The question "What does Australian style mean to you?" kept on cropping up in interviews whilst I was down in Sydney for RAFW and I'd try to shirk it as to me, there was no good answer to it without being broad and generic. I began my trip with a wee encounter with a lady who I thought was a Japanese eccentric fan of Romance was Born as she hopped about in a flurry of red WARATAH-printed scarfs (I now also know the difference between a protea and a waratah). It turned out that lady was Jenny Kee, someone who I can say I honestly knew nothing about at that point, and that was unfortunately a grave misdemeanour, because when Phil from Streetpeeper took her photo and asked for her name, her assistant looked aghast and yelped "You don't know who Jenny Kee is?!"
Ooops. Fashion history fail. Or err… Antipodean fashion history fail. Therefore I ended my trip by consuming her autobiography "A Big Life", very very kindly given to me by Georgie Cleary of Alpha60, on my plane ride back home. Five hours of solid reading later and I was consumed by all things Jenny Kee. As it turns out, Kee is the sort that happily declared herself to be thoroughly Australian and proud to be so - her line/mantra is apparently "I come from the land of Oz and Bondi's in my body." In a partial answer to the first question therefore, Jenny Kee to me seems like something of an essential reference in Australia's very young fashion history.
After researching a bit more, I perhaps need to take her 'Big Life' account with a pinch of salt as self-promotion is apparently big in Kee's schtick (most prominently for her sexual encounter with John Lennon pre-Yoko). Yet I couldn't help but be drawn into the world of this half-Italian, half-Cantonese rebel. Her early struggles with her race, her involvement with Sydney's underground scene and most pertinently, her move to London that saw her mingle with all of those Swinging London landmarks and figures that are like magical fashion folklore to me.
In two chapters, she recalls all the things that makes me get all riled up, sticking up for London as a richly imbued style city... her working (and stealing) at Biba's Kensington Church Street store, being entranced by the store Hung On You at World's End in Chelsea and probably her most influential epoch in London, working with Vern Lambert at his stall at the Chelsea Antique Market. Lambert is probably most well known for being a close friend of Anna Piaggi and was a pivotal figure for Piaggi because of his expansive knowledge of fashion history. Kee recalls playing with the clothes on Lambert's stall - Vionnets, Schiaparellis, Chanels, Mainbochers - as well as Lambert as her style mentor, encouraging out-of-context styling which at the time meant combining various ethnic and period dress together in flamboyant ensembles as well as dressing the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Penelope Tree, Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg, Mick Jagger (who adored Schiaparelli jackets).
I was particularly intrigued by this line of Kee's "The girls might have dabbled in studies at art college but they didn't actually have a lot to do. They sat around backstage and in recording studios, they rolled joints and made tea, and like me, they threw every ounce of their creativity into an evolving artwork called personal style." I definitely don't have rose-tinted shades for a time when girls were merely objectified style props but I do wonder whether the daily grind of work for some women, gets in the way of a truly personal style cultivation. Can't we just have both?
After London began to come down from its swinging high, she moved back to Sydney and opened Flamingo Park, which planted the seed for her career as a fashion designer. The 'frock salon' was meant to be 'romantic, exotic and kitsch' and it was through stocking her store that she met Linda Jackson, her fashion partner in crime for the next decade. Jackson bought the seamstress skills as well as an intuition for prints and colours, something that rubbed off to Kee who then began her own original print designs which subsequently landed on her knits and scarves. Their Flamingo Parade shows became legendary design showcases, conjured up for no commercial purpose other than to celebrate their inantely Australian clothes, that were unashamed about their optimism.
As their partnership grew, they ended up exploring Aboriginal art as inspiration for their work, which led to Jackson designing the labels Bush Couture and Bush Kids on her own. This is another indicator I suppose of Kee and Jackson's solo work as inherently 'Australian' but more than that, I suspect there might even be a hint of retrospective 'naffness' attached to their work because for some, these brash Australiana motifs are somewhat cliched, in the same way that the artist Ken Done's work might be viewed in that vein. Cue Princess Diana stepping out in a Jenny Kee koala jumper when she was pregnant with Prince William and the ensuing love/hate relationship that comes with that level of exposure and notoriety.
But then there were real credible highs too. Kee's opal design fabric prints were used in Karl Lagerfeld's first ever pret-a-porter collection for Chanel in 1982. The print was used on shirt dresses, as a lining for the classic suits, on shoes and bags and pretty much caused an Australian fashion stir.
The subsequent chapter of Kee's life is a little depressing to recall with her second husband committing suicide as well as financial loss in her business, but I can of course say that Kee is alive and well, shining bright as she flitted outside the Romance was Born show a couple of weeks ago. Having dug up some imagery (there aren't that many examples of her work floating about on the internet), it's the exhuberance of her work and her pride in her homeland of Oz that makes me realise where the inspirational roots of contemporary designers such as Romance was Born lie and ultimately it's been fascinating to learn of a supposed 'young' fashion country that still manages to conjure up 'rich' fashion figures to draw from.
This image from a recent catwalk show held for Woolmark's Campaign for Wool, which featured Jenny Kee's work, also looks mighty contemporary in the context of British young knittists like Hannah Buswell and Sibling, which makes me wonder how prolific Kee currently is as well as pointing out the relevance of her work that may be 'ocker' (hardcore Australian) to some but then again, is that such a bad thing?