We talk to James Dobson of Jimmy D and Emily Miller Sharma of Madame Hawke.

James Dobson
Jimmy D

Dress by Jimmy D | Macramé Knit bracelet by Sophie Laurs | Rings: Model’s own

At first glance, the label Jimmy D seems characterised by a dark, moody aesthetic. Designer/founder James Dobson is the first to admit he’s drawn to ‘90s grunge: deconstructing the era and the attitude attached to it has been integral to his body of work. Under closer inspection, though, Jimmy D is defined more by contrast. Pitch-black T-shirts are offset by startling white prints, and floor-length gowns are made entirely of cotton, showcasing the versatility and sense of humour for which the Auckland-based designer has become renowned. “I’m definitely drawn to that angsty aesthetic, but I get over it as well.” He explains. “I don’t want to be too serious or too intellectual, so I like to put a bit of light relief in the collections.”

This contrast of dark and light, together with Dobson’s strong narrative focus, has given the label its broad appeal. “When I’m designing I don’t have a specific person in mind. It’s more about the clothes and the feel of the collection. I know it will attract the right person in the end.”

Discovering magazines such as Pavement and The Face while at high school in Upper Hutt marked the point at which Dobson ‘noticed’ fashion. Layouts shot in someone’s garage presented fashion as accessible and stripped of any pretension. “It wasn’t in a glossy white studio. It wasn’t Louis Vuitton or anything like that. It was New Zealand labels.” After completing a Bachelor of Design at Massey University majoring in photography, Dobson spent a year abroad and then moved to Auckland in 2003. The following year, Jimmy D was born. What was striking even in his early collections was a strong creative vision, and a sense of style marked by layered silhouettes and androgynous shapes.

He now co-owns the Children of Vision boutique in St Kevin’s Arcade, where Jimmy D is sold alongside labels such as Bernhard Willhelm of Paris and Melbourne’s Material by Product. He enjoys the effect the clothes have on each other. “I like people interpreting my pieces in their own way and mixing them with other labels.”

Despite this collective approach, both Dobson and his work retain a strong sense of quiet individuality, a quality he recognises and nurtures. “I’m not at all interested in trends, or what was on the catwalk this season. For me, it’s about people seeing something new in what I’m doing, feeling inspired by it and wanting to dress in a way that reflects who they are.” He’s happy when people make his designs their own. “I don’t want to create clones. I don’t like the idea I’m telling people how to dress.”

Emily Miller-Sharma
Madame Hawke

Dress and Jacket by Madame Hawke | Shoes by Opening Ceremony

Sitting with Emily Miller-Sharma in the backyard of her Kingsland flat feels a bit like being at the theatre. The twenty-six year-old, who has been designing for the label Madame Hawke for just over two years, punctuates her sentences with gestures and dramatic expressions, so it’s hardly surprising that her philosophy behind clothing is that it’s a type of role play. “As soon as you put something on,” she declares, “it alters the way you behave.”

Madame Hawke is sold in Ruby boutiques throughout New Zealand alongside clothing under the Ruby label. Miller-Sharma likes to think that the people she designs for have the same fun approach to dressing, and envisages someone “wearing a reasonably expensive dress who’s gone round the back of a party, jumped the fence, and are sitting on the grass having a smoke.” At the same time, she’s acutely aware of the effect that clothing has on a person’s identity. “It’s your second skin and the first space you inhabit – an extension of yourself. It has huge power over the way you experience your day, functionally and emotionally.”

Miller-Sharma began sewing in high school after tiring of unsuccessful shopping trips. “I wanted to wear clothes I couldn’t find.” She studied Fashion and Textiles at Massey University in Wellington and found inspiration living with other designers, musicians and “general creative riff-raff.”

Her path has been linear, without any “weird type of indecision” along the way. After working as a pattern maker in Auckland she spent time overseas, among other things working as a tour driver for New Zealand band So So Modern, making their costumes as they travelled. In 2007, she returned to Auckland and began designing for Madame Hawke after her parents’ company bought the Ruby franchise. What was initially considered an intermediate position grew into a full-time role and Miller-Sharma worked tirelessly to build up the label while remaining true to the brand’s original style.

Is it difficult working in an industry regarded by many as superficial? “It pisses me!” she exclaims, “painting is considered high art, photography is a bit lower, clothing is further down, and even lower is food preparation”. Is that because clothing and food are consumer products? Maybe, but she believes “the real reason they’re not considered as important – and why people feel self conscious talking about them in an academic sense – is because we deal with them daily and are familiar with them.”

She considers the fashion industry in New Zealand inspiring, with one proviso: “It seems that if New Zealanders want to be taken seriously, their clothing has to be intellectual, and that’s not fun! To be taken seriously, you shouldn’t have to be frowning and covered from your wrists to your ankles.”

She tries to avoid rules in fashion, and designs using bright colours and bold prints, producing ranges that include party dresses, structured pieces and casual wear. When women dress, she emphasises, they shouldn’t be limited by social constructs of what is and isn’t acceptable. “We should be able to have a level of overt sexuality without being ridiculed or denigrated for it. It’s a part of who we are, so let’s embrace it.”

- Sylvia Varnham O'Regan
Photography: Hans Hammond
Stylist: Anja Bucher
Hair: Bex at Toni and Guy
Make up: Aimee at MAC
Model: Dominique at August


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