The day after the gown she designed for Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made global headlines, Aurora James was reflecting on the fact that she didn’t see many other Black women designers represented at the Met Gala, which this year was meant to celebrate “American independence.” (There were several Black men designers in attendance as guests or dressing guests.)
“I think there may have been one person that I saw last night who was wearing Fe Noel, and that was DeBlasio’s wife,” she said. “Who else was?”
Noting this kind of thing is second nature for Ms. James, who is the founder of the 15 Percent Pledge, an initiative compelling retailers like Sephora and Gap to devote 15 percent of their inventory to Black-owned businesses.
She is also the founder of Brother Vellies, a shoe and accessory line. And she is the woman who dressed Ms. Ocasio-Cortez for a $35,000-per-ticket event in a white mermaid gown blaring “Tax the Rich” in red scrawl on its back, sending the internet into a tailspin.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez responded to the criticism Tuesday on her Instagram, defending her decision to “puncture the fourth wall of excess and spectacle” and citing a double standard in scrutiny of male and female politicians.
Here, Ms. James talks about her design — a wool jacket dress with an organza flounce, worn with a matching “Tax the Rich” satin bag, available without the embroidery for $995 — and her perspective on dressing Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. (The two have been following each other’s careers for some time, though after this ordeal, Ms. James said, “I would say that we are becoming friendly now.”)
To use a somewhat outdated phrase, your dress kind of broke the internet. Were you expecting that?
I don’t know what we were expecting, to be honest. For us it was about delivering a message, and I think given what the Met Gala is, and who the congresswoman is, and what her message really always is, we felt that it was appropriate.
What were the early concepts for the look?
I definitely wanted to make something here in New York — that was really important to me. She’s obviously a woman of the Bronx, but she’s also Puerto Rican, and so themes of her heritage came into play. There was an artist, Shelley Pehrson, that I found through a friend who makes these really beautiful flowers out of paper; she created the Flor de Maga, which is the Puerto Rican national flower, for me in the very beginning, and we designed the shoes around the idea of adorning them with that flower.
When it came to the dress, we wanted to play with the idea of traditional suiting, because when we think of the congresswoman, she’s usually in a suit or something of that nature.
Did you know that you wanted the phrase “tax the rich” to be on the dress from the beginning?
No, we talked through a lot of different ideas and themes.
How did you decide where to place the text, and how you were going to apply it?
I didn’t really want to overthink it too much. The subject matter this year was “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” and when you start diving into what that means and how to interpret the theme, I think ultimately the congresswoman in and of herself represents the theme.
It really wasn’t about having the most perfect writing or anything like that. It was really about having an honest output.
Did you write the words yourself?
No, actually, one of my design assistants wrote it — that’s just his handwriting, and it was embroidered.
How did you think about the text as a design element, beyond it being a statement? It’s pretty large, and the letters slightly curve with her body.
We know how much people want to control women’s bodies. Placing the letters on her once the dress was already fit onto her, and really working around her shape, is sort of the opposite of that.
When you stepped on the carpet together, what was going through your mind?
So much of what we see sometimes in fashion does feel a little bit performative, but this is a woman who literally does this work day in and day out. Given the last several years that we’ve had in this country, I think that we all need to be asking ourselves what we’re doing with our platform. If we get a seat at the table, what do we want that conversation to be over dinner?
Listen, it would be a lot easier to go to the Met Gala and just wear a really beautiful dress and look really beautiful and have a good time. But that was not her intention, right? Her intention was to take a conversation that’s largely existing in working-class communities and bring it into rooms where that conversation might be a little bit more uncomfortable. It’s not easy to show up in a room like that, with a statement like that.
There’s a lot of people who gain access to rooms like that and are too afraid to rock the boat.
Once you got inside, and once you were at those tables with millionaires and billionaires, how was the dress received?
Overall, people were so happy about it, and really surprised.
I also have to say, the staff that was there — which were mainly Black and brown people, predominantly — they were really excited to see that message being delivered.
Did you experience or observe any kind of awkwardness around the dress?
I didn’t really. A lot of times people would be seeing her from the front, and then she walks away, and it’s like: “Oh. Ohhh.” But it’s sort of a joy in the unexpected.
Who was at your table?
Oh, I don’t think we can share tables.
The criticism that there is some hypocrisy in mingling at an event among the very people that you’re calling to tax — what is your response to that?
I think that it is quite smart to deliver a message that you have directly to the people that you need to hear it. In person.
If your congressperson is going to be in the room with those people, what would you want them to say? Ultimately, what she’s saying is that the one percent need to be taxed.
One of the images circulating last night, along with the photo of your dress, was one of the Trump-supporting singer Joy Villa at the Grammys in 2019, when she wore a white dress with the words “Build the Wall” written in big red letters on the back. Were you referencing that at all?
No. I’ve never heard of that person.
This interview has been edited and condensed.