Letter to my Younger Self: Jenny Kee

Designer Jenny Kee looks back at swingin’ London, 70s Sydney and defining 80s fashion.

Sixteen-year-old Jenny was breaking out of growing up in 1950s Sydney. It was 1963. I was looking for artistic company, desperate to be with other creatives. At East Sydney Tech, which is now the National Art School, I found a very wild group of people, so that was gold.

I was doing dress design, which was really boring. It was like, You have to do it this way. So I tried, and everything I did was so ordinary and plain, uninspiring. I was completely rebellious, and I didn’t stay there very long. I wish I could have done art, not dressmaking – but, by the same token, I express myself through clothes.

In our day, you had to find things. Mum would walk with me to the ends of the earth to find the clothes or shoes or fabrics that I liked. Aunty Una used to make my mother’s clothes. She’d sew Mum into a dress and then wait up all night for her to come home so she could take her out of it. Mum was a fashionista, which is why she was so encouraging with me. Even though she made me do Maths 1 and 2 at school, when I should have been doing my art, she still really was there for me and encouraged my style.

By this time, I was appreciating having an Asian face. It made me different to the rest. I always had that thing of wanting everything I did – in terms of the way I styled myself – to be, you know, not the same. So by the time I got to 16, I was really happy in my persona.

Oz magazine started a mini revolution for the underground of Sydney. It was speaking to our generation: all madness, fantastic drawings, really unusual artists. We were able to break the rules – really break the rules – in an incredibly boring world. Looking back on it, I am so grateful that my time between 16 and 18 was in Sydney, but all I wanted to do was get out. You know ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ by The Animals? It was the song of the moment for me, because we just wanted to get to London.

It was really magical in 60s London. There was a real energy that was different. It was pretty wild – floating around, stoned, on acid. I lived there for seven years, and was part of this big scene: this pop world, this fashion world, this art world. It was all happening.

When we went to London, it wasn’t fashionable to be Australian. We were considered absolute buffoons from the bottom of the world, where the convicts went. That’s the stigma of Australia. But we were so fresh and determined, and if I hadn’t had that grounding in Sydney, I wouldn’t have been. We were energetic and friendly. I went to work at [iconic London fashion store] Biba, and you were told to be aloof, be cool, and almost not serve the customer. I had the energy of the sun – Bondi was in my body – and I just wanted to, you know, rip the place apart.

I went to work at the Chelsea Antique Market. We sold couture clothing for so cheap. These things are in museums now. We were playing, dressing up in these incredible clothes, putting everything together like collage. It was the freedom of doing vintage for the first time.

London was getting dark. Vivienne Westwood and Let It Rock [Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s first fashion-concept store], Jimi Hendrix dies. The Hells Angels and Altamont. I was a child of the 60s so, for me, the magic sort of dried up.

Coming back to Australia was bright and sunny and optimistic. Whitlam and creativity. We thought, we can bring it all back home, we can do fabulous things here. We can use the knowledge and the excitement and the style we experienced in London, and do something fabulous in our own country.

I met Linda [Jackson, a fellow fashion designer, who’d become Kee’s creative partner until 1982]. We were united because we both love 50s prints, Hawaiian shirts. Linda had been travelling through Asia and New Guinea, living that life. We met here [in 1973], both having been away for a long time. The Opera House had just opened, and to see that building in this country – oh my god! We’d gone everywhere and seen so much, but who’d done an opera house that looked like that? So, of course, there was the Opera House dress.

I wanted to do something that was completely for this country, from this country. I used to go op-shopping, and I found this vintage fabric of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. I thought, Wow, this is completely Australian. I didn’t know the bush until the ripe age of 26, so I saw it like a child. Linda moved up from Melbourne and we used to go on walks in the bush. They were the greatest source of inspiration. That’s when both our creative minds turned to the nature of this country. That’s how the first koala jumpers happened.

My first zip-up koala, kangaroo and kookaburra jumpers were an instant success. We opened the shop [Flamingo Park Frock Salon in Sydney’s Strand Arcade] on 27 August [1973]. Then winter came, and I thought, What am I going to do for winter? In London, I’d been collecting unusual knits, and I thought, I’m gonna do handknits, in Australian wool, with Australian motifs. That’s how unselfconscious making something “uniquely Australian” was for me. They took three weeks to knit, with a huge amount of love. It’s an act of devotion.

Linda and I created a market [for Australiana]. The jumpers went into the shop for $55 – now they are highly collectible! You can’t even get a zip up. Uni Oz Stripe, I just love that design. It’s over 40 years on, and to see that design now, for a whole new generation, is a testament to my work being timeless.

When I go to the Powerhouse, I’ve got to wear gloves to touch my clothes. Doing my archives, it’s wonderful to know that my work was really important. I did hundreds of jumpers, and I’ll never find everything, because I didn’t keep all my drawings. We were just busy doing it. But now, looking back, I see them as so precious. I have so much love for each piece. Everything we did in the shop was done with love and care, wanting people to love this country and see it with creative eyes.

I would like to actually go to school properly, but it’s too late. I missed out on a huge amount. I can’t sit down and read a novel. I don’t know how. I see people who get lost in a whole world because they’re reading this amazing book. I would have liked to learn more at school, but I’m not going to trade it. I’m going to save that for the next life.

There’s no mistakes – life just takes you where it’s meant to. If I hadn’t been so over the top, I wouldn’t have that passion that I’ve got, I wouldn’t have that same energy, and I wouldn’t be me.


By Aimee Knight @siraimeeknight
Staff Writer for The Big Issue.
Published in ed#677