This summer, the Brooklyn member and Creative Director of Brother Vellies, a sustainably crafted accessories line, turned her attention to major retailers and launched a campaign to get them to support Black-owned businesses
By Cori Burford Portrait by Joe Cruz Images courtesy of Brother Vellies and the 15 Percent Pledge
‘I needed the two sides of who I am – a business person and a Black woman – to meet in the middle and say, “What would it take for me to actually trust and believe these companies?”’ she remembers.
In response, she came up with the concept for the 15 Percent Pledge: a non-profit organisation that advocates for Black-owned businesses and urges major retailers to commit 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned products – a number roughly equal to the percentage of Black people who make up the population of the United States.
The pledge felt like a natural and necessary next step for James. Her award-winning shoes and accessories label, Brother Vellies, is dedicated to supporting the work of African artisans. For a long time, she had seen brands taking inspiration from underrepresented communities without giving them credit or compensation. ‘Both companies are really exercises in supporting underrepresented groups,’ she explains.
‘I needed the two sides of who I am – a business person and a Black woman – to meet in the middle and say, “What would it take for me to actually trust and believe these companies?”’
Since then, several other big companies have signed the pledge, including West Elm, Vogue, Rent The Runway, InStyle, and recently, Macy’s – which will apply the conditions of the pledge across all of its retail categories. ‘It represents literally billions of dollars collectively that is now going to support Black-owned businesses around America,’ notes James.
In 2021, James plans to get more major retailers involved with the pledge, while also focusing on some of her sustainability goals. ‘Now that we’re going to have a new administration, I actually feel more comfortable talking about things like climate change,’ she says. ‘I’m looking forward to going back to addressing some of the environmental issues that have been important to me.’