If you’re the type of design lover who expresses themselves by wearing mostly black or perhaps muted tones, preferring an understated style (which means avoiding bursts of flamboyance and primary colours at all costs) then you probably decided not to read this article by dint of the subtle image that was selected to accompany it.
If however, you are highly stimulated by individuals who transcend the boundaries between art and fashion; whose greatly respected designs are collected by museums around the world; and who represents a sense of enduring passion, non-conformist attitude and Australian optimism, then you should read on.
From Bondi to London’s Chelsea Antique Market to the pages of Italian Vogue: one radical, original and creative Australian designer is still doing what she does best: creating authentic, exceptional, distinctive designs that are unmistakably Jenny Kee.
For over 40 years, Kee’s work has appeared on silk, on paper, on wool, on cotton, on ceramics and on canvas. Her designs are world-renowned, exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW, the Australian National Gallery, the Powerhouse Museum (see the Jenny Kee fashion collection), London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and the Marimura Museum in Tokyo.
Unlike many designers who reinvent themselves to the point of being unrecognisable, Kee has carefully crafted her niche in the fashion design world and her colourful floral prints are now on the catwalks in 2012 just as they were back in the seventies and eighties.
Joan-Maree Hargreaves speaks with Kee about the new avant-garde, her latest collection, Art of the Scarf and who she would include if she were to curate a modern fashion exhibition today.
JH: Tell me a bit about your most recent project Art of the Scarf, and how it relates to your body of work.
JK: To wear art has always been my passion. Over recent years I’ve had time to reflect on what I do best and what in my work has the most integrity. Intricately collaging my paintings and designs onto silk is my form of art.
JH: What has been the response to your new works?
JK: I’m thrilled to be appreciated by my peers, but the biggest surprise has been that a new generation of designers have discovered me, kids with fresh eyes who are loving my work for the first time. This is so inspiring and exciting to me.
JH: Your prints are once again on the pages of Vogue and in high end fashion stores across the country. How does it feel to still be at the pointy end of the fashion industry?
JK: I feel honoured and humbled to be still placed at the cutting edge of the industry……..but it’s the only place I know to be.
JH: What do you think makes your work so enduring and timeless?
JK: My direct inspiration comes from my love of this country, my awe and wonder at the beauty of nature in Australia, the design of the natural world. The waratah, which is such an ancient flower, is my totem. I will keep painting it until I die.
JH: Do you think the response to your designs has changed since you opened your dress shop Flamingo Park in Sydney’s Strand Arcade in the seventies?
JK: I opened Flamingo Park in 1973 and joined forces with Linda Jackson. We had both been travelling for years. I had been living in London in the 60s and Linda had been in Asia and Europe. We saw Australia with such fresh eyes, and the public was enchanted. There was a new Australian nationalism. Gough Whitlam was an inclusive world class Prime Minister with a sense of humour. Linda and I made Opera House dresses, opal fabrics, koala and kookaburra knits. Now that culture is part of our history; Linda Jackson is currently being honoured in a big retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria.
JH: Who would you include if you were going to curate modern fashion exhibition today?
JK: Romance Was Born, Sara Phillips, Therese Rawsthorne, 2 by Lyn and Tony, Dion Lee, Carl Kapp, Andeol and the new Dylan Cooper
JH: How do you continue to evolve your style?
My subject is nature and it keeps evolving and I hope I do too! My world of colour and design changes as I look more closely, and deeper into details in the bush.
JH: Nature has always been an inspiration to you. In 2012 what would you count as a new inspiration?
JK: New inspiration comes from my spiritual path of Buddhism, which also has such a rich visual tradition. I’m especially inspired by all the Tibetan goddesses and deities….the art of the spirit and the spirit of nature.
JH: Do you think the current economic, social and cultural climate is having an impact on art, craft and design in Australia?
JK: Of course it has an impact. But in some ways an adverse economic climate can make us more creative. My message is stay small, keep integrity, stay true to your creative vision…and DO IT! And live simply and recycle creatively.
JH: You were featured in photographer William Yang’s photo-performance piece ‘My Generation’ which documented bohemian Sydney on the 1970s. Do you think there is potential in Australia for a design avant-garde?
JK: There is always an avant-garde in every generation, and in 2012 from what I see the avant-garde is about a non-consumer lifestyle and the idea of recycling in design…recycling objects in new ways. The whole challenge for design now is to conserve resources, and to not waste anything…This is the challenge that the new avant-garde is facing.
JH: What does the future hold for Jenny Kee?
JK: My emphasis in the Art of the Scarf will be on small is beautiful. My business is tiny. I iron and pack and finish every scarf. It matters to me that I do it myself because I pour real love into each scarf.
My emphasis will be on distilling everything I’ve ever done into a series of works on silk which I hope will become classics. A small footprint with a large impact, I hope.