On an unseasonably warm, sun-soaked February afternoon, Aurora James is taking a break from the whirlwind of New York Fashion Week at the Italian restaurant Gemma. In the past week she has thrown a gala for her nonprofit, attended shows by Brandon Maxwell and Rodarte, and, presently, is sitting down to discuss her memoir, Wildflower.
If this all sounds like a feat of multitasking, it should come as no surprise from James. Over the last three years, aside from writing her first book, she also launched the industry-changing nonprofit Fifteen Percent Pledge—a drive to push retailers toward committing at least 15 percent (the size of America’s Black population) of their shelf space to Black-owned brands—while continuing to run her successful, CFDA-winning label of mindfully made shoes and accessories, Brother Vellies. “I felt like it could only ever help to be fully honest and transparent,” James, wearing a knit Brandon Maxwell dress, says of her decision to publish a memoir at the age of 38. “When I meet young girls, they always ask, ‘How did you get to do what you do?’ And it’s hard to answer that without people understanding where I came from and how I was socialized in the world.”
That’s exactly what she wrote about. There are barely any scenes of fashion, or glamour, in the opening third of Wildflower. Instead, James provides powerful vignettes of her experience growing up as a biracial child raised by her white grandmother and mother with whom she has had a rocky relationship. James and her mother ping-ponged between Canada and Jamaica for a significant period, and the thorny parts of James’s life during this time are starkly presented: the casual racism she encountered, the physical and emotional abuse she experienced, disordered eating, the sticky residue of trauma.
“So many people told me, ‘You know, you don’t have to write this stuff,’ ” James says. But a book brimming with honesty and vulnerability was the only book James was interested in writing. She has long advocated for greater transparency in fashion, from brands being more up-front about their production practices to companies disclosing the racial makeup of their employees. Wildflower seems to stem from a similar inclination toward openness. “I think the expectation of perfection is what is holding so many of us back and down,” she says.
So James decided to peel back the curtain even further. She documents the suffocating financial strains Brother Vellies faced in 2016, right when—from the outside—the brand was at the apex of its success and fame. A loan of $70,000 from someone in the fashion industry who had gained her trust ballooned, over the years, into a massive debt, primarily due to crushing fees and interest. (She recently paid off the loan.)
“I wanted to be able to tell this story,” James says, “because I think it’s important for people to understand what can happen when there’s not access to capital—where people end up getting money from. As a founder, I’ve obviously not wanted to talk about this for so long—but it’s such an integral part of my journey,” she continues, “that not being able to talk about it was just going to perpetuate the problem.”
While James is bracing herself for potential backlash for telling this specific slice of her story, it’s certainly not the first time she has spoken truth to power. Case in point: designing the “Tax the Rich” dress worn by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the 2021 Met Gala. That outfit—a white gown emblazoned with the slogan—sparked a thousand think pieces and provoked the ire of conservative commentators. In her memoir, though, James paints a more earnest and compassionate portrait of both the dress and people’s reactions to it. When Ocasio-Cortez and James walked through the hallways of The Met, waitstaff delighted in AOC’s
presence. A more unfortunate consequence: In the aftermath, right-wing publications started digging for information about everything from James’s tax records to her childhood and past abortions. (The House Ethics Committee is currently investigating if the congresswoman violated House rules or broke federal law by accepting gifts associated with the Gala—and whether to subpoena James for testimony.)