“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” words by Charles Caleb Colton in 1820 to show that appreciation can be, in fact, sincere. The “action of using someone or something as a model” can transpire in fashion if accomplished in a manner where the designer doesn’t usurp the design or idea as their own. This brings us to footwear and accessories brand, Brother Vellies. Founder and designer, Aurora James, is Toronto–raised and New York–based yet – as Ethical Fashion Initiative puts it – she’s “creating boots, shoes and sandals in styles that maintain the spirit and durability of their ancestral counterparts.”
James got the idea to start Brother Vellies in her 20s whilst backpacking through Africa. Though she was inspired by the different traditional and local shoe shapes she encountered, she came to the realisation that they were dying out. In an interview with Glamour US she expressed that, “I learned that locally there wasn’t a demand for traditional styles anymore, because they were influenced by Western apparel. I didn’t want to see this tradition die.” Thus, she started her company in 2013 to introduce traditional African footwear by debuting with the desert boot’s ancient ancestor; the veldskoens (pronounced “fell-skoon”). colloquially as “vellies”, It was from the success of these shoes, as well as their Brother Tyre Sandal inspired by the Maasai community, that saw Brother Vellies expand into a variety of styles available today.
Working with the source
There has been a fair share of African-inspired designs on the runway sans involvement from anyone in Africa or a specification of where the inspiration came from. James, on the other hand, decided to work with African artisans in South Africa, Morocco, Kenya and Ethiopia. In addition, they source from Nigeria, Namibia, Burkina Faso and Mali. For example, Vellies have their roots in South Africa and Namibia. So, it was a smart move on James’ part to reach out to a workshop in South Africa that has been making them since 1963. The artisans, who come from all walks of life, are using techniques that have been refined over generations. Not to mention, the authenticity is enhanced by using Kudu Leather which ages gracefully and has unique markings.
Apart from preserving a tradition, she’s also inspired by their crafts to create new shapes and materials. It’s through her curiosity and her desire to appreciate the craft that she directly interacts with the artisans to learn more about their talents. For example, on a trip to Kibra, she worked with an artisan that hand-carved bone and another that melted down old brass locks. Together, she created sandals for her Spring/Summer15 collection. Her spring16 collection, which as rich in texture and colour, was a combination of leather from Ethiopia, fabrics from Mali and hand-carved beads from Kenya.
Brother Vellies leans towards a ‘slow fashion’ model, preferring to invest in long-term relationships with workshops that are owned or established by locals. It’s not about constantly pumping out highly-seasonal designs but developing strong businesses for the artist she interacts with. A task that isn’t easy but worthwhile. James travels to Africa, four to six times a year, working in different countries based on the shoe style.
By growing their businesses, the production can in turn grow. In an interview with Matches Fashion, James explained, “when I started the brand it wasn’t about me, it was about proving to these people [in Africa] that what they were doing was of value. I couldn’t have done it without them.” In emphasising on this mission, the brand can focus on making well-made merchandise that is functional and has a long closet life; regardless of trends. Take for example the Dhara sandal. James introduced it in the Spring 2016 collection and made versions of it for Spring 2017 and Fall 2017. Whatever version of the sandal purchased would still be a Dhara sandal to the core. And because their shoes are easily re-soled once the original sole eventually wears down, this can be considered a long-term purchase that will serve the customer for many years to come.
Even when the demand for shoes are high, there will always be a limit to certain shoe styles at Brother Vellies. This is due to the brand’s strong commitment to sustainable production in developing African countries. James does her due diligence by interacting with her sources to ensure her products are ethically procured. Most of the animal material she uses are by-products from the edible food industries in the respective countries. Take for example the Kudu skins which are an animal by-product resulting from a government mandated culling due to overpopulation in South Africa. They also use Nile Perch, Rabbit, Sheep and Springbok skins sourced from local farmers in Kenya and South Africa. By personally getting to know the farmers that they source from, they’re able to take responsibility of their material’s sources. None of the skin goes to waste, with the scraps from the adult shoe line going towards the children’s shoes in the Brother Mini’s line.
Another way Brother Vellies strives for sustainability is by taking small strides to reduce their imprint on the environment. For starters, they use vegetable dye for majority of their leather and with their organic cotton. This dying method is considered less harmful than chemical dyes to the environment. They also live by the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra, utilising donated denim from Morocco, recycled car tyres for soles, by-product bones are crafted into beads in Kenya, and ostrich egg fragments and sea shells make beads in West Africa.
Lastly, it comes back to the people. Relying on local artisans to create the shoes has meant that Brother Vellies not only encourages skills training to empower their artisans but fair wages as well. It was a deliberate choice on their part to work with workshops that composed of men and women from different religions, communities, ages and sexual orientation to create a discrimination-free work environment. The minimal use of machines, and majority reliance on handmade process reduces their energy consumption while keeping their employment rate high.
Imitation gone wrong
The thoughtfulness and creativity of the brand has garnered Brother Vellies attention from editorials in high fashion magazines to celebrities such as Kanye and Beyoncé. Unfortunately, they’ve also caught the copycat’s eyes as well. Zara, who has been accused of stealing work from indie artists, was accused of copying the Dhara sandals. Brother Vellies fur-lined sandals, made from fox fur and nubuck, retails at $715 while Zara’s “Fur Vamp” which is made from polyester retails at $59.90.
This year, Steve Madden has been accused of making knock offs of not one, but two Brother Vellies shoes. That is the Dhara and Lamu sandals. While Brother Vellies ethically sources it shoes, materials and craftmanship wise, fashion knock offs hurt the employees of ethical companies such as James’. Though fashion knock offs are cheap thrills, they are inevitably more costly to the consumer and the environment at large.
In all honesty, creating shoes inspired by a culture or tradition isn’t easy. James’ admits so in many of her interviews. It’s an involving and extensive process to make sure that the community is involved, without damaging the environment around them. But setting the right foundation and finding your rhythm can be a fulfilling experience where all parties come out on top. The CFDA expressed that James had set a “precedent for the industry and designers alike to diversify the way collections are designed and manufactured.” Here’s hoping more designers follow suit.