before the party
Aurora James and Brandon Maxwell Are Recoding the American Dream
Aurora James, the New York-based designer behind the brand Brother Vellies, is no stranger to the Met Gala red carpet, in fact, she’s sort of a veteran—this is her fourth or fifth year, she can’t really recall. This time though, James is a guest of Texas-born and raised designer Brandon Maxwell, someone who knows a thing or two about dressing American women. For a look behind her look for the “Gilded Glamour”-themed soiree, we caught up with the designer in her hotel room a few hours before she hit the red carpet.
INTERVIEW: So how are you today? How’s it going?
JAMES: I’m good. I feel good you know, it’s a really interesting time right now.
INTERVIEW: What’s in your system so far?
JAMES: Coffee and a croissant.
INTERVIEW: What type of coffee?
JAMES: Oh, thanks for asking. An iced almond milk latte with a teaspoon of brown sugar melted into the Espresso.
INTERVIEW: How do you prep your skin for a red carpet?
JAMES: I did a facial in L.A. and I did another facial in New York actually. The one in L.A. was a woman named Angela Caglia and then in New York, it was Dr. Barbara Sturm. Every single Met Gala I’ve gone to, I go to her beforehand. Also, I moisturize as much as possible—the plane ride really saps it out of you.
JAMES: The worst, right? I drink plenty of water, I drink a ton of water.
INTERVIEW: How many Met Galas have you attended?
JAMES: I think this is 4 or 5…
INTERVIEW: Who are you wearing tonight?
JAMES: Brandon Maxwell.
INTERVIEW: A fellow Texan, work.
JAMES: He is amazing. I think the common theme for me with the Met Gala has always has been celebrating my friends and their accomplishments, in fashion and beyond. When we talk about the museum, we talk about what people are doing or making that’s archival, and I think in the context of American fashion, Brandon definitely represents that for me.
INTERVIEW: What was on the mood board for your look tonight?
JAMES: What Brandon really does best is—he’s really thinking about his friends. I just went to an event where he was being honored in Los Angeles, and Tiffany Haddish presented his award. She was talking about their experiences together over the years, and how he’s always honored her body and how she sees the world—how he really made her feel great. For me, I’m usually the designer in the equation and not really thinking about what I’m wearing very much, to be honest with you. It’s usually an afterthought. It was really, really wonderful for Brandon to be thoughtful about how to put clothes on my body in a way that made me feel really great.
INTERVIEW: If you had to describe the look in three words what would they be?
JAMES: Oh great question. I would say, strong. I often think about classic American shapes and silhouettes and how we think of those looks being presented on Black women. So, when I think about this shape, and we are using pearls, and pearls, historically, feel a little more white, right? We’ve done a really good job of taking classic motifs and giving them a more contemporary feel. On a lighter note, there are all these moments in my life, especially over the past two years, where it’s felt like very high stakes. I always make this comment, “Oh my god, I’m clutching my pearls.” This look feels like that, too.
INTERVIEW: Describe the shoes that you’re wearing tonight.
JAMES: I’m still deciding between two different shoes, to be honest with you. Both of them are really thoughtfully handmade shoes that I think are also just really beautiful red carpet shoes. My mom used to take me to The Costume Institute and also the Shoe Museum in Toronto when I was growing up and she would explain to me how historically high heels were used as a tool to, really, stop women from being able to run away. I think one of the things that have been so important to me with Brother Vellies is, really, to reframe that narrative. How do you create a product that’s actually going to empower women to really go the distance? Every single pair of Brother Vellies shoes that I make is a reminder to keep fun and glamour at the forefront of what you’re doing.
INTERVIEW: I know you might not have this nailed down yet, but what’s the beauty vision for tonight?
JAMES: A common thread in my approach to beauty is really still trying to look like myself. 99 percent of the time I’m not wearing makeup. But there are definitely some products that I like, that make me feel like I’m amplifying me, instead of painting a canvas from scratch. So, I would say i’m keeping it classic and minimal tonight with the beauty.
