Jenny Kee the pioneering Australian fashion designer and artist, whose timeless pieces are an absolute fashion must-have. Jenny Kee the gregarious designer, known for her use of bright bold colour, graphic prints and love of Australian flora and fauna. Jenny Kee the go-getting super talent, who over the last few decades has rubbed shoulders with some serious legends. Jenny Kee the trusted Australian icon, who made the stunning ‘Tree Of Life’ costume worn by James Addo for the Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony back in 2000. Jenny Kee the gifted designer, who’s Black Opal print scarf popped up in Karl Lagerfeld’s first collection for Chanel. Jenny Kee, one of Australia’s most precious gems is here with us, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to have her!
THE T+ Q&A #04 / Step Into Paradise With Jenny Kee
1. Do you remember when you first became aware of fashion?
When I told my mother to wear certain clothes when she came to school to pick me up – I must have been about 5. I remember I told her to wear my favorite Russell Stuart A-line emerald green coat. I was always aware of the clothes I loved of mums. She had things handmade for all of us and I remember at a very young age being aware of fashion. Even when we had dress ups we had special costumes made for us by the family dress maker.
2. How has your upbringing influenced your work?
My mother was a fashionista and her sisters were couture dressmakers so I had all these people influencing me. My mum always dressed me up like her China Doll and my favorite times with her were when we would go shopping together to buy me clothes, usually at David Jones when I was very young. This had a huge and lasting impact on me and as a young teenager I would go to the dressmaker with my designs in my head. Mum and I would search Sydney to find the right fabrics and get them made up – we would go to great lengths to find just the right fabrics and prints.
3. What’s the first thing you think about when somebody says Canadian Pacific Airlines?
This was the ad I did when I was 16 – this was one of my few modelling jobs and I got the work through Pat Woodley’s Modelling Agency. By this time I had left school and was doing Fashion Design at East Sydney Tech and wanted to make some money on the side. I had dreams of being like the famous 1950s Japanese model – Hiroko Matsumoto who would later become Cardin’s top model in the early 1960s.
4. Do you remember what you were wearing when you met Karl Lagerfeld in 1977?
In 1977 I went to his Black Party in Paris but it was not until 1982 that I met him in a café beside La Scala, Milan with Vern Lambert and Anna Piaggi. I was in a collage of hand knits and silk prints that I had done with Fabio Bellotti of Rainbow Fabrics. The dominant feature print was my new Black Opal which was about to appear in Anna’s fabulous new magazine called Vanity. I had this made into pants, scarf and tunic and teamed it with an African crochet hat, opal Andrew Logan big brooch and RM Williams riding boots. Karl was very taken with the Black Opal print, I was later told.
5. Before you discovered that watercolours were the best medium to capture opals shimmering colours, what else did you try?
I used acrylics, oil pastels to try and merge them together but it did not do it. The watercolours were the best because they merge together and reflect the rainbow colours that are found in opals.
6. Is it true that David Bowie purchased a ‘Blinky’ jumper back in 1984? Tell us more!
Yes and there were others – but when Bowie came into the shop we had to lock the door to keep the fans out. He boughts many knits, not just Blinky and he loved the Australian influence. He bought armfuls of Rolley Clarke wooden poker worked bracelets with Australian designs. He was a completely refined gentleman who was very respectful to the shop and to my mum who served him. He loved her enthusiasm for my designs and everything in the shop. He was interested and wanted to know the background to all the designs. By that time I had silks and he bought silks and ended up buying a bit of everything in the shop. He had obviously received word in London that Flamingo Park was the place to go and he always behaved with absolute dignity and grace and there was no hint of the superstar.
7. You worked at the Chelsea Antique Market in London in the 60’s… That was essentially the beginning of vintage! We’d love to know a bit about your time there.
I went to work with Vern Lambert at the Chelsea Antique market. Vern became my great mentor — he taught me about style and the art of dress — He was my style guru. The market was a treasure trove of exotica, full of couture vintage — Poiret, Vionnet, Schiaparelli, Mainbocher, Chanel –spanish shawls and Fair Isle knits in mint condition. — I was little Miss Ethnic in my Pakistani Peasant dress. The hippie princess look. This was the beginning of retro — Today, clothes like these are in museums, but for a few brief years in the 60s we played dress ups.
