It’s been an interesting year for the local fashion industry, which has gracefully ridden various Covid waves that have impacted retail, manufacturing, supply chains and high-profile events such as NZ Fashion Week. And while it has been tough, I think it has helped make Aotearoa’s industry stronger, or at least better, allowing brands to finesse their digital offerings and how they communicate authentically to their customer (or community, the latest favourite buzzword in fashion).
As the year comes to a close, I’m intrigued to see where 2022 takes us – and if people want to dress up again as they head out. I’m also excited to be witnessing another shift – returning expat creatives coming home and bringing their talented eye to New Zealand fashion, alongside a new appreciation for what makes us, us.
James Bush is one such talent, having returned home to Wellington last year after a number of years living in Paris, Brussels and London, where he was trained in various European design traditions that are now forming the basis of his namesake brand.
Launched last week with a small capsule range of six pieces, he has already caught the eye of some, dressing Wellington mayoral candidate and former Green Party chief of staff, Tory Whanau in his designs.
With a focus on sculptural forms and luxurious fabrics, this is sophisticated design - pared back luxury. From expertly tailored coats and blazers to simple but beautiful shirts, Bush describes them as “objects of beauty” that are made to last your lifetime, and be passed down to the next.
He credits being surrounded by architects (his mother and grandfather) as informing his appreciation for construction and cut; his background as a designer and pattern maker focusing on tailoring and dressmaking helps too (he also worked at popular boutique Scotties back in the day, and his clothes wouldn’t look out of place there now).
“I grew up in an environment where aesthetics were important and discussions around the visual world, architecture and art were totally normal,” explains James. “My mother is an architect as was her father so I grew up with a very strong awareness of space and the impact of one’s surroundings on one’s life. In a subliminal sense I think I learnt about the relationship between the built environment and how one feels, how space affects one’s sense of being. This has had a massive impact on the way I design, the most important thing to me is how someone feels in my clothes.”
Like all good fashion, the launch of the brand has been a personal affair: the pieces are worn and modelled by Bush’s mother-in-law Loralee Reid, and photographed in a family home designed by his architect grandfather in 1966 (the ceramics are his, too).
“The house holds real significance for me as it is a very pure expression of my grandfather’s style,” says James. “The building itself has an incredibly interesting blend of details, materials and textures, and the furniture spans the late 18th century, through mid century modern to contemporary pieces from the past few years. I love the personality that goes into mixing different eras and styles in a way that illustrates a singular aesthetic vision.”
That appreciation for a very specific aesthetic is something James says he is chasing in his work. “By this I mean a feeling as much as a look. It’s a sense of tension and release, hard and soft, an unexpected combination of masculine and feminine (which are really two different aesthetics that we have arbitrarily assigned to gender). I try to achieve this through a combination of cut, colour, volume, detail and weight. It’s much more about feeling than a specific identity or political message.”
Right now, James is also working on a line of silk and cotton slips and camisoles with ex-Scotties Wellington manager and buyer, Anna Ronberg, under the name Two Squares; the talented pair are having them made ethically in India, and set to launch in the early new year.
For James, being back home has also brought further appreciation for the changes in Aotearoa’s food and arts scenes, and an appreciation for local – what he describes as a “flourishing of New Zealand culture”. I asked him a few further questions about the new brand, his background, and the importance of the creative process.
What is your take on the fashion/design scene here right now, coming back from overseas with an objective eye on it?
There is a real modernity to NZ fashion and design, a lightness perhaps. In general NZ is in a really interesting place right now because the parameters of what the NZ aesthetic looks like are still being defined. Societies older than our current iteration have already defined themselves in this sense (think Danish design) but here we are in the extraordinary position of living in a moment when we can be part of establishing what that will be for New Zealand. Wanting to be part of that conversation was a major draw card for coming back.
A few super talented expats have returned home recently, obviously due to Covid - but do you think there are other reasons, like a renewed appreciation for Aotearoa’s place in the world and the small but strong creative scenes that we have developed here?
The size of NZ is very appealing to me at this point in my life, it is human scale. It’s possible to develop direct relationships with customers and build a business with a real community base.
While large international cities technically have more opportunities, particularly around funding etc gaining access is incredibly hard. There are so many gatekeepers and middle men who need to be navigated just to provide access to a market. There is also such a drive for the next big thing that it’s almost impossible to take the necessary time and space to grow and develop an idea. You’re constantly competing and end up wasting so much energy just staying afloat. NZ is calmer and more open.
We are also less burdened by historic traditions and a status quo that defines what and how things are created, I think this leads to a real sense of freedom and possibility. There is a new sense of cultural sophistication developing here too, particularly around food and beer/wine which has grown from our famous coffee culture. That is a really exciting environment to be creating work in.
Tell me a bit about what you did while in Europe - what were some highlights?
I first moved to Paris to Intern with Martin Grant which was an incredibly eye opening experience. The dedication and precision of the atelier was inspiring. I then moved to Brussels and worked as a design/pattern making assistant for David Szeto. David is an incredibly skilled and technical dressmaker and taught me most everything I know. The job was incredibly full on and involved a lot of travel between Brussels, Paris and our factory in rural Bulgaria. It was a hectic but incredible couple of years.
I then began my MA at the University of Westminster in London and commuted between London and Switzerland, where my partner was then working (I graduated in the same class as Priya Ahluwalia of Ahluwalia Studios). The teachers, guest lecturers and visitors I had access to on the course were incredible.
While studying I also worked as a consultant for a showroom in Paris, meaning every few months I would be in Paris for fashion week, selling collections to major retailers (Barney’s, Bergdorf Goodman etc). When I graduated I gained a place on the British Fashion Council’s graduate program. The program was orchestrated and run by Jane Palmer Williams, LVMH’s head of executive development. Working with Jane was a real highlight and one of those rare connections where she understood me completely and helped me to understand both myself and the way I work and think within a fashion context. We’re still in touch! I then worked in costume for A Brave New World and The Power which were both really interesting experiences.
Your designs look seriously beautiful, and I particularly love your focus on tailoring which is not always a strong suit here. Where did your interest in construction and cut come from?
I have always been interested in cut, I think it comes from the awareness of space that I learnt from a young age. In essence it’s an architectural principal applied to clothing. Tailoring can mean two things, it is both a way of cutting, entirely different to dress making and also a rich language of detailing. Topstitching, certain button holes, pocket flaps etc can all speak this language. I’m really interested in using this alongside softer cutting techniques in order to find that juxtaposition of hard and soft. Conversely the opposite is also fascinating, using more traditional tailoring techniques and juxtaposing them against a softer language of detailing. I’m interested in bringing sportswear detailing into this equation to see what happens there.
You do your own cutting - can you explain what that means, and why that’s important, for someone who may not understand the workings of fashion and/or manufacturing?
We live in a strange world where the ‘creative process’ has been idolised and defied beyond it’s natural boundaries. There is so much design in a single seam, or line of stitching. All those tiny decisions inform a greater whole. I don’t believe in going through a research process in order to produce illustrations and CAD tech drawings to pass onto someone else because only half the work has been done at this point. After that point you are dealing with someone else’s interpretation of what you are thinking. For me there is no separation between design and pattern cutting, one is merely an extension of the other.