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Meet the visionary designer behind AOC’s Tax the Rich dress

Aurora James, the designer behind Brother Vellies, has spent her career advocating for economic equality.

Meet the visionary designer behind AOC’s Tax the Rich dress
[Photo: Kevin Mazur/MG21/Getty Images For The Met Museum/Vogue]
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Last night, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez strolled into the Met Gala in a white gown with the words “Tax the Rich” scrawled in bright red on the back. It was a bold move, given that she was about to hob-nob with the country’s 1% at a $35,000-a-ticket event.

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[Photo: Jamie McCarthy/MG21/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue]
The Democratic congresswoman from New York was fully aware that her fashion statement might ruffle some feathers. In an Instagram post prior to the event, she tried to preempt some criticism by explaining that it’s common for elected officials in New York to be invited to the Gala as part of their role “overseeing our city’s cultural institutions.” Ocasio-Cortez used the moment to turn the spotlight on Aurora James, the Black designer and social activist who created the gown.

In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, James explained that she and AOC had followed each others’ work for years, and related to each other on a personal level as women of color who were hustling in their respective fields in New York City. Even though James largely designs shoes and accessories, AOC approached her to make the gown for the event. Before she started designing, they discussed what values they wanted the look to communicate. “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, who advocates for sustainable fashion, says she made the dress entirely in New York factories largely using discarded fabric scraps. She loaned the dress to AOC and has not yet calculated its cost.

Who is Aurora James?

If you’re unfamiliar with James, it’s time to remedy that. She was born in the Toronto suburbs to a father from Ghana and a Canadian mother. She spent her twenties traveling throughout Africa, where she was fascinated by local artisans who were experts at making leather shoes. In 2013, she launched the label Brother Vellies, a luxury brand that could highlight these shoe-makers’ work. When I spoke with James earlier this year, she explained that she built the business slowly. “I only had $3,500 and I was selling these shoes in flea markets around New York,” she told me.

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Aurora James and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. [Photo: Arturo Holmes/MG21/Getty Images]
Over the past decade, James has transformed Brother Vellies into an established fashion label, worn by everyone from Beyonce to Nicki Minaj to Elaine Welteroth. In 2015, she won one of the most prestigious awards given to young designers, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. Today, the brand is known for James’ fabulous, fashion-forward shoes and handbags. They’re still handmade by artisans, but James has expanded beyond Africa, seeking out craftspeople around the globe, including Mexico and Honduras. All of these craftspeople are paid a living wage.

But when James looks back at the brand’s rise, she says she experienced firsthand how hard it can be for Black designers to make a name for themselves in the fashion world. As she tried to build her business, she says it was hard to break into the social networks of investors and buyers who can make or break a nascent label. “It’s not just about working hard and hustling,” she told me earlier this year. “There are structural issues in the fashion industry that make it harder for Black designers to break through. In the end, it was partly a series a lucky breaks that helped me get to where I am, but not every Black designer has access to these opportunities.”

In 2020, during the Black Lives Matter protests, James felt compelled to draw attention to the systemic racism within retail that she had experienced firsthand. She launched the Fifteen Percent Pledge, which asks retailers to commit to devoting 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned brands, since Black people make up roughly 15% of the U.S. population. As I wrote in a story this summer, James convinced many major retailers—including Sephora, Bloomingdale’s and Rent the Runway—to take the pledge within the first year, and got 385 Black-owned brands onto shelves. The organization has now evolved from a grassroots campaign into a full-fledged nonprofit.

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AOC’s message

When AOC stepped onto the red carpet last night, she wasn’t just advocating for the wealthy to pay their share in taxes. She was also highlighting causes to which James has devoted her entire career: Supporting Black creators and entrepreneurs, and bringing wealth to the Black community. While the fashion industry has made some headway in recent years when it comes to diversity, Black people continue to be underrepresented in the field. So AOC’s message was an important one to bring to the Met Gala, which is a key moment in the fashion calendar.

And yet, not everybody was supportive of AOC’s approach. Vanessa Friedman, the New York Times‘ fashion critic, for instance, tweeted that it was a “complicated proposition” for AOC to attend a $35,000-a-ticket event in a gown blaring “Tax the Rich.” When thousands of people came to AOC’s defense, making the case that she got a free ticket, Friedman followed up with another tweet saying, “[J]ust because she did not pay for it does not mean it is ‘free.’ Someone paid 35K for her to attend. Just seems she might have wanted that money used for something other than an elite party ticket.”

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But plenty of people thought the dress sent a clear message. Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, tweeted, “A dress that makes legions of people talk is more than a dress. In spite of all the moderates who thought it was hypocritical and all the leftists who thought it was inadequate, getting a big country to talk about something you’re trying to legislate is an art form.”

From the moment she entered Congress in 2019, AOC has advocated for the wealthiest Americans to pay more in taxes, including a 70% tax bracket on income above $10 million. While it’s left to be seen whether the wealthy, fashionable guests at the Met Gala will take her dress’s message to heart, we do know that there was a spike in people Googling the phrase “Tax the Rich” last night.  As AOC pointed out in her Instagram Stories, the dress prompted everyday folks to think about the U.S. tax code, so she seems to be pointing people in the right direction.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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