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Explore The Boundaries That Define You

22 Apr 2024

Acclaimed NZ designer James Dobson is fearless with his fashion and pulls no punches with advice for his younger self.

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A Big idea contributor

James Dobson has always done things his own way.

Since establishing his own fashion label Jimmy D in 2004, his fearless approach has been met with much acclaim. 

Having spoken openly about how fashion and queer culture has helped inform his career and identity, Dobson's returned to his Hutt Valley roots to partner with the Dowse Art Museum.

The House of Dowse x Jimmy D exhibition looks at the Dowse through Dobson's unique lens - described as ranging "from suburban dreamer to dark debauchery to unconventional surrealist.”

Dobson states “It takes guts to live outside the beige norm. I work in contrasts; I like to imagine a collision of worlds.” 

The Big Idea asked Dobson what he'd tell his younger self if he had the chance - and his answers match his approach to his mahi.

Get a cat

I spent all of my twenties terrified of cats. Aside from being quite allergic to them, they also seemed kind of unpredictable and mean. 

But when we got Styx, a giant part Maine Coon furball, all of that changed. 

He’s lived with us on Karangahape Road - spending his days lounging in the planter boxes high up above the chaos of that iconic street. He’s moved with us to multiple houses and even to another city. He’s just the dorkiest, sweetest, most curious little animal/person. 

Doing life with a cat is much better. Get a cat.

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The House of Dowse x Jimmy D exhibition. Photo: Supplied.

Explore all the boundaries that define who you are

I started exploring makeup in my mid-thirties and it’s been incredibly liberating. 

I was reasonably comfortable pushing gender binaries with the way I dressed, and I began wondering why it stopped at the neck. I started trying to figure out what a beauty look on myself would look like that expressed who I was - separate to the cookie-cutter approach to makeup that male beauty influencers had cultivated. 

During lockdown, I started 'Beauty Benders' with my friend Andrey on Instagram/TikTok etc that’s dedicated to degendering makeup and encouraging experimentation with beauty. 

I wish I’d had the courage to explore this when I was in my twenties, and just generally nudge at all the boundaries of who I thought I was.


Also! Make sure you’re with someone that’s comfortable with you exploring who you are, someone whose love for you is as elastic as possible. I have that, and I’m very lucky.

Get a business mentor

Fashion is hard. The balancing act of creativity and commerce is a hard tightrope to walk. 

Sometimes I’m just incredibly jealous of nine-to-fivers who get weekends and a regular paycheck. It’s really only now that I feel like I have someone around me that really understands the business of fashion and it’s changed my life – it’s less isolating having someone in the nitty gritty with you, and that can push you to make some scary changes.

So yeah, find someone who gets numbers, that you trust and ideally understands the nuances of running a clothing label–you might not have to limp along as long as I did. Always listen to your gut - every bad decision I’ve made, deep down, I knew it was a bad decision. 

If outwardly it looks like it’ll be good for business and you SHOULD do it, but there’s even the smallest seedling of doubt - don’t do it. (But try not to confuse fear with doubt!)

Know when to leave the party

It’s always best to leave the party when you’re having fun, and not at the end when you’re having to scrape yourself or others off the floor. 

It’s the same with everything - know when to leave a good design behind and move on to something new, know when it’s time to work with new people and get fresh ideas, and if it’s not fun anymore – GET OUT.

The House of Dowse x Jimmy D will run at The Dowse Art Museum until March 2025.