Aurora James, founder of the made in Africa shoe line, Brother Vellies, is a badass. She founded the line as a way to introduce the world to her favorite traditional African footwear while also creating and sustaining jobs in Africa. The shoes are handmade in South Africa, Kenya and Morocco and the craftsmanship is simply incredible. I’ve been following Aurora and her work for some time (I highly recommend this interview) and her newest product led me to finally launch this series.
If you’ve read Cheap, you are likely aware of the issues caused by the huge amounts of donated clothing that end up in Africa. The Brother Vellies T-Shirt Project is Aurora’s answer to this issue.
A few years ago, on a trip to Nairobi to visit one of the brand’s workshops, Aurora saw a Kenyan man cycling down the street in a T-shirt that read “Kiss Me, I’m Irish.” It was funny. But it was also just one of the many absurd side effects of the current system of international clothing donations. Every year, Americans discard roughly 12 million tons of clothing, and a large portion of it ends up in Africa. But, contrary to our instincts, that clothing may be doing more harm than good.
In 2014, Aurora launched the Brother Vellies T-Shirt Project to help raise awareness of this problem. Specifically, she wants to highlight the damage foreign textile donations can do to local industry in Kenya; the influx of free imported clothes effectively destroys the market for locally produced garments.
This is how the T-Shirt Project works: with help from the artisans at her workshops, Aurora finds great American T-shirts in Kenya and sells them right back to America through her website, then all the proceeds go towards skills training and medical care in the local community. Because we’ve been sending our castoffs to Kenya for decades, among the piles of once-worn H&M going-out tops and discarded Romney Ryan 2012 T-shirts are original 70s ringer tees and collectible pieces of 90s DKNY. Aurora is well aware of the irony of sending these donations back to where they came from – but that irony is exactly what she wants to call out: the money raised by selling a T-shirt back to the US can be used to make more of a difference in Kenya that the donated shirt itself.
(N.B. The Ethical Edit is a new series where I will occasionally share wonderful products that are not made in America, but are made responsibly and by thoughtful brands. I often receive questions about what brands to buy from when there isn’t a reasonable American made option, this is my attempt at answering those questions. I’ve thought a lot about this and feel comfortable with the addition, but I’m open to feedback. If this isn’t what you want to see here, please don’t hesitate to let me know.)
Images and excerpt via i-D Magazine. Text by Alice Newell-Hanson, photography by Jason Eric Hardwick.