Australians are often guilty of a cultural inferiority complex, a sentiment that has manifested as a result of our colonial origins. The 60s is a time known for rebellion and hedonism – a testament to the collective power of youth – with many personalities from the era immortalised as pop culture icons. But it seems a shame that the contributions of our own go largely unrecognised by the Australian youth culture of today. Political satirists Richard Neville, Martin Sharp and the Oz zine team; feminist Germaine Greer; art critic Robert Hughes; film maker Philipe Mora were a group of Australians, dubbed the “downundergrounders”, who significantly contributed to the changing political, cultural and social landscape of Swinging London. Fashion designer and textile artist Jenny Kee was among them…
A passionately loyal Australian, Jenny Kee seems to have the knack of being in the right place at the right time. Born to an Italian mother and a Cantonese father, she grew up on Bondi beach. Overwhelmed by the constraints of a conservative Australia, Jenny escaped to London in 1965. Her memoir ‘A Big Life’, recounts this time with a bounding energy, as she casually recalls run-ins, parties and liaisons with every character of the swinging-60s – John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Penelope Tree, Eric Clatpton, Anita Pallenberg. While in London she worked with her mentor and friend Vern Lambert at the famous Chelsea Antique Market, which she refers to as her “university of fashion and life”. This was a time when the idea of wearing vintage was new, and the embroidery, embellishment and textiles of exotic cultures began to be seen as wearable fashion. Jimi Hendrix was a frequent shopper, remembered by Jenny as “a bird of paradise”, who wore jade jewellery, pink crushed-velvet pants, an Edwardian jacket made from purple and green Chinese silk, and a ruffled shirt with a red and orange Op Art print.
Her experiences working at the market fostered a love and great eye for textiles and print, which she put to good use when she, and creative soulmate Linda Jackson, set up their boutique Flamingo Park in Sydney’s Strand Arcade 1972. From there the two pioneered a unique vision of Australian fashion, inspired by native iconography, Aboriginal art and interpretations of the indigenous art and textiles from all over the world. Jenny became famous for her pure wool knits with Australian motifs; the most famous being her “Blinky Bill” design worn by Princess Diana when she was pregnant with Prince William. She also began designing her own prints, using a collage technique of small hand drawings and paintings. Her opal print was used by Karl Lagerfeld for his first collection for Chanel in 1982.
After a lengthy hiatus she is back, contributing to the L’Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival retrospective earlier this year and working on her latest project the “Art of the Scarf”, with her original artworks and paintings digitally printed direct to the most beautiful silks, in Sydney, Australia. (www.jennykee.com)