INTERVIEW: Lip gloss or lipstick?
JAMES: I prefer lip balm. I feel like I’m always hugging and kissing people. I’m always a healthy skin, healthy hair, type-person, so the lip balm makes more sense. Maybe it’s a tinted lip balm you know? Maybe it’s a dab of lipstick over the lip balm. We have to see. We’re really just only starting on this Met day, we may end up going in a little bit of a different direction.
INTERVIEW: What’s in your bag for tonight?
JAMES: Honestly, nothing. There’s nothing that I feel like I really need. I usually don’t carry so much baggage with me on a journey.
INTERVIEW: What does it mean to you to attend The Met Gala?
JAMES: Well, there’s a lot of confusion about what fashion is these days. It gets misconstrued with the idea of commercialism and consumerism. What I love about fashion is the idea of creating tools for communication and expression, and the values we have. I grew up with an understanding of fashion as being a form of cultural expression, and I think it’s really important that we are cataloging and archiving and being thoughtful about fashion, through the lens of culture, over the years. There is an African proverb that says: “Until the lion has a historian, the hunter will always be the hero.” I think that that holds a lot of weight when we think about the Met, because we need to make sure that we are cataloging and archiving a lot of different points of view.
INTERVIEW: What does the Gilded Age represent to you?
JAMES: It definitely is, of course, representative of a specific time, but I think we’re sort of going through our own version of it right now. We’ve had the privilege of surviving this two-year-long experience. Now more than ever, we really do want to adorn ourselves in a special way and celebrate a certain level of opulence. Now, at least with Brother Vellies, our customers are leaning into feathers and bright colors. I think it’s the feeling in your heart, where you want to be free, loud, and sing and dance. I think, energetically, that’s sort of what this theme means to me, at this moment.
INTERVIEW: Do you get nervous about walking the steps?
JAMES: No, not now. There’s no anxiety around that. There have been previous years where I’ve definitely felt anxiety or nervousness around walking the steps. This particular Met Gala, I’m feeling great. I have one of the most talented designers in the world, who also happens to be an incredible stylist, with me. So I don’t think this is my year to worry.
INTERVIEW: What’s the soundtrack for today?
JAMES: My gosh, well Brandon’s been playing this song—I want to see if I can find it. When we’ve been doing fittings and stuff he’s been playing this song “Big Energy” by Latto.
INTERVIEW: Oh, my god. The Mariah Carey remix.
JAMES: Yeah yeah. [Laughs]
INTERVIEW: I love that song.
JAMES: The song has literally been playing all the time, and I’m sure it’s going to come on within five minutes of me putting the dress on. That’s definitely been the vibe. The theme right now is just about having fun, looking your best, and celebrating the work of incredible designers. Really what it means to be an American woman—what does it mean to be an American woman right now?
INTERVIEW: Who are you excited to see tonight?
JAMES: I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it yet—I mean maybe it’s just speculation, but I’m excited to see Hillary Clinton. You know, the one that got away.
INTERVIEW: Do you have a favorite look from previous Met galas?
JAMES: I mean AOC’s [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] left an impression. It’s a lot easier to just walk into a room and sit at a table and be comfortable than it is to be deliberately uncomfortable in a room that a lot of people are hungry for access to and just aspire to be comfortable in. What happens when you get a seat at the table, what are you gonna do with it? We talk about what it’s like to be a woman in 2022 and what it means to be uncompromising and to push for change. It’s a big deal.
INTERVIEW: So after the party comes the after party—how many are you going to?
JAMES: I have RSVP’d for three but we’ll see. Here’s what I can say: Thank god I’m a shoe designer and have to wear the shoes that I design. I know that I’m going to be able to make it. I know that I’ll be able to make it to all three parties if it’s based on the shoes alone.
INTERVIEW: What is the best time to arrive at an after party?
JAMES: I usually don’t get there until 1 a.m. honestly. I don’t even know what time the gala ends.