Aotearoa Designer James Bush Offers up Sage Advice for the Next Generation of Creatives


— December 19, 2023 —

As the end of the year creeps up on us, we’re in a reflective mood — feeling all the emotions as we think back to the new friends we’ve had the good fortune to meet over the course of the year. We started 2023 with a strong line-up of Naarm talent; our first shoot of the year was with none other than Heartbreak High’s Gemma Chua-Tran. As the year went on, Phoebe Wolfe took us along for the ride as she directed her first short film. We met musician mavens Chanel Loren and Milkufrolicked on the beach in Queensland, and got to know multi-hyphenate Aaraf Adams as she shared some of her profound and personal thoughts. 

We also traversed the globe, visiting fashion weeks in Sydney, Copenhagen, New York and Aotearoa, New Zealand.  The latter left a lasting impression, so much so that we hit up one of the designers in the Viva Next Gen show to say hi again.

James Bush is based in the capital city of Pōneke, where he runs his womenswear label, J.Bush. We asked local design student Isabella Kopae to rack his brains — from top places to visit if you come to town, how he relaxes in his downtime, to his best advice for anyone new entering the fashion industry. A quick moment to appreciate one of the many gems:

"You’re only young and dumb once, so jump high and put your hand up for things you think you might not get."

And for those wanting to launch a fashion brand?

"Don’t do it straight out of school. Make your mistakes on someone else’s dollar first." Sage.

Get to know James below, bookmark his wise words, and stay tuned for our final editorial of the year coming later this week.


Can you give us the J.Bush elevator pitch?
J.Bush is a womenswear line with a strong focus on clean, engineered tailoring and technical innovation. We integrate form and detail in a three-dimensional manner, constructing clothing around the female form.

What was the initial impetus behind starting J.Bush? 
I’d spent a few years working with other designers to realise their visions, and I hit a point where I felt like I wanted to do that for myself. I knew I still had a road ahead of me in terms of focusing on that vision, but it felt like the right moment to start down that path.

Where do you live now, and where do you consider home?
I live in Newtown, Wellington, with my husband, David. We bought the house in 2020 and spent two years renovating it. I think I can make anywhere home however my immediate environment is INCREDIBLY important to me, so the objects, furniture and art that surround me need to be put together in a specific way in order for me to feel like I belong. I need to make my own space in a city.

How inspired are you by your surroundings? Do you think the city you’re living in informs both your style and the J.Bush aesthetic in any way?
I’m incredibly affected by my surroundings, and if I’m perfectly honest, I find New Zealand difficult from this perspective. The low quality of our built environment is incredibly depressing. Fashion design is inherently a reaction to a cultural zeitgeist and a response to an environment. Therefore, the best fashion tends to come from dense areas, where a zeitgeist is more able to take hold. That said, I think Wellington has a strange ability to attract people with unusual perspectives and interesting things to say, so it’s not all bad!


What has been the most challenging part of starting J.Bush? 
Having the confidence to stand by my decisions and see them through is the hardest part of creating a product and putting it out there.

Do you have a muse, if so who and why?
No, I’ve never really worked like that.

Outside of J.Bush, how do you like to spend your time?
Running a small business doesn’t allow for a huge amount of spare time, however, I’m really into interior design, specifically French art deco and Italian rationalist architecture as the detailing is extraordinary. I play classical piano to relax.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Any idea is a good idea if it’s well executed, and any brilliant idea is irrelevant if it’s badly executed.

What were some of the best parts of working alongside students at Massey University, as a tutor?
I absolutely love teaching, and I hope it’s something I can do (part-time) for the rest of my life. The best part is teaching people to see. Students, indeed people in general, don’t always see what’s in front of them. We see established social values and pre-conditioned ways of thinking. Pushing students to question what they are looking at, to see something for what it is, rather than what it appears to be is incredibly rewarding. The French Philosopher Yves Bonnefoy wrote, “There is much to fear when it comes to looking.” Only when we learn to see can we understand the world around us.

I’m currently coming to the end of my Bachelor of Design majoring in fashion, and I wondered if you had any advice for me or anyone new entering into the fashion industry?
First off, you’re only young and dumb once, so jump high and put your hand up for things you think you might not get. It’s amazing the doors that open for you because of youth that won’t be open a few years later. Do EVERYTHING. Now is not the time to go slow, you have your whole life ahead of you, but there will never be as many possibilities as there are now – you just have to learn to see them.
Secondly, your first job out of uni is the most important. Not because it has to be the best job but because it sets you on a trajectory and introduces you to a specific world. You then learn how that world works, so you need to make sure it’s the world you want to be in. If you have to do hospo for a while, work at the bar where you’d like to be a patron, or where the people you admire go to drink, the best way to get the dream job in the future is to put yourself in the world of that job now.

What are your favourite places in Pōneke that you would recommend to someone visiting for the first time?
Absolute no.1 is Sink in Newtown. It’s like a second-hand shop for art. The owner, Piers, sells NZ art from all eras and is incredibly passionate. It’s the kind of shop that doesn’t really exist anymore.
The Ram, is a new bar on Cuba St and feels like it’s been here for years. It’s a casual gastro pub.
Next Door Bar in Newtown. Molly is in sole charge and she’s always up for a chat, mixes a fantastic drink and brings a great vibe.  

What would be your five top tips for someone wanting to pursue starting their own fashion brand?
1. Don’t do it straight out of school. Make your mistakes on someone else’s dollar first. 

2. You need to sell clothes to someone to pay your bills so be realistic. If your friends are all broke its unlikely they’ll be great customers even if they love your work. Find a demographic who can afford to buy your clothes. Your customer will change and develop with time but you’ve got to sell to someone to get started. 

3. Pay an accountant. A good accountant gets you more money back than they charge to hire. It’s 100% worth it. 

4. Find the thing you’re best at and focus on this. Is it coats, dresses, trousers? Don’t try and do everything at the start. All you need is one really great product to get you going so work out what it is.

5. Remember that you are not your work. If something doesn’t sell its not because you are a talentless waste. It’s far more likely to be because the neckline is in the wrong place or the sleeve is too tight. Learn to constructively analyse and give yourself a break.  

If you could only listen to one genre of music for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Late 19th century, French and Italian Opera.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Coming back to NZ has really given me the time to focus my aesthetic perspective and work out how to express it. Unfortunately, access to fabric and components is really difficult, and manufacturing is expensive and complicated, so I think it’s unlikely I’ll still be here in ten years time. I hope to be in a busy city (New York or Paris?), working in a team environment and in a position to be able to help younger designers learn to see.   


Interview: Isabella Kopae      Photos: Chloe Hill


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