In the mid 1970s Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson 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 Aboriginal Australians. Theirs 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 as well as the dress and textiles of other cultural and indigenous groups. Their work was never simply an enthusiastic sourcing of ingredients from a local and global supermarket of styles but drew on their emotional, spiritual and aesthetic response to the causes and communities that inspired them, and that they in turn supported.
Kee and Jackson endowed the museum with their extensive personal archives, including artwork, scrapbooks, media clippings, photographs, videos and business records. In acquiring the collection the museum not only recognised their significant contribution to Australian fashion, craft and design, but also the impact that shifts in Australia's cultural and political climate had on their work.
Born in Bondi, Jenny Kee studied fashion design and worked as a model before leaving Australia in 1965 for 'Swinging London', making the most of the creative maelstrom and meeting 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.'
At the same time Jackson had been travelling through the Pacific and Asia on her way to Europe, studying and absorbing an eclectic mix of influences from the textile and dress traditions of Papua New Guinea to haute couture in Paris. The two met at a propitious time. The newly elected Whitlam Labor government was instituting its ambitious cultural program. Kee and Jackson were to offer one of the most successful embodiments of Whitlam's vision of 'establishing and expressing an Australian identity through the arts' ALP Policy Speech 1972, page 2-3, The Whitlam Collection, The Whitlam Institute, and using this to promote Australia's unique national identity on a world stage.
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 along with Jenny and Linda Jackson's original clothing and textile designs, 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 and 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' with the traditional craft of knitting with 'purely Australian imagery'. These first knits were 1950s inspired zipper-fronted cardigans featuring simple kookaburra, kangaroo and koala motifs, and soon were in great demand. By 1982 the Princess of Wales was seen sporting a 'Blinky Bill' koala jumper (a wedding present from NSW premier Neville Wran's daughter Kim) and the archive also includes a slightly altered version entitled 'Blinky Di' offered as a pattern to Australian Women's Weekly readers, reflecting the way Kee's work was to range 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.'
Jackson was also incorporating local flora in her designs, appliquéing wildflowers on cotton tabards and skirts and collaborating with artists Bruce Goold, Deborah Leser and David McDiarmid who painted and batiked motifs of native flora and fauna onto her silk taffeta, organza and chiffon gowns. Her interest in native plants extended to more obscure and decoratively under-represented flora like seaweed with designs inspired by the Barrier Reef featuring asymmetrical layers of hand rolled chiffon forming seaweed drifts and trails through which swam Goold's delicately painted fish.
However it was Jackson's spectacular three dimensional flower form dresses like 'Red waratah', 'Sturt's desert pea' and 'Black Banksia' which were to truly demonstrate her prodigious technical skills and creative independence.
Over the years Kee's knit designs became increasingly sophisticated both visually and conceptually, but her move into creating original artwork for her later printed textiles came out of tragic circumstances. In January 1977, while travelling to the city from her home in Blackheath, a train hit the supports of an overhead road bridge at Granville Station causing it to collapse on the train killing 83 passengers. The memories of this horror remain strong: '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.' While recuperating Kee began to create series of small individual drawings which she collaged into larger stories or themes, and this assemblage technique was to form the basis of her complex designs for silk and cotton prints. However it was not until 1980 and a meeting with Fabio Belotti of Rainbow Fabrics in Milan that she found someone with the technology and the discrimination to realise her designs.
In the early 1980s the two designers decided to pursue different directions. Kee continued to design for Flamingo Park and later opened her Jenny Kee shop while Jackson visited central Australia and the Aboriginal community at Utopia Station and returned to Sydney to establish her 'Bush Couture' label.
By the 1990s the socio-economic mood had changed and this was reflected 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. Jackson continued her commitment to working with Aboriginal communities, teaching women dyeing and printing techniques and garment construction. 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 believing that, '[this] has been a natural progression for me as all my work comes out of a love of nature. So I feel I should be vocal about it. I can't design without the pristine wilderness to go into and get my inspiration from.'
In 2000 Jenny Kee created the costumes for the 'Americas' and 'Africa' floats for the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
Glynis Jones, Curator, 2007