NotesJenny Kee created her first jumper with a koala motif in 1974 and continued to use the koala motif in different versions of the jumper. This design was created in 1980 and became one of her most popular knit designs, produced in many different colourways and retailing through Jenny Kee's boutique Flamingo Park, in the Strand Arcade, Sydney.
The pattern for the 'Koala' or 'Blinky' jumper (after the storybook character Blinky Bill created by author Dorothy Wall) later appeared in Jenny Kee's knitting pattern book 'Jenny Kee Winter Knits', published by Simon and Schuster Australia in 1988. This version of the jumper was knitted by Anne Jones for Flamingo Park from the original pattern. Anne has been knitting Jenny Kee's designs for over twenty six years.
In the mid 1970s Jenny Kee began to forge 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 and the art of Indigenous Australians. It was not a purist expression of Australian identity, but one that melded an eclectic assortment of elements drawn from colour theory, art history, theatre, Chinese opera, Buddhism, European haute couture and the dress and textiles of other cultural and indigenous groups. Her work was never simply an enthusiastic sourcing of ingredients from a local and global supermarket of styles, but drew on emotional, spiritual and aesthetic responses to the causes and communities that inspired her, and that she in turn supported.
Born in Bondi, Jenny Kee studied fashion design and worked as a model before leaving Australia in 1965 for 'Swinging London', where she made the most of the creative maelstrom and met up with a coterie of other young expats, dubbed by the local press the 'Downundergrounders'. Kee landed a job with another expatriate Australian, Vern Lambert, working on his clothing stall at the Chelsea Antique market. 'I called it the School of Fashion in Life - my training ground', she recalled.' It was like working in a museum but we wore the clothes. I wore a torn Fortuny dress as a scarf. We sold Poiret, Mainbocher, Schiaparelli.' [National Trust Quarterly Feb 1994, page 18.]
In 1972 Kee returned to Australia for what she believed would be a brief visit to attend the opening of an exhibition of husband Michael Ramsden's artwork. Instead they found the creative climate so changed and charged with possibilities they decided to stay. 'I was thinking London's not so exciting any more. We'd gone through the 60s. It wasn't fabulous or buzzy any more, and I could feel all this energy happening here.' [Interview with Powerhouse Museum Curator Glynis Jones, 1994]
In 1973 Kee opened her Flamingo Park 'frock salon' in Sydney's Strand Arcade (with a $5000 loan 'dribbled out' by her father). With its mix of art, retro kitsch and original clothing, knitwear and textile designs by Kee and her friend and fellow designer Linda Jackson, Flamingo Park became an artistic hub, drawing creative people from different fields to collaborate on the design of outfits and accessories and take part in what were reported as Sydney's most sensational fashion events, the annual Flamingo Follies parades.
Kee was determined to acknowledge and celebrate Australia's unique environment in her work. In 1974, with Flamingo Park's first winter season looming, she decided to create a garment that was distinctly Australian, combining wool ('our greatest export'), the traditional craft of knitting, and 'purely Australian imagery' [Kee papers in Powerhouse Museum, notes to Curator Jane de Teliga about 1992].
These first knits, inspired by garments popular in the 1950s, were zipper-fronted cardigans featuring simple kookaburra, kangaroo and koala motifs. They were soon in great demand. In 1982 the Princess of Wales was seen sporting a 'Blinky Bill' koala jumper (a wedding present from NSW Premier Neville Wran's daughter Kim). The museum's Kee archive also includes a slightly altered version entitled 'Blinky Di'; this was offered as a pattern to Australian Women's Weekly readers and reflects the way Kee's work ranged from one-off 'art clothes' to broadly commercial applications.
Flamingo Park's winter collection received a full page report in the Daily Telegraph announcing 'There's a new Nationalism taking over the Australian fashion industry. Imported goods are strictly taboo on the fashion front. Now the industry is swinging to the tune of Advance Australia Fair and fashion conscious shoppers are snapping up clothes that herald a true blue fashion' [24 November 1974].
Kee's move into creating original artwork for printed textiles came out of tragic circumstances. In January 1977, while travelling to the city from her home in Blackheath, the train she was on hit the supports of an overhead road bridge at Granville Station, causing it to collapse on the train and killing over 80 passengers. Kee looks back on the period of recovery from her own injuries as a time of self-discovery and creativity. 'Afterwards I couldn't make sense out of it. Then I started painting and I understood it was a catalyst. It was the regeneration out of the destruction and I believe it was my destiny.' (The Australian Way, Nov 1986, p 23). Kee began to create series of small individual drawings, which she collaged into larger stories or themes.
Kee later extended this technique into designs for silk and cotton prints. However textile printers in Australia lacked the facilities to successfully print these complex multicoloured designs. It was not until 1980, when she met Fabio Belotti of Rainbow Fabrics in Milan, that she found someone with the technology and the discrimination to realise her designs. One of the first to be printed was a stripe called Uni-Oz, Kee's Australian version of the traditional Fair Isle pattern. Uni-Oz featured fine stripes with repeating motifs of the Sydney Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, OZ, BONDI and Waratah text, Uluru, Kata Tjuta, maps of Australia, Sturt's desert peas, gumnut babies, boomerangs and opals. Belotti printed the design onto silk and cotton, which Kee made up into clothing in Australia.
The 1990s ushered in a different mood in fashion, the interest in garments featuring native flora and local motifs waned, and the accompanying strong colours and vibrant prints were eschewed in favour of understated styles and a dressed-down appearance. During the 1980s and 90s Kee played a significant role in environmental activism, lobbying governments and councils, speaking at protest meetings and providing artwork for Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society to use in their campaigns.
In 1999 Kee was invited to design costumes for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. 'The Arrivals' segment was to represent the five continents of the world, through the colours of the Olympic rings, and to celebrate cultural diversity, and Kee was asked to create costumes for the Africa and Americas floats.