At the 2021 Met Gala, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) ruffled feathers when she appeared in a dress with the inscription “Tax the Rich.” The white mermaid gown, which quickly made headlines in the U.S. and across the world, was designed by Aurora James, a Black immigrant woman designer, an entrepreneur and a social activist.
She was raised in a multiracial household in Guelph, just outside Toronto. Her father comes from Ghana and her mother is from Canada. At seven, James, her mother and stepfather relocated to Jamaica. The trip was influenced by her maternal grandmother who visited the island and fell in love with its relaxed vibe, according to Vogue.
Growing up, she had an imperfect relationship with her mother, who first introduced her to fashion. Her mom also taught her to stand on her own.
“Everywhere my mother and I went, anything she put on her body had a story,” James told Vogue. “She would explain why clogs originated in Holland, and the types of wood they used to make them. She’d visit Inuit communities and show me their entire tanning process, all the byproduct materials, and tell me how they used them to create those shoes.
“I fell in love with fashion as an art form that can speak about people, time, and culture.”
James’ love for fashion led her to found the luxurious clothing brand Brother Vellies, which highlights the works of artisans from Africa and recently Mexico and Honduras. According to her, she was distraught by how the apparel manufacturing sector in Africa had been ignored.
She, therefore, decided to use Brother Vellies to uplift African artisans without erasing their heritage. Over the years, she has transformed the firm into an established label that is worn by everyone, including big celebrities like Beyonce, Nicki Minaj and Elaine Welteroth.
James has a workshop in South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Morocco, according to Vogue, providing a lifeline for regional handicrafts.
She is also the founder of 15 Percent Pledge, an initiative that challenges companies to “pledge 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses.” She started the initiative following series of personal letdowns. Already, the Pledge has yielded big gains. The luxury beauty brand, LVMH and West Elm have signed to the Pledge.
The Time Magazine featured James among the 100 Most Influential People around the world. Also, in 2015, she won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award.
James and AOC’s ‘Tax the Rich’ dress
James told CNN that AOC, whose work she had followed for years, approached her to make the dress for the event. The two then talked about what message they would want to pass on with the look.
“When we talk about inclusion and gaining access to closed rooms for people of color, when you finally get a seat at the table, you have to decide what the message is you want to deliver,” James said. “For the congresswoman and myself, economic equality and economic justice were top of mind.”
James made the dress entirely in New York factories mostly using discarded fabric scraps, she said. Even though the dress caused major controversy, it was an effort by AOC to highlight Black talents who are often overlooked and underrepresented.