Anyone who has read Jenny Kee’s fascinating biography A Big Life Jenny Kee (Jenny Kee with Samantha Trenoweth, Penguin Group, 2006) will appreciate how apt the title is. From modelling as the face of Canadian Pacific Airlines and spending a memorable night with John Lennon during the Beatles Australian tour in 1964 to selling vintage Schiaparelli jackets to Mick Jagger at the Chelsea Antique market in London, surviving the Granville train disaster in 1977 and campaigning for the conservation of NSW old growth forests Jenny’s adventurous spirit and creativity has seen her involved in many of the key social movements and events of the last fifty years.
Therefore it should come as no surprise that using the Jenny Kee fashion and textile collection and archive I can link Kee with some of the 20th centuries iconic personalities -Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, Diana, Princess of Wales and David Bowie.
Jenny Kee along with creative partner Linda Jackson is best known for creating a unique vision of Australian dress, one that didn’t look to the trend-driven fashion mainstream for inspiration but drew on Australia’s cultural and natural landscape melded with an eclectic assortment of ideas drawn from colour theory, art history, theatre, Chinese opera, Buddhism, European haute couture as well as the dress and textiles of other cultural and indigenous communities. Retailing from the hot pink interior of Kee’s Flamingo Park frock salon in Sydney’s Strand Arcade their work was never simply an enthusiastic sourcing of ingredients from a local and global supermarket of style but drew on their emotional, spiritual and aesthetic response to the causes and communities that inspired them and which they in return supported. Kee has long been a passionate supporter and spokesperson for the conservation movement in Australia.
Kee first met Karl Lagerfeld in 1977 when she and Jackson took their Flamingo Park fashion collection to Milan. Influential Vogue Italia editor Anna Piaggi featured them in a quirky two page spread entitled ‘Australian Graffiti’
Piaggi gave them tickets for the Milan fashion shows which they attended in an ever changing array of their own spectacular garments, and at a dinner held by Nally Bellati at Solferino’s, they actually received a standing ovation from the crème of European fashion – just for looking fabulous. In her book Kee recalls
I wore my knitted Flamingo Park Collage coat, shocking-pink Thai-silk harem pants, turban and favourite Sex stilettos. I cinched the coat in super tight at the waist with a pink Thai-silk cummerbund. Linda wore a black, silver and blue Chinese Opera costume with a pleated taffeta skirt. We swanned in, and sitting at a long table were the stars of seventies fashion …Kenzo, Ken Scott, Karl Lagerfeld, Gianni Versace, Giorgio Armani; and illustrator Antonia Lopez. The assembled guests turned to watch our entrance. Some of them even jumped up on the table and applauded.
A Big Life pge 188.
Back in Australia Kee began to focus on the opal as a source of inspiration and after much experimentation discovered watercolours were the best medium to capture their shimmering colours. It was through collage that she brought her designs to life; tearing her paintings into rough pieces she layed them out on a black ground-they looked sensational. However she found textile printers in Australia lacked the facilities to successfully print her complex multicoloured designs. It was not until 1980 when Kee met Fabio Belotti of Milan based company Rainbow Fabrics she found someone with the technology and the discrimination to realize her designs. Bellotti left her artwork virtually untouched including the rough torn edges of each ‘opal’ piece as part of the design. Two years after Black Opal was first printed Kee received a phone call from Bellotti asking if it was OK for Karl Lagerfeld to use Black Opal in his first prêt-and-porter collection for Chanel in 1983.
Jenny Kee didn’t receive a sample of the outfits from the Chanel collection but subsequently located this suit, now in the Museum’s collection, in a second hand store in New York. It was her size and had never been worn and she recalls turning up to the shop ‘decked out’ in bright layers of her clothes and saying to the shop assistant I’ll have that…The little lady in this op shop looked at me and said “yeh you know this is a Chanel suit, it would have been sold before, the buttons and everything are beautiful but people don’t like the lining”. I looked at her and said “I did the lining”, she looked me up and down and said “Yeh, I guess you would of done that lining. I’m glad you’’e getting your suit” [Interview with GJ 1993].
The Black Opal print was the perfect tool for Lagerfeld’s homage to, and deconstruction of the classic Chanel look, the formality of the traditional hounds-tooth check contrasting with the bold, vibrancy of Kee’s Black Opal print blouse and lining. Some of you may have a piece of the Black Opal print in your own home. Kee later design a new version appropriately titled Opal Love for Sheridan to use in bed linen.
Another international celebrity Kee was to connect with was Diana, Princess of Wales. When Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 Kim Wran the daughter of New South Wales Premier, Neville Wran presented the couple with a pair of Flamingo Park his and hers koala and kangaroo jumpers designed by Jenny Kee. A year later photos of Diana at a polo match wearing the koala jumper with a map of Australia on her back made newspaper headlines. The accompanying text ranged from discussing Diana’s independent, ‘utterly practical and thoroughly modern’ way of dressing in contrast to ‘the old pearled, permed and tiara’s monarchy’ to declaring she was pushing for Charles to be Governor General of Australia.
As a result Jenny Kee was bombarded with orders for her knits and asked to design a ‘Blinki Di’ version for Australian Women’s Weekly readers to make at home.
Even David Bowie purchased a ‘Blinky’ jumper on his visit to Australia in 1984.
The jumper also led to Jenny receiving an invitation to attend a dinner in honour of Prince Charles and Diana at the Governor General’s residence during the royal tour to Australia in 1983. Jenny recalled It was a funny night. At the Governor Generals’ residence Michael and I lined up with the other guests, who included Bob and Hazel Hawke, Sir Mark Oliphant and Sir Donald Bradman, to be briefed on royal etiquette. We practiced our curtseys while we waited for Charles and Di. Then cocktails were served-and served and served. By the time we sat down to dinner we were plastered. My peas shot across the table to Nell Schofield opposite, who was giggling, and when I was finally introduced to the Princess I called her Di-a terrible faux pas. I apologized profusely, but she was all warmth and grace. No, please call me Di, she said, and went on to explain she’d put my name on the guest list herself because she loved my jumpers. I knew Manolo (Blahnik) designed her shoes and when I mentioned his name her face lit up. Suddenly we weren’t guests at a formal dinner; we were just two gals talking about our favourite shoe designer. (A Big Life Jenny Kee, 226-228)
Do you have a story or photograph about a Jenny Kee outfit you had in your wardrobe?