"You're a waratah!" exclaimed Jenny Kee as I went into "Awwww‚Ä¶.shucks" mode, shuffling along next to the whirlwind of this red-robed maverick at her comeback presentation at MBFWA last week. This was to be the the second chapter of my encounter with this half-Chinese, half-Italian, Australian-born designer, who has lived a big life. So big in fact that she's charged back a resurgence that saw one her presentation being one of the highlights in what was a relatively muted MBFWA. Sure, it was a retrospective.
The first chapter of my encounter with Kee began, when I read her biography "A Big Life", kindly given to me by Georgie Cleary of Alpha60, just one of many in the Australian fashion industry who owe a lot to Kee. I was affected enough to write it up in lenghty proportions and since then Kee was kind enough to get in touch via Facebook to say thank you and to also offer a few sage words that I'll keep privately to myself. I was therefore overjoyed to see Kee returning to the schedule with a presentation that would be styled by Romance was Born duo, Luke Sales and Anna Plunkett, both natural kindred spirited creatives of Kee. You know when you're petrified that meeting a hero slash heroine in real life would feel deflated and not quite up to scratch? There was none of that with Kee as she greeted me with a big bear hug and was all smiles, bright eyes and red lips. Like I said, according to her, I'm now apparently a waratah. I look at the spiky flower that has this strange and resilient sort of beauty and take Kee's declaration as a compliment even if I feel a little sheepish about it taking on the mantle of such a bloom. I always thought I was more of a wilting daffodil type.
There certainly wasn't anything wilting about what we saw at the presentation though. It was a riot of pattern that took not one but two, three, four or even five rounds around the room just to catch all the details. Three decades worth of new pieces, archive pieces and many of Kee's silk scarves were piled and knotted up on the models in an exuberant manner. Her work with Linda Jackson, once her partner in fashion crime, was fully saluted but the presentation ushered in a new collaborative relationship between Kee and Romance was Born, one that makes so much sense as the duo seemed to be able to unlock the potential of Kee's work and ensure that everyone can see how relevant and powerful it all is. There were reminders of Kenzo's 40th anniversary show, where the stylist Vanessa Reid had piled up the archive looks on towering multi-cultural figures, except here, Kee's love of Australia is undeniable. It can be seen in the eucalyptus and flowers that adorned the models and the set and in the motifs on the prints that feature the Sydney Opera House, aboriginal indigenous designs and vibrant opal shapes. The work here feels both rooted and connected with the earth as well as being elevated to a far-and-away fantasy land.
In a way, it was a little unnerving to be so overwhelmed and impressed by Kee's output. This may have been a retrospective of sorts but it was also by far, one of the most inspiring things seen all week. It gave MBFWA a historical root, something to trace back to, away from VIP champagne bars and corporate sponsors. Like Tim Blanks, I did end up questioning how the new generation of designers in Australia could work with that same waratah fire, spontaneity and pride of the natural beauty of Australia displayed here.
My third chapter next year will hopefully be to go and see Kee in her Blue Mountains surroundings, to see for myself the real source of work. I'm just going to impose myself on her right now. "Remember me? I'm that London chick who you called a waratah even though I'm not really‚Ä¶ wanna take me to Katoomba?"