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

Since starting her brand Brother Vellies in 2013, Aurora James has always sought to help right the industry’s wrongs—from utilizing recycled materials to ensuring fair wages. This spring, James started a bona fide movement when she created the 15 Percent Pledge, which asks retailers to devote 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. (Sephora and West Elm are some of the businesses that have already signed on.) Here, as part of ELLE’s look at the future of fashion, the designer explains how the initiative came about.

To industry outsiders, the 15 Percent Pledge seems like such a brilliantly simple concept, something that all retailers should easily be able to adopt. When did the idea first come to you and what have been the responses or concerns of retailers? What role can consumers play in pushing this movement along?

I was on the phone with a friend talking about the struggles Black-owned businesses are having during the pandemic. Statistics are showing that Black-owned businesses have been hurting more than any other racial group, at least 40 percent of Black businesses will not survive. As a business owner, and a Black person, I was especially torn up by this information and it inspired me to launch the 15 Percent Pledge. What started out as an Instagram post is now, just three months late, a fully functioning 501(c)(3) that urges major retailers to allocate 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. We’ve had tremendous success from retailers such as Sephora and Rent the Runway, who have already committed to the Pledge, and we are having inspiring conversations with many others so that we can work with them to create clear strategies and attainable goals that will result in a commitment.

Consumers can actively choose to spend their money with Black-owned brands in order to help them thrive. We encourage our community to buy from, and be loyal to, brands that align with their values.

We also hope that the community will continue to stand with us and support the Pledge by sharing our posts across social channels and sign our petition.

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

I believe that historically, Black women have had to work twice as hard to get half as many opportunities.

One of the things about the Pledge that’s so great is that it extends beyond the fashion world. So often when discussing retail we get hung up on fashion, but this has the potential to enhance so much more. What feedback are you hearing from people in other industries?

Exactly, this goes a lot deeper than just the fashion industry. However, we have received encouraging feedback from brands in various industries, and we’ve been learning how we can apply the 15 Percent Pledge to each of their business models. We work very closely with those brands that make the commitment to the Pledge and create a tailored strategy that will allow them to hit the 15% mark.

west elm was one of the first businesses to sign the pledge

West Elm was one of the first businesses to sign the pledge.

West Elm

Your brand has been sustainable from the beginning. Given the challenges to the industry as a result of the pandemic, do you think that the sustainability movement, which had been gathering steam, will be helped or hindered?

We can think of sustainability in different ways. Right after the tragic killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we saw a lot of brands and influencers from across industries posting messages of solidarity, but not actually changing anything about their business. They say they stand with the Black Lives Matter movement but don’t have diversity in their boardrooms or in the content they put out. I hope that as an industry, we continue to evaluate what business as usual looks like and start thinking more about our supply chain, how we are actually treating the people we work with, and what imagery we are putting out there to inspire people to shop because often times, a lot of it has been rooted in trying to make women feel less than and I think we should try to focus instead on having women feel like the best versions of themselves.

Are you optimistic about the industry’s future? How have you been able to maintain that, and your creativity, through these difficult times? So many of the designers I’ve spoken to have decided to press pause, but certainly not everyone has the luxury of doing that.

I am optimistic about the industry’s future. I have to be if I’m going to stay in this business. As the pandemic was growing, we started thinking about what the Brother Vellies community needed at a time when they couldn’t even leave their homes. We worked on creating small-batch items that we hoped would bring beauty and comfort into the lives of our community–and this grew to become Something Special. By signing up to the program, our Something Special community members receive a little surprise every month. We started with the At Home Mug, which I use every morning to slow-stir my coffee and is handmade by our artisans in Oaxaca, then we sent a beautiful handmade hanging vase, which was followed by a thoughtfully designed bowl to burn the sweetgrass that came with it. We also are so excited about the Cloud Socks that are so incredibly comfortable that I am living in them day and night. If you’re not going to leave your home, you may as well as have the best comforts surround you.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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