to New York.”]

Brother Vellies recently started producing shoes in Kenya. You’re going to start making a new style of shoes (pointy flats called babouches) soon in Morocco. What else do you have in the works?
“We have a project launching in November called the Brother Vellies T-Shirt Project. I started it because when I was traveling to Kenya, I kept noticing these stacks and stacks and massive piles of clothes, sometimes just on the side of the road. I’d be like, ‘What is that?’ and people would laugh and say, ‘It’s all of your clothes!’ I eventually realized that it’s all these donated clothing items that Americans have been donating since the ’80s. So as a result, in Kenya, they have this huge surplus of donated clothing, and what that’s done in a lot of parts of Africa is totally kill their local trade and industry; 80% of the apparel industry in Ethiopia ended up closing down as a result of donated goods.

“With our T-Shirt Project, we’re going through all of this vintage clothing that’s there, picking out our favorite items and selling them on our website—and all that money will go back to Kenya to help people. So it’s really a story about how we choose to help, what help looks like and in which ways things have value. Maybe giving things away isn’t always what’s needed.”

[We’re digging the cut-off skinnies and polka-dot socks, Aurora. Shop: Brother Vellies Springbok Boot in Black.

We know that most of your trips to Africa are packed with meetings and workshop visits, but what’s something amazing that you’ve seen?
“In Kenya, when you’re in the Masai Mara, they have these spotters, who are these Maasai men, typically. They’ll stand on the roof of the safari vehicle, or poke their heads through the top, and they can spot animals from so far away—it’s insane. They’ll be like, ‘Do you see over there? A cheetah!’ And they’ll stop the vehicle, and I’ll put my binoculars on and be like, ‘No, I don’t see a cheetah.’ And then, after five minutes, I’ll be like, ‘Oh my god, I see it!’ It’s crazy. That’s what they’ve done their whole life, though. If you grow up in the Masai Mara, you need to be able to spot a cheetah.”

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and discover more goods that do good at Pop-In@Nordstrom: TMRW TGTHR.

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—Justin Abbott
Photos by Jason Eric Hardwick