the black magic of jimmy d

Imogen Wilson styles the new SS16 collection by New Zealand’s reigning prince of darkness, James Dobson in collaboration with Dirk Peterson.

by Sarah Gooding
11 November 2015, 12:55am

No New Zealand label better articulates black comedy than Jimmy D. For ten years Auckland-based designer James Dobson has merged moody darkness with light-hearted wit in collections that sum up the country's self-deprecating humour.

Jimmy D's dramatic, oversized dresses and intricate lingerie have seen the label become something of a touchstone for contemporary gothic design - which was first pulled out of the shadows and into the international spotlight by Nom*D and Zambesi in the 1980s.

Dobson differs not only in his ability to bring body-conscious elements to deconstructed unisex clothing, but in his regular collaborations with local artists like Andrew McLeod, who has contributed intricate metal-style illustrations to a handful of collections, and Erin Forsyth, who drew deathly donuts sprinkled with pentacles, upside-down crosses and maggots for AW13's Gloom Generation.

The tradition continues with Jimmy D's latest collection, SS16's On a Wing and a Beer, which sees Auckland-based artist Dirk Peterson add deliciously gory details to Dobson's dresses and shirts. Peterson then got behind the lens to capture the magic for an exclusive shoot with stylist Imogen Wilson in his K Road studio.

i-D called the designer to find out how Auckland's once-seedy strip has come to play such an important part in his work, and how the rapid evolution it's currently going through will affect his own.

i-D: It seems the whole creative scene in Auckland has really taken off in the last few years.
James Dobson: Yeah, I think so! I never used to feel much of an emotional connection to Auckland - I grew up in Wellington, and Auckland was just where I needed to be to do my label. But I am feeling more and more emotionally connected to it, there is a really great creative scene now.

Is it true that a particular restaurant there inspired your new collection?
Yeah, Peach Pit! That's where I first started thinking about the collection. On their opening night they had plates of chicken wings, and I'd done a collection a couple of years ago that was all about donuts that were dripping with maggots and things, so it's cutesy but dark at the same time. I started thinking about this idea of a small-town girl who works in a diner during the day and a strip club at night. Chicken wings felt like an obvious motif that was light-hearted but dark, 'cause they look a bit gross - there are shards of bones sticking out of them and they're dripping with this blood-like hot sauce.

How did Dirk come to be involved? Did you think of him when you were imagining these gory chicken wings?
Totally! When I thought about the chicken wings I'd recently seen some of Dirk's work in an exhibition, and he seemed to be the perfect balance of dark and poppy. Also he was born in Texas and really connected with this idea of Americana, so he felt like the perfect person for the brief.

You've done a few collaborations over the years, and you actually celebrated your tenth anniversary this year. How did that feel?
It's one of those things that creeps up on you, and I hate being the centre of attention, so the idea of throwing a birthday party was kind of traumatic, but I'm really glad that I did it, because I went back through my whole 10 years' worth of clothes and it made me evaluate how far I've come, and look at things I've designed from like eight years ago that I still really like, so it was really reaffirming. It was nice to stop and look back, but also it got me really excited about the future of the label again.

It's important to keep track of your work. I talk to a lot of creatives that despair about not having done enough, but if they just look over what they've done they often realise they've done a lot!
Yeah! Fashion is such a fucking relentless rollercoaster. You don't get a lot of time to reflect, it's like 'finish one collection, onto the next'. 

I was literally just reading about this! All of the designers that are leaving the major fashion houses in Europe are saying they're overworked, and that the relentless pace doesn't help with creativity at all.
Exactly. I read - it must have been a similar article - on Raf [Simons] and his really punishing schedule and how there's no time to actually develop ideas. Obviously I'm not quite working on that scale, but I can sympathise with it, to a degree.

Everyone's feeling it. But you've done some great work, and it's very reflective of the culture on K Road. Has it also been influenced by it?
Yeah! K Road has all of that diversity and those contrasts that I'm constantly pulling from in my collections - there's the darkness, the seediness, but then there's also whimsical, poppy moments as well. It's a melting pot of arts and red-light and hospitality, which is continually inspiring.

It's also changing really fast - Dirk's strip club print in this collection brings to mind K Road's iconic Las Vegas strip club, which has been an institution in Auckland's underground art scene, but has recently closed down. And the change seems bittersweet because it's necessary for revitalising the area but is potentially taking away some of its character too. 
It's a hard one. I've owned retail on K Road - we had a store, Children of Vision, that was in St Kevin's Arcade for five years. And that's why we opened on K Road - because I loved that idea of selling fucking 600-dollar Bernhard Willhelm dresses in that kind of location; it seemed kind of absurd. But whenever I would travel, those would be the kind of places that I would be interested in going to.

Is all of this change happening around you making you think about change with your label? Or do you think you've found your niche now?
I think so. I'm often still classed as an emerging designer, and I do actually feel like it all still feels fresh to me; I don't feel jaded by it. I look back at those first collections and there's a handwriting in there that I still relate to. There's still a push and pull of darkness and lightheartedness, and that will always go through my collections, because I can't stand fashion when it gets too serious and it makes you feel like an outsider because it's too up its own ass. If it ever feels like a collection's getting too serious, I have to put something in to lighten it, and I've been doing that since I started. So I feel like that DNA of the label is pretty set in stone now. I'm ready to push it forward for the next 10 years.


Text Sarah Gooding
Photography Dirk Peterson
Styling Imogen Wilson
Hair & Makeup Tanya Barlow 
Model - Dillyn at Unique Models

imogen wilson
jimmy d