Style Liaisons With Viva Next Gen Designer James Bush

By Annabel Dickson
Designer James Bush will be presenting his clothes at this year’s New Zealand Fashion Week. Photo / Jacob Pietras

Ahead of the Viva Next Gen Show at New Zealand Fashion Week, we speak to the six selected designers on their style journey.

A dance between structure and fluidity is how one could describe designer James Bush’s Pōneke-based label.

Born into a family of architects, James was destined for design. After finishing studies in Wellington, James travelled 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, and after gaining a place on the British Fashion Council’s prestigious graduate programme, launched his eponymous brand, James Bush, in 2021.

“I wanted to take that sophisticated European aesthetic and add in something distinctively New Zealand,” says James. “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.”

James has grown into a label focusing on a combination of traditional women’s dress-making and English men’s tailoring. “Both of these factors are really just aesthetic languages that we’ve applied to gender. It’s a combination of hard and soft, tension and release. Increasingly, I’m looking at textile and sculptural shapes to add a further layer of depth.”

Tell us about what your day-to-day role involves.

Like most small fashion businesses, we do design, production and manufacturing, wholesale and retail. So it involves a lot! Form and fit is the one thing I won’t compromise on. It makes the difference between something feeling expensive and flattering, or awkward and cheap. So, I try to spend as much time as possible pattern-cutting and working on design development.

I also love having a retail space attached to my studio and being able to see my garments on new people every day. Although it’s scary at times, I like seeing the flow-on effects of my design decisions, and the way in which commercially successful pieces inform my future work. I’m not really an art for art’s sake designer, I see it more as an equation. How can I create something that satisfies me creatively, and that the customer loves wearing every day?

What, in your opinion, makes style?

True style is the expression of a point of view or an aesthetic language and doesn’t require being up with trends or current fads. I think very few people have true style and those that do often create a uniform that they wear for decades, subtly changing the proportions to remain culturally relevant to the changing times.

“Form and fit is the one thing I won’t compromise on,” says James. Photo / Jacob Pietras
“Form and fit is the one thing I won’t compromise on,” says James. Photo / Jacob Pietras

Describe your personal style and what you wear when you want to feel your best.

Tailored trousers, leather shoes, and a shirt or knitwear, plus a statement coat. Of late, I’ve switched from cropped trousers with chunky shoes and chunky knitwear to long, wide trousers with a delicate lace-up and slim knitwear. It felt like time to change the proportions. I don’t really believe in dressing for best, I’d rather look good every day.

Tell us about a piece of clothing or item you have inherited that’s particularly special to you.

A 1970s plaid overcoat from my grandfather. It’s one of those old heritage coats which still pop up in op shops; they’re from the post-WWII golden age of New Zealand manufacturing. Both my husband and I thrash it, meaning between us it’s been worn nearly every day for the past 13 years. It’s completely threadbare at the pockets and cuffs, but we’ll keep wearing it until it literally falls off.

What’s your earliest fashion memory?

My aunt was married when I was three or four years old. She wore peach suede mules with huge bows on the front (also suede). They were kinda Marie Antoinette meets early 90s party girl, and they were the most fabulous thing I’d ever seen. Unfortunately, I stole and trashed them by walking around the house and tripping over things.

Dream fashion collaboration?

The current obsession with collaborations has led to an incredibly wasteful amount of soulless and average product design. Let’s stick two logos on a T-shirt riveting. I’ll pass on this one.

What has been the most rewarding thing about creating a label, and what has been the biggest challenge?

Let’s cut straight to it, managing cash flow is an absolute bitch. Aside from that, the most rewarding thing has been taking the time to find my creative voice and express that. I’m slowly developing a loyal customer base and watching that grow really does melt my little heart. I love having the ability to relate to my customers and talk to them about what works and what doesn’t. Growing a business is incredibly rewarding, even though it’s stressful as all hell.

There are a lot of challenges ahead for designers, from navigating the post-Covid world to working towards sustainability. Is there anything that you hope will emerge creatively from this time?

I can’t stress enough that I really hope that the sustainability conversation will result in better design, but I’m not optimistic. So much of the discourse in this field revolves around finding ‘sustainable’ ways to keep overproducing masses of average products. The scale of production and consumption are the biggest issues. Buy less but buy better. Well-cut, beautifully made clothes that fit well last forever and are handed down, I really believe that this is the only form of sustainable design.

How have your international travels and schooling helped to influence the designer you are today?

Across the board, I think a lack of exposure to different opinions and perspectives continually hinders New Zealand from becoming everything it could be. I spent the vast majority of my 20s in Europe and by being exposed to so many different cultural perspectives and ways of being, and by trying, failing and trying again, I began to understand my perspective on the world and on design. I learned to question my opinions and to understand the reasons I had formed them.

I think being an outsider over there also meant I had a natural tendency to question the status quo. The downside is that now I feel like an outsider in New Zealand too, so I don’t really know where I fit, although, in a funny way, the resulting necessity to create a world for myself has provided the perfect space to develop my work.

“True style is the expression of a point of view or an aesthetic language and doesn’t require being up with trends or current fads,” says James. Photo / Jacob Pietras
“True style is the expression of a point of view or an aesthetic language and doesn’t require being up with trends or current fads,” says James. Photo / Jacob Pietras

How do you include heritage and classic inspiration to create a modern garment?

Realistically, fashion has moved away from dressmaking and tailoring and become product design. We shop for products a new pair of blue jeans, a tailored jacket, etc all of which have an established design language that has come to define our understanding of heritage. This is the same for classic English or Italian tailoring as it is for an MA-1 bomber jacket.

My approach is to work within these aesthetic design languages but to look at what elements I can remove, enhance or play with. How can I keep within a ‘heritage’ framework but do it differently? Or how much of that heritage framework can I throw away, whilst still speaking the language of a specific garment?

What can we expect to see from you in the Viva Next Gen show at NZFW 2023?

Sculptural forms, exquisite detailing, maximal minimalism.

Favourite drink?

A pint of larger, luv.

Dream holiday destination?

The Maldives. For the first time in my life, I’d like to sit still and do absolutely nothing.

Accounts you love to follow?

On Instagram, @Therascalhouse profiles historical interiors and furniture with a focus on early modernism and art deco.

@Tefaf is the offical account of the world’s best fine art, antiques, and design fair. This is the place to find the absolute best of the best (for a small fee, of course).

@Romainduquesne is a London-based photographer who shot my MA collection back in the day. He has the most interesting approach to light.

What are you reading at the moment?

Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries (Volume 1) by Chips Channon, edited by Simon Heffer.

Favourite song, album or podcast?

I loved Anne McElvoys’ interviews for The Economist, but sadly the series ended. Something similar I do enjoy is Leading, political interviews by Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart.

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