We all buy clothes, but no two people shop the same. It can be a social experience, and a deeply personal one; at times, it can be impulsive and entertaining, at others, purpose-driven, a chore. Where do you shop? When do you shop? How do you decide what you need, how much to spend and what's "you"? These are some of the questions we're putting to prominent figures in our column "How I Shop."
Perhaps you don't already follow accessories designer Aurora James on Instagram, where she regularly posts both her incredibly stylish outfits alongside political calls to action (in which case, to be honest, you should be). But you've certainly seen her designs for her label Brother Vellies: The brand counts celebs like Zendaya, Vanessa Hudgens, and Beyoncé and Solange Knowles as fans, and her famous furry sandals have been knocked off so many times we've lost count.
But Brother Vellies has so much more to offer than just fashion-forward accessories. James founded the brand with a sustainable ethos (which you can hear her discuss at our upcoming conference!), finding responsibly-sourced furs and leathers as well as working with artisans in countries like South Africa, Kenya and Morocco to keep their craftsmanship in the spotlight. The combination of these efforts and her design skills have been earning Brother Vellies major industry accolades for years, with James winning the 2015 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, a spot in the class of 2018 CFDA Fashion Incubator and a nomination for the 2018 CFDA Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent — which, if she wins, will make her the first Black female designer to ever win a CFDA Award.
All of that is certainly enough to make James one to follow. That great personal style? Icing on the cake. We asked James to tell us her best packing secrets for all her travel, where she likes to splurge (spoiler alert: it's all about accessories) and how her own work in sustainability impacts how she herself shops.
"I would say that [my personal style is] definitely pretty casual; it's definitely pretty colorful. At my heart, I'm either and jeans and t-shirt or casual dress person. I'm very accessories-heavy, but that started long before I became an accessories designer. I think it might have been a chicken before the egg thing, maybe. [laughs] But I think if you have jeans and a vintage t-shirt or something that are kind of your go-tos, and then you can just put on fun shoes and a bag, that's how I like to roll.
My mom had a big interest and love of fashion as well, and she always explained it to me as a tool to be able to express yourself, so I think I just looked at it that way. When I was younger, I was that kid that would try to wear my Halloween costume 365 days a year, so I think I've always found a lot of escape and fun in dressing up. I become really attached to certain items in my wardrobe, that I think fit me really well, that I feel comfortable in, and I just keep those things, year after year after year.
I'm definitely a huge vintage shopper. I do have one pretty major online strategy that I stick to, because I think that sales are really terrifying. I think a lot of people are like, 'Oh it's on sale, it's $100 cheaper than it was before, oh my God, I need it!' And that's how you end up being a victim of the whole tag-on-clothes-in-closet syndrome, which is the worst. There's nothing worse than seeing that top that you bought a year ago that still has the tags on it because you've never worn it, but you bought it because it was on sale Alexander Wang or something, right? What I do is, if there's things that I really love, that I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, I cannot splurge on this,' I save it in my wish list on Net-a-Porter or Matches. And then, I'll wait, so when the sale happens, I go on my wish list and see if there's anything that I genuinely wanted at full price that's now on sale. Once you get wrapped up in just searching the sale items, that's a vortex of, you know, H-E double hockey sticks. Not good.
I know it sounds bad, because I'm an accessories designer, but I have always been an accessories collector. I love investing in actual jewelry, because that's something that's heirloom. If you are going out for the job of your dreams, or you finally got that big promotion or whatever, and you want to buy yourself a piece of jewelry or something, I think that those are times to splurge, for sure. It's something that you can wear every day. Same with a handbag; a handbag is such a personal thing for a woman. It's like really opening up her heart or opening up her diary. So I [splurge on] those sorts of things that you can actually wear every single day and will become a main part of your fashion DNA. Or, like, a great pair of pumps. Those are the splurge-worthy moments. I mean, I would never spend, like, $700 on jeans, or $500 on jeans. That's crazy.
I love shopping in the souks in Marrakesh; I always find things. I'm carpet-obsessed, and they have the best carpets — that is a traditional skill of theirs. You can see the different types of carpet from the different types of people that live in the region, so that's really amazing. And I've always loved the shoes there. We work with a lot of artisans there, so that's fun too. For me, it's really about experiences, so it's like the souks, right, because it's like a full sensory experience: You can get the smells, the light is changing, there are some parts that let in the sun, some parts that don't, there's cars zipping by you. That's why I also love plant stores — there's a whole energy. I always really look for that when I'm shopping in the physical. I think Oroboro in New York does a good job of that. But to be honest, I don't really shop that much in Manhattan — I prefer to shop in Brooklyn. There's a really great place called Academy Records in Greenpoint, and I really love shopping there. Nothing like a good record!
The win [when traveling] is to have things that are super easy to throw on. I used to travel with a lot of Ace & Jig, and I still do because those are things that you can pack really easy and pull it out of your luggage and literally just hang it up for a second or shake it out and it'll look good. Same with Sleeper; that's linen and it dresses really well up or down, which is fun, even though they're technically pajamas. And you know, I'm not someone who owns an iron; I have a steamer. But if I'm traveling, one thing that I'll do is — and if it's a linen dress, this is a really good life hack — I will hang the linen dress up on a regular clothes hanger and hang that off of the shower rod while I'm showering, because then it steams it out so it's not wrinkly anymore.
I think that my wardrobe works itself around my own designs. That's rule number one. And then, I'd say one thing that's really funny that people usually don't notice about me but is a constant: I never wear floor-length pants. I think that if you're designing things that you really love, you just can't get enough of wearing those things. And I think that if I have a moment where I want to wear something that I don't have in my own collection, then it means there's a gap in my collection.
I always think about how something was made. It's like, if you're going to the grocery store, a lot of us are trying whenever we can afford it to buy organic stuff, right? We do that because we're aware of the process that goes into some non-organic food items. I think that it's the same thing with clothes. It's really difficult to feel amazing about something if you know that it was made in a sweatshop, and I think a lot of us just sort of turn a blind eye to that. This year and last year especially, we really need to take a look at what we're supporting and how we're supporting things, and be active about all of the choices that we make. If you see something and you know that it's a knockoff, or if you're writing something or reading something and it's like, 'How to get the look for less,' it's like, okay, well, is that a knockoff.
To me, when I think about clothing and what it's supposed to do for a woman, I feel like I want to wear female designers, and have female designers be more a part of the narrative that's creating fashion and dictating how we're telling women they should look. A lot of the time [I find new brands through] word of mouth. Friends will mention people to me, or someone will be wearing something and I'll ask about it and find out. There's a lot of different ways, really. Also, Instagram for sure.
I'm an accessories designer, not a ready-to-wear designer, but when it comes to ready-to-wear, I think that I pay attention a little bit more to how thing are made and why, and how they're priced. If it's just a t-shirt and it's just regular cotton or something and it has something printed on it, and it's $700, you have to just be cognizant of, 'Okay, I'm going to splurge on this, but this is what I'm getting for this,' and be aware of it — know that it probably cost, you know, $5 or $7 to make or something like that."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.