Rebellion & waratahs with Jenny Kee
There are certain visionaries that continue to transcend the status quo, and do it with purpose. Jenny Kee is one of these heralded icons within the fashion industry, but also of artistry in general. From being swept up in the free form creativity of the ‘summer of love’ in 1960’s London, to collaborating with contemporary designers, it’s evident her love for art has permeated from generation to generation.
‘Step Into Paradise’ was the sign on the door and paradise it was, the magic was about to begin.
Let’s start at the beginning. After finishing school in 1963, you enrolled at the East Sydney Technical College studying fashion design. To us in 2018, studying fashion in the 60’s sounds like a dream, but your experience with the Australian education system didn’t quite pan out ‘dreamlike’.
In the early 60’s I was a wild child looking for creative adventures. There weren’t any in Australia so we created our own. I rebelled and wouldn’t finish school – I told my Mum that fashion design is all I wanted to do. But fashion school was a dressmaking course, which was just as boring as high school. Pale blue and donkey brown were the colours of 1963. I dressed in colour and was constantly told, “you can’t design what you’re wearing”.
So the story goes you had the good fortune of meeting The Beatles – a meeting that lead you to London in 1965. We would love to hear more about those days.
In 1964 The Beatles came to town and at last I had a creative endeavour – getting into their hotel room, and I did. In 1965 I left Australia for swinging London inspired by meeting the fab four. In 1967 in London, the ‘summer of love’ was upon us, a revolution was underway and I quickly found myself at the frontline. I went to work with Vern Lambert at the Chelsea Antique Market. Vern became my great mentor and style guru. He taught me about the art of dress.
The market was a treasure trove of exotica, full of vintage Pioret, Vionnet, Schiaparelli, Mainbocher and Chanel, Spanish shawls and Fair Isle knits in mint condition. This was the beginning of retro; I was Miss Ethnic in my Pakistani peasant dress. Today clothes like these are in Museums, but for a few brief years in the 60’s we played dress ups. Every young designer passed through, Claude Montana, Jean Paul Gaultier, Kenzo and Issey Miyake – the market was a pressure cooker for fashion.
We styled everyone that came in, and we had extraordinary subjects. It was like directing the wardrobe on a movie set called The Sixties. The Stones, always stoned, would spend entire afternoons eating toasted sandwiches and wandering in and out of Vern’s stall trying on coats and frocks. Keith and Anita were more ethnic inspired. Mick favoured sequins and beading because they looked good on stage. He adored Schiaparelli jackets but could never understand why he had to pay £10 a piece for old clobber. Jimi Hendrix was always one step ahead; he was a bird of paradise and nearly always dressed by the market. This was my university of fashion and life.
After seven years of life in London, you returned to Australia. Full of inspiration and innovation, you opened your frock salon ‘Flamingo Park’. Was this the beginning of your friendship and creative collaboration with Linda Jackson? And at this stage were you designing more than knitwear?
In 1973 I opened Flamingo Park in Sydney’s Strand Arcade. The name was derived from my artist husband, Mike Ramsden’s, Flamingo Park painting. It became the feature of my shop, summing up its artistic nature.
The shop would be romantic, exotic and kitsch. I called it a frock salon, not a boutique because boutiques in the 60’s were modern and salons were retro. I wanted 50’s retro – flying ducks, Indian plaster faces, sand blasted mirrors and menu covers from 30’s ocean liners. The clothing was an eclectic mix of London fashion and vintage paraphernalia. Then I met Linda Jackson and her creations made the shop perfect. This was the beginning of one of the greatest love affairs of my life. For us there was no separation between art, life and our passion for fashion.
Flamingo Park was original, like no other. ‘Step Into Paradise’ was the sign on the door and paradise it was, the magic was about to begin. I thought of my beloved knits from London and decided that for the first winter the shop would be full of knitwear, handmade in Oz from pure Australian wool and decorated with our icons. At this stage knitwear was all I was designing, and was the birth of the Koala, Kookaburra and Kangaroo knits in Villa wool, 12 ply – a good Aussie yarn.
After surviving the Granville train crash with your daughter in 1977, you started painting as a way to cope. Your paintings sang of colour, florals, birdlife and tropical fish. How cathartic was this process and where did your career go from there?
Out of this terrifying near death experience came an explosion of creativity. I began painting, sitting at the kitchen table in the mountains with black ink and colour, making shapes and patterns. It was my therapy and also a turning point in my designs – the moment when I moved beyond doing my own take on period knitting patterns, Australian motifs and elementary symbols – to creating more complex compositions. I couldn’t stop painting and designing – that was the gift of being alive. I whispered thank you many times and cried quietly to myself while I worked or took long walks in the healing bush.
If Ken Done has been hailed the godfather of Australian colour and optimism you surely are the fairy godmother! Your designs uniquely celebrate Australian florals, the colours of our landscape and urban icons like the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. Did your love for our country lead you into your work in environmental conservation?
Linda and I created an Australian style in fashion in 1973 – it was art fashion.
My love of country did inspire my environmental work. I designed logos and T-shirts for Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society and was ready to take my environmental protest to the frontline. I became involved in the fight for the preservation of the South East Forests in New South Wales and was arrested and carted off in a paddy wagon. While I was in jail, police officers told me they loved my koala jumpers, I said, “Listen guys, this beautiful forest is home to the koalas. Without the wildlife there would be no jumpers.”
The world has been seeing an increase of activism in response to political dissatisfaction, environmental damage and exploring new identities. What is the connection between rebellion and creativity?
Rebellion and creativity will always go hand in hand wherever you are in the world and throughout the ages. For example, look at people like Ai Weiwei and his work on Cockatoo Island on the refugee crisis.
When your designs were being worn by Lady Di and seen at Chanel, how difficult was it as an artist to balance success and creative freedom?
It’s very difficult to maintain that balance and be true to your creativity. At the height of my success I actually gave myself over to business people and become more commercial, this was the time things fell apart for me. From this I learnt my lesson and to this day I continue to only work on what I am passionate about and keep it small, which works for me, especially at this stage in my life.
Lets talk Buddhism. How long have you been disciplined to your practice?
For the last 32 years I’ve been a practicing Buddhist and do my best to follow the path. Tibetan Buddhism has transformed the pain I have suffered throughout my life and made me realise that one step leads to the next. Everything is a journey and whatever pain you experience makes you stronger. I feel at ease with who I am.
Your current inspirations and influences?
My inspiration comes from native flora, the natural world and Aboriginal art. As well as indigenous cultures worldwide in places like Africa, South America, China, Tibet and India. I really cherish this earth, it’s behind everything I do.
Decades later you are still influencing, and collaborating with, the fashion industry. You partnered with Romance Was Born on a collection for Fashion Week, and your artwork and personal archives alongside Linda Jackson were exhibited at MAAS. What does the future hold for you Jenny?
I am working on an exciting fashion collaboration project at the moment, which is under wraps, but suffice to say I continue to have fun with young creatives like Romance Was Born. Thanks to Vogue I am considered one of the eight advanced style muses in the world, led by Iris Apfel. This shows that my quote from the 80’s sticks, “I don’t want to be restricted by fashion whims, it’s too temporary, my work is about lasting.”
Originally published in Paradiso Issue 03