How Aurora James Took the 15 Percent Pledge From an Instagram Post to a 501(c)(3)

Since launching her Brother Vellies brand in 2013, Aurora James has always sought to right the wrongs in the industry – from using recycled materials to ensuring fair wages. This spring, James started a movement in good faith by creating the 15 Percent Pledge, which requires retailers to devote 15% of their storage space to black-owned businesses. (Sephora and West Elm are just a few of the companies that have already signed on.) Here, as part of ELLE’s take on the future of fashion, the designer explains how the initiative came about.

To outsiders in the industry, the 15% commitment seems like such a brilliantly simple concept, something that all retailers should be able to easily embrace. When did you get the idea and what were the responses or concerns of retailers? What role can consumers play in advancing this movement?

I was on the phone with a friend to talk about the challenges black-owned businesses face during the pandemic. Statistics show that black owned businesses have done more harm than any other racial group, at least 40% of black businesses will not survive. As a business owner and black person, I was particularly torn by this information and it inspired me to launch the 15% pledge. What started as an Instagram post is now, just three months late, a fully operational 501 (c) (3) that urges major retailers to allocate 15% of their storage space to black-owned businesses. We’ve had huge success from retailers like Sephora and Rent the Runway who are already committed to delivering on the pledge, and we’re having inspiring conversations with many more so we can work with them to create clear strategies and achievable goals that will result. in a commitment.

Consumers can actively choose to spend their money with black-owned brands in order to help them prosper. We encourage our community to buy and be loyal to brands that match their values.

We also hope that the community will continue to support us and support engagement by sharing our posts on social media and signing our petition.

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As an independent label, what have been some of your biggest struggles and triumphs with retail partners to expand the reach of your own brand?

I believe that historically black women had to work twice as hard to get half the opportunities.

One of the great things about the Pledge is that it extends beyond the fashion world. So often when we are discussing retail we get hooked on fashion, but it has the potential to improve a lot more. What comments do you hear from people in other industries?

Exactly, it goes much further than the fashion industry. However, we have received encouraging feedback from brands across various industries and have learned how to apply the 15% commitment to each of their business models. We work closely with brands that are committed to respecting the commitment and create a tailor-made strategy that will allow them to reach the 15% mark.

west elm was one of the first companies to sign the pledge
West Elm was one of the first companies to sign this pledge.

West Elm

Your brand has been sustainable from the start. Considering the challenges facing the industry as a result of the pandemic, do you think the sustainability movement, which had gained momentum, will be helped or hindered?

We can think of sustainability in different ways. Right after the tragic murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we saw many brands and influencers from all walks of life posting messages of solidarity, but without changing their business. They say they support the Black Lives Matter movement but have no diversity in their conference rooms or in the content they broadcast. I hope that as an industry we will continue to assess what the status quo looks like and start thinking more about our supply chain, how we actually treat the people we work with and the pictures. that we broadcast to entice people to shop. because a lot of times a lot has been rooted in trying to make women feel less and I think we should instead try to focus on making women feel like the better versions of ‘themselves.

Are you optimistic about the future of the industry? How were you able to maintain this and your creativity during these difficult times? A lot of the designers I’ve spoken to have decided to hit pause, but not everyone has the luxury of doing it.

I am optimistic about the future of the industry. I have to be if I want to stay in this business. As the pandemic grew, we began to think about what the Brother Vellies community needed at a time when they couldn’t even leave their homes. We worked on creating items in small batches that we hoped would bring beauty and comfort to the life of our community – and it became something special. By signing up for the program, members of our Something Special community receive a little surprise each month. We started with the At Home mug, which I use every morning to slowly stir my coffee and which is handmade by our artisans in Oaxaca, then we sent a beautiful handmade hanging vase, which was followed by a carefully designed bowl to burn the sweet grass that came with it. We’re also so excited about the Cloud Socks which are so incredibly comfortable that I live in them day and night. If you don’t leave your house, you might as well have the best comfort around you.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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