“I feel waratahs to be my totem,” says Jenny Kee down the line from her home in the Blue Mountains. “And I’m looking out at thousands of glorious waratahs as we speak.”
Waratahs are a recurrent motif in the work of Kee, a legendary name in Australian fashion. Her colourful designs are inspired by the landscape – think koalas, cockatoos and gumtrees, as well as her favourite flower. She has been a prominent figure since the 1970s, when she opened a store in Sydney’s Strand Arcade with a fellow designer, Linda Jackson. Together they sold their eye-catching attire to a high-flying clientele (the Princess of Wales even wound up in one of Kee’s jumpers after receiving it as a wedding gift from Kim Wran, daughter of the former New South Wales premier Neville Wran).
Kee and Jackson’s relationship became tight-knit and 50 years on the pair are still fierce friends, though they’re no longer in business together. This month, a new documentary charting the pair’s bond and contribution to fashion arrived on ABC iView. Step Into Paradise covers Kee and Jackson’s lifelong relationship, their work and the personal events, good and bad, that shaped them. It’s a doco that Kee says gives “rich insight” into her life.
Today Kee is still designing and is still inspired by Australia’s natural beauty. Her most useful item is one of her waratah scarves, which helps her survive those bitter Blue Mountains winters. Here she tells us about that wardrobe staple, as well as the story of two other important personal belongings.
What I’d save from my house in a fire
A photo of my guru. I’m a Buddhist and his photograph speaks volumes to me. It’s probably the most precious [thing I own] – I know he should be living in my heart and my mind, but it’s just that the photograph is really special to me. It’s on my altar and I love looking at it. I feel like I get incredible spiritual energy when I look at his photo.
I came to Buddhism in about 1986 when I met a wonderful forest monk, my first Buddhist teacher, in Thailand. There, I meditated in an extraordinary cave that had a natural limestone formation of a Buddha in it. And that led me on the path of realising how important the Earth is, and the interconnection of man and nature, which is ancient Indigenous culture, but I learnt it through a Buddhist perspective.
My most useful object
My cashmere waratah scarf, which I never take off. Holes in it and all!
But it’s useful because I live in the mountains and today, for instance, it’s freezing. Today we’re on 6C or something. So I’ve always got this scarf on probably eight months of the year, because it’s colder up here. We have a really sure four months of summer, then we have bushfires, then we have seven or eight months where it’s cold. And I get very cold. I need warmth! So it actually is my most useful object.
The item I most regret losing
I’m terribly sorry to go on about waratahs again, but my mother knitted me a waratah beanie in 1988 and I lost it about two months ago on the train from the mountains down to Sydney. It was my lifeline to my mum. She was the backbone in my shop, she organised all the knitters and all the knitting, and the fact that she’d knitted this for me [made it special].
So I have one waratah scarf and I had my waratah beanie. I wore that beanie all the time to keep warm. I probably don’t wear the beanie eight months of the year, but I probably wear the beanie five months of the year. Whereas the scarf is useful, the beanie is precious and useful. And I lost it. It’s like oh, Mum! Where is it! One of my beautiful knitters is going to knit me a new one but it’s not going to be the same.