Meet the Ghanaian-Canadian Designer Who Created AOC’s “Tax the Rich” Dress
At the 2021 Met Gala, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.) ruffled feathers when she appeared in a dress with “Tax the Rich” written on it. The white mermaid dress, which quickly made headlines in the United States and around the world, was designed by Aurora James, a black immigrant designer, entrepreneur and social activist.
She grew up in a multiracial family in Guelph, just outside of Toronto. Her father is from Ghana and her mother is from Canada. At age seven, James, his mother and stepfather moved to Jamaica. The trip was influenced by her maternal grandmother who visited the island and fell in love with its relaxed vibe, according to Vogue.
Growing up, she had an imperfect relationship with her mother, who first introduced her to fashion. Her mother also taught her to fend for herself.
“Everywhere my mom and I went, everything she put on her body had a story,” James told Vogue. “She was explaining why the clogs originated from Holland and the types of wood they used to make them. She would visit the Inuit communities and show me their entire tanning process, all the by-products, and tell me how they used them to create these shoes.
“I fell in love with fashion as an art form that can talk about people, time and culture.”
James’ love of fashion led her to found the luxury clothing brand Brother Vellies, which showcases the work of artisans from Africa and recently from Mexico and Honduras. She said she was shocked at how Africa’s garment manufacturing sector had been ignored.
She therefore decided to use Brother Vellies to raise African artisans without erasing their heritage. Over the years, she has transformed the company into an established brand that is worn by everyone, including big celebrities like Beyonce, Nicki Minaj and Elaine Welteroth.
James has a workshop in South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya and Morocco, according to Vogue, providing a lifeline for regional crafts.
She is also the founder of 15 Percent Pledge, an initiative that challenges companies to “pledge 15% of their storage space to black-owned businesses.” She started the initiative after a series of personal disappointments. Already, the Pledge has made big gains. Luxury beauty brand LVMH and West Elm signed the Pledge.
Time Magazine named James one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Also, in 2015, she won the CFDA / Vogue Fashion Fund award.
James and AOC’s “Tax the Rich” dress
James told CNN that AOC, whose work she had followed for years, approached her to make the dress for the event. The two then went on to talk about what message they would like to get across with the look.
“When we talk about inclusion and access to closed rooms for people of color, when you finally get a seat at the table, you have to decide what message you want to convey,” James said. “For the member and I, economic equality and economic justice were a priority.”
James made the dress entirely in factories in New York City using mostly discarded scraps of fabric, she said. Even though the dress caused major controversy, it was an effort by the AOC to highlight black talent that is often overlooked and underrepresented.