At The State Opening Of Parliament, Fashion Designer James Bush Offered Dignity

By Dan Ahwa
Usher of the Black Rod, Sandra McKie enters Parliament House during the State Opening of Parliament. Photo / Office of the Clerk

An austere look led the way for Parliament this week and offered our new Cabinet a silent masterclass in the power of keeping things dignified.

It was back to business in Wellington this week with the official opening of New Zealand’s 54th Parliament.

Although there were some notable and

Sandra McKie, the official Black Rod, wore an all-black ensemble designed by Wellington-based fashion designer James Bush, who was also part of this year’s inaugural Viva Next Gen show at New Zealand Fashion Week: Kahuria in September.

McKie, a well-known Wellington resident is the nation’s New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) Deputy Director Visits and Ceremonial. Her permanent role as Black Rod came about in 2020 for the opening of New Zealand’s 53rd Parliament. McKie is the first female to hold the title in its 130-year history in New Zealand. With a career that spans more than four decades, McKie has played a vital role in paving the way for women in our military force.

The role of the Usher of the Black Rod this week was to summon Members of Parliament to attend the Speech from the Throne, a ceremonial ritual steeped in history. On Tuesday in Parliament, McKie rapped on the door of the debating chamber three times to inform members that the Governor-General commanded their attendance, before leading them to the Legislative Council Chamber for the outlining of the Government’s policy and legislative intentions.

“I’ve known Sandra for years and we have many of the same design references,” says Bush from his studio in Wellington. “She has a very defined and extremely chic personal style and is very easy to work with.

“We were both aware that her presence must command, but not dominate; must lead, but remain discreet. I think those are qualities that both of us appreciate in both life and clothing more broadly,” says the designer, who describes McKie’s outfit as “the loudest whisper”.

Sandra McKie in the foreground leads Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro on to the grounds of Parliament during the State Opening of Parliament on December 6. Photo / Getty Images
Sandra McKie in the foreground leads Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro on to the grounds of Parliament during the State Opening of Parliament on December 6. Photo / Getty Images

Bush’s preference of combining soft silhouettes and sharp lines is typical of his design handwriting.

“I go back to masculine and feminine as two distinct aesthetics. Traditionally, one represents strength, while the other, softness (although this is absolutely not to be confused with weakness) and it was important to me that there was a softness, perhaps a more traditionally female elegance to how Sandy appeared. How could we maintain that traditionally male sense of power, but do so in a more feminine, and indeed elevated way?”

The black ensemble consisted of a custom black silk dress, with a tailored shoulder and a pleated pencil skirt. This was paired with a black satin, panelled, A-line coat which was developed from a red satin panelled coat shown as part of his collection shown during the Viva Next Gen show in September. Featuring a 1960s-style kimono sleeve and sharp tailored collar, the design’s drama was reinforced by the choice of fabric and panel detailing.

“This was intended to provide a sophisticated and soft contrast to the rigidity of the more traditional uniforms surrounding her while also working as a backdrop for Sandra’s many medals,” explains Bush.

To complete the head-turning look, James designed a feathered bicorne hat in matching black satin, a style of hat loosely based on the bicorne style that rose to prominence in the late 18th century, following its adoption by Napoleon Bonaparte as leader of the first French republic and then emperor of France.

“It has since become a staple of military uniforms across the world and this seemed appropriate given Sandra’s illustrious career in the army,” says Bush.

“I felt the style needed to be altered slightly to suit Sandra’s role as the first female Usher of the Black Rod. I tweaked the proportions and added the pointed tip to give a more contemporary appearance and chose to make it in black satin to match the coat. The plume on the hat had been a gift to New Zealand from the British army some years ago and the chief of the New Zealand army gallantly allowed us to use it on the hat.”

Born into a family of architects, Bush has design running through his DNA. Speaking with Viva in August, he shared the journey to launching his label in 2021. After finishing his studies in Wellington, he relocated to Europe where he spent time honing his craft in Paris, Brussels and London. He completed his MA in menswear at the University of Westminster in London. After gaining a place in the British Fashion Council’s prestigious graduate programme, Bush decided to commit solely to his own label.

“I wanted to take that sophisticated European aesthetic and add in something distinctively New Zealand,” says Bush. “For me, that’s about freshness, modernity and ease, but also the fact that we celebrate women in positions of power. Those are the women I want to dress.”

Being in the capital means the designer is near Parliament and its representatives, including regular client and friend Tory Whanau, the mayor of Wellington. Adding McKie to his roster of influential clients, Bush is keeping a key eye on this next chapter for New Zealand politics and this new era of power dressers leading the country.

“We have five senses, and no more. How could the visual possibly be unimportant?” he says of the significance of dress in politics.

“Can you imagine a world where we don’t care about smell? The visual, and therefore what we wear, is one of the most important things to consider because nine times out of 10, not only is it the first impression it is also the basis from which we build the rest of our opinions. Clothing is a deep and beautiful language, with layers of meaning and identity woven through its many different components such as detailing, stitching, fabrication and silhouette. Of course one can choose not to engage, not to speak this language, but at the end of the day ignorance gets you nowhere.”

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