At age 17, Australian fashion designer Jenny Kee met The Beatles and rendezvoused with John Lennon. At age 18, she relocated to London where she worked for antique clothes dealer Vernon Lambert at Chelsea Antique Market, and was catapulted into the center of the swinging '60s. "If you're going to be a groupie, well, I went to the top," she says in her biography, A Big Life, claiming to count Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Roger Daltrey among her other flings. After returning to Australia in 1972, she opened her boutique Flamingo Park, which drew the attention of designer Linda Jackson. The two created koala-printed sweaters, one of which was famously photographed on a pregnant Princess Diana in 1982.
Now 72, Kee is still very much on the scene. Most recently, Kee collaborated with Australian label Romance Was Born on its Opal Goddess resort collection, which draws inspiration from prints in Kee's archives. Kee's larger-than-life personality continues to translate to her vibrant designs and eclectic and colorful personal style.
What is your earliest memory of being interested in fashion and style?
My interest started very young. I told my mother what to wear when she came to pick me up from school at 5 years old, because she owned specific things I loved her to wear, like an emerald green A-line coat, sort of Dior-style, with this great big emerald button. We also had fashion in our family because my auntie was a couture sewer for Madame Pellier in the '30s and '40s, and my mother would design clothes and then Auntie would make them for her. So she was a great fashionista, and she instilled that in me. I always had a dressmaker, and I just knew and styled how I wanted to look. I'd stand there in front of a dressmaker and say, "I want a double-swallow collar and three buttons and flaring out," so I was actually designing in my teens.
Just think about Jimi Hendrix, think about the Stones, The Beatles, The Who, Jimmy Page. They wore crushed velvet pants, they had amazing embroidered, patched silk shirts, no collars, always cut down, showing their chest with a '30s bias-cut scarf.
How was having such a strong sense of style from a young age received by your peers?
They followed me. I always had that original sense. Style, it's in you, you know? I had a girlfriend that copied everything I wore. Girls, they sense that — they sense when you have that style. I was good at art and styling myself, which is why I wanted to design and wanted to do a fashion design course at East Sydney Technical College. I lasted a very short time at that because, you know, you weren't encouraged to be designers in the early '60s in Sydney.
Did that time in your life cause your personal style to change or evolve?
A group of us moved from Sydney to London when we were 18, and I went to work at the Chelsea Antique Market, which was the hub for the hip. All the pop stars came in, because, you know, vintage. Just think about Jimi Hendrix, think about the Stones, The Beatles, The Who, Jimmy Page. They wore crushed velvet pants, they had amazing embroidered, patched silk shirts, no collars, always cut down, showing their chest with a '30s bias-cut scarf. Sloppy hats and bias-cut scarves around them with ethnic, Indian jewelry.
Can you recall an iconic outfit that you've worn in your life? Perhaps during your time as a groupie? I know you spent a lot of time with The Beatles.
My Pakistani peasant dress, because every photograph I look at of me in the '60s I'm wearing it. It's beautiful, old, with different patterns on the sleeves, on the bodice, and on the beautiful, big, billowing skirt. And I cinched it under my bust with a very, very light patterned Indian belt that I fastened with a ceramic Chinese broach. And I wore it with incredible Tibetan and Indian rings on every finger and a big necklace. The necklace might've been Native American, I'm not sure, but it was a round, circular piece that sort of hung just below the neck, all beaded, about six inches wide, and then off it hung a long thread of beading, and it was sort of mutely colored, but it was the most incredible piece of jewelry. The dress is my most worn and cherished piece of clothing, because it's now threadbare, but it's still in my wardrobe.
I personally feel that Australia is capable of completely leading the world in resort, without a doubt.
What piece instantly makes you feel more confident?
My waratah print silk kimono, which is 35 years old. I feel completely timeless and elegant when I wear it. The waratah is a totem flower for me. I live in the bush in this ancient landscape surrounded by waratahs that come out in October, and I paint them endlessly. They're always in my prints. The kimono is such evidence that timeless design lasts forever.
What do you feel is lacking in the fashion industry currently that you would like to see more of?
I personally feel that Australia is capable of completely leading the world in resort, without a doubt. We make the best bikinis, and create great, colorful resort wear, and it's not lacking, but I'd love to see more and more and more of it, because that's what I feel we're brilliant at. And I also wish someone would do printed flannel shirts. They always come in checks — why can't we have printed flannel shirts? There has to be a technology to make really good printed flannel.
My love of my country means my designs are inspired by all the iconic animals and flora.
How does sustainability and environmental consciousness factor into your designs and your personal style?
I've always worn a lot of vintage, and now people are getting more conscious, which is great. I actually got arrested protesting the deforestation of a forest in New South Wales because it had the oldest growth trees that had never been cut down and the koalas live in those forests. The police said, "Oh, but we love your koala jumpers." I said, "This is the home of the koala. What the logging companies are doing is destroying the habitat for koalas."
It was a natural thing to do; my love of my country means my designs are inspired by all the iconic animals and flora. It's just an absolute natural thing to want to protect the environment that you love.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.