Aurora James on the Future of the 15 Percent Pledge

A collective desire to shake off the dust of 2020 and restore normalcy has become this year’s early theme. But for Brother Vellies designer and 15 Percent Pledge founder Aurora James the path forward depends on retaining 2020’s defiant energy. “To some degree, I was a little concerned that people were going to breathe a sigh of relief so deep it put them in a passive place,” James said on a phone call from Los Angeles. “Now that we have this opportunity for change, we have to continue to think about the bigger picture—what it means to create economic equality for Black people in this country and the mass participation that that requires.” 

The political unrest and anti-police violence protests that rocked America last spring served as the impetus behind James’s 15 Percent Pledge. After the death of George Floyd, she drafted a mission statement on social media calling for action from major corporations. The nonprofit advocacy organization asked retailers to designate at least 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses, a number representative of the percentage of the United States’ population that is Black. More than offering new opportunities for creatives to sell their wares, it called for a reevaluation of workplace demographics and a multiyear commitment to hiring and supporting diverse talent. Sephora and Rent the Runway were early adopters, but James has spent the last nine months bringing new companies on board. “The past year has spent a lot of emotional capital,” she says. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking on the phone with companies who decide they’re not ready to make a commitment to Black people, which is heartbreaking for me. It’s clear that consumers want people to step up and sign contracts that can ensure meaningful change, but some companies aren’t interested in doing that.” 

Despite some brands’ reluctance, other opportunities are pushing the Pledge beyond its initial scope. As a designer, James’s first focus was fashion and beauty. The addition of furniture giants West Elm and Crate and Barrel, the review app Yelp, the Canadian bookstore chain Indigo, and this Condé Nast publication has brought the concept to adjacent industries. For James, the expansion opens the door for creatives in other businesses to have the same visibility level as their fashion counterparts. “There is a lot of light and attention given to fashion, and that isn’t always the case in other industries,” she says. “As someone successful, I’ve been given a platform, and I wanted to make sure that we could also start discovering and supporting a host of entrepreneurs across different fields. I was incredibly excited about the addition of West Elm and CB2 [because] it’s going to be incredible to see all sorts of different creations made by Black people.” 

Collaborations within fashion have also proved fruitful. The addition of a mass-market American institution like Gap Inc. was a coup. Still, today’s announcement that Kith, Moda Operandi, and Next Model Management are signing on takes the initiative a step further. Each company reflects a separate facet of the fashion industry and a new pathway for jobs, sales, and cultural contributions from Black talent. “We’re trying to facilitate a process,” said James. “A huge part of our responsibility is ensuring that a pipeline for Black-owned businesses exists, but we also have to ensure they are in a good space. One where we can recommend them to anyone who takes the Pledge.” 

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