The Market was a pressure cooker for fashion. Every young designer in Europe passed through it – all of the creatives were there and we fired and inspired each other. Among them Claude Montana, Jean Paul Gaultier, Kenzo and Issey Miyake.… Vern swore that Kenzo’s folkloric look was inspired by me. He said Kenzo always scrutinized what I had on and how I layered myself like a Babushka doll
At the market we didn’t just flog frocks and style ourselves: we styled everyone who came in. And what extraordinary subjects we had. It was like directing wardrobe on a movie set called the sixties. It was my university of fashion and life.
We dressed every pop star and their girl friends – Bob Dylan, Roger Daltry, Jimmy Paige, Eric Clapton – just to name a few. The Stones – always stoned — would spend entire Saturday afternoons drinking cups of tea and eating toasted sandwiches being one of the mob in the café – wandering in and out of Vern’s stall trying on coats and frocks. Keith and Anita were more ethnic inspired. Marianne loved lace and flimsy – Mick favoured sequins and beading because they looked good on stage — He adored Schiaparelli jackets but he could never understand why he had to pay £10 apiece for old clobber.
Jimi Hendrix was always one step ahead. He was a bird of paradise, so exotic – mixing up everything – from vintage to ethic but always with his own unique style.
There was new hierarchy happening in London – the pop stars were the new aristocracy – the aristocracy became the gypsy bo-hos radiating a “fuck the system” attitude.
My fascination with unusual knitwear and fabrics started in the Chelsea Market – with my Richard Attenborough Fan Club jumper purchased for 50 p.
8. How did your iconic Sydney store Flamingo Park Frock Salon come about? And what did you want people to feel when they stepped inside?
On the 27th August 1973 I opened my Flamingo Park frock salon in Sydney’s Strand Arcade. The name was derived from my artist husband, Mike Ramsden’s “Flamingo Park” painting, which 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 were so 60s moderne — salons were retro — and that’s just what I wanted — 50s retro –flying ducks, Indian plaster faces, sand blasted mirrors and menu covers from 30s ocean liners.The clothing was an eclectic mix of London fashion and vintage paraphernalia.
The sign on the door said Step into Paradise and that was the magic we wanted our customers to feel when they stepped inside.
9. When you first met Linda Jackson, did you know instantly that together you could be a wonderful creative force?
Yes – immediately and 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. We were the ying and yang, bib and bub, green and red.
10. How is working in fashion different today than from when you started out?
We could do anything back then – we danced to the beat of our own drum and were outside of fashion. The fashion world found us as we were always fashionable artists making art to wear. In the 1970s we pioneered making the art to wear phenomena. In 1980 Jane de Teliga curated an amazing show at the Art Gallery of NSW of creative artists working in fashion – The Art Clothes Exhibition. Today, its very difficult as you have to be immersed in the fashion world to have recognition. Romance was Born seem to be able to make their art and design work within the Fashion Industry in the most creative way.
11. If you could go back and tell yourself one thing before beginning your career what would it be?
Follow your dream – be true to yourself and your passions.
12. How do you want women to feel when wearing Jenny Kee?
I want them to feel proud that they are wearing a piece of my art where the designs are derived from my passionate love of this ancient country. People say to me that when they wear my designs they feel like they are wearing a piece of art with an energy that is coming from within.
13. How would you describe the signature/classic Jenny Kee style?
I love creating timeless classic shapes – that aren’t fashion and don’t date. As I said in 1980 – “I don’t want to be restricted by fashion whims – it’s too temporary – I think my work is about lasting.”
14. Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
The I Love Dress – it was created by me, using words in knits and was inspired by the first jumper that I ever bought in the Chelsea Antique Market back in 1967. It combined the words and brilliant colour.
15. What are your favourite local labels?
16. We feel so lucky to be able to print your stunning work! What do you look for when selecting a digital printer?
Think Positive are so respectful of my work and Penny is a master at reproducing my art and capturing the intensity of the colours. I am so pedantic about perfection in the colours I want on both sides of the silk and Think Positive work with me to the end to achieve that. For me the reverse side has to be as perfect as the front. Think Positive manage to achieve that.
17. What is your favourite fabric to wear and why?
Silk and fine wool. They are both pure natural fibres that breathe with you.
18. What does being Australian mean to you?
Being Australian still means to me to be free and optimistic.
19. What are you inspired about right now?
Wanting to fuse my inner spiritual world into my art.
20. What are the three must-have items every woman should own?
21. And lastly, was John Lennon a good kisser? 😉
He was hot! No more needs to be said.