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Jenny Kee

By Sara Templeton

Jenny KeeAustralia's fashion heritage doesn't stretch as far back as, say, French fashion, but we do have some ties with the past, with which local designers can find inspiration.

Jenny (a.k.a Jennifer Margaret Kee) was born at Bondi Beach in Sydney in 1947. Her father's family, of Chinese heritage, emigrated to Australia in the 1850s during the gold rush.

I guess you could say that the gold rush brought not only wealth, prosperity and infrastructure to Australia, but also Jenny Kee, a national icon and pioneering designer. She used the vibrant colours seen in everyday Australian life to come up with designs related to the outback and the Australian bush.

Her mother was half Italian and half British, but growing up in Bondi wasn't all smiles and rainbows for Jenny. She recounts that at Bondi Beach public school she was the butt of many racist jokes, but rather than take it on the chin, the feisty youngster stood up for herself. She claims this self-assuredness is what made her what she is today.

She has been reported as saying: "I did have a problem with racist taunts when I was young, but it made me sort of tougher... I will stand up to anyone and I'm proud of who I am... I feel it was having the combination of those different cultures is what really made me - it's what makes me so vivacious."

After finishing school, it was in 1963 that Jenny discovered that she really got a buzz from being artistic. As such, she enrolled at the East Sydney Technical College for a course in fashion design.

Unfortunately, things didn't go exactly to plan.

"Australia was a very, very bland place in the early sixties and we were young people crying out for change. I had the good fortune of meeting the Beatles and I knew it was happening in London (and) it certainly wasn't happening in Australia and that beat me a path to London and I arrived there in 1965." Simply put, the Australian education system deemed her designs as too colourful, too radical.

After contemplating the situation in Australia, Jenny Kee knew that she had to go. So off to London it was for the budding fashion designer and she didn't look back.

Upon arriving in London, things changed dramatically for the far-from-home Aussie. But at the same token, she loved what was happening around her - the styles and fashions were extremely out there, and they were appreciated. This gave her much hope.

She recounts the innovation she started seeing when she first arrived in 1965. "London was happening..." she remembers. Learning much from living in a completely different land, replete with a different culture, Jenny worked at Vernon Lambert's right hand, at his Chelsea Antique Market, which specialised in vintage couture.

It was in 1972 that Kee journeyed back to Australia, one that would finally support her vivid and colourful art. Not long after returning Down Under, Jenny opened a fashion boutique called Flamingo Park. Jenny had a profusion of new ideas she'd brought back from the cold streets of London and was just dying to showcase them to fellow Australians. The Flamingo Park was the ideal medium for this.

After opening her boutique, Jenny was approached by fashion and textile designer Linda Jackson. The two women formed a partnership and started creating the Aussie jumper a la Jenny Kee in 1974 - pure Australian wool knitted jumpers with Australian emblems creating a bright and colourful garment.

Kee's knitwear and related garments had a certain luminescence and were ultimately bright and very audacious. The people loved them and it showed in growing sales.

In 1976, Jenny moved with her new hubby, artist Michael Ramsden, and daughter, Grace, to the Blue Mountains. However, her life took a turn for the worst when, just a few months later, she and daughter Grace were travelling on a train.

The Granville Train.

The train crashed and was one of Australia's worst ever rail disasters, killing many people. Jenny and her daughter were some of the luckier ones, surviving the ordeal. As a result of the horrific event, Jenny started painting. She recalls: "... for me the Granville Train Crash was a huge turning point... I survived and started painting it - that's when I started painting."

Jenny KeeShe started painting flowers and animals, opals, exotic birds and tropical fish. In 1977, Kee and Jackson took their work, which was painted and then printed onto exotic silks, to Europe. Italian Vogue gave the "Flower Series" a full centre spread article, and Chanel in Paris wanted to use the series, too.

From here, things took off for Jenny and in the mid-eighties she launched her own label - Jenny Kee.

Her fabrics and designs are now part of the history of Australian Fashion Design and Jenny will continue to be a role model for many young budding artists across this great land of ours. Jenny continues to paint to this day.

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