A new exhibition celebrating designers Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson is now open at the Powerhouse Museum

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A new exhibition celebrates the dynamic contribution and pure fashion joy of Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson.

It’s hard not to be jolted by the work of Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson: the duo’s bold, hyper-coloured fashion, which salutes the Australian bush with a deep kind of patriotism, is the subject of a new retrospective exhibition opening next month at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, and the timing is ripe.

Through careers spanning more than 40 years, the pair revolutionised the local fashion landscape with a jubilant style that made kitsch cool and shone a light on the country’s independent design spirit. Their art was a cross-cultural joyride, with inspiration taking in everything from native flora and Indigenous motifs to the crafts of Africa and India, Buddhism, theatre and Chinese opera. Kee and Jackson’s colour palettes clashed, the symbolism was over the top – the gumnuts! The waratahs! The koalas! Yet it worked.

The designers’ storybook also overflows. There was Kee’s immersion in London’s swinging 60s, the rockstar friends, the time she bedded the Beatle John Lennon, then the torment being part of the Granville train disaster, and the pain of her partner’s death in 2001. Her electric highs and desperate lows, of love, success and loss, have always poured into her art. Jackson, too, has fused a human element to her designs, having extensively toured the Australian outback, where she worked with Aboriginal communities to highlight their art via batik textiles. Jackson’s clever appliqué and glamorous cocktail dresses, shaped in the form of waratahs and banksia flowers, further cemented the genius of her craft.

Together, the women united as a force of artful optimism; their sartorial joie de vivre was unrivalled. When Kee opened her Flamingo Park boutique in Sydney’s Strand Arcade in 1973, Jackson joined her and the store morphed into a kind of bohemian hangout for artists. Their collaborations even became the subject of an annual parade, Flamingo Follies, staged in a Chinese restaurant. There was a spontaneity and freedom to their work, which earned them accolades on the world stage. In 1977, Kee and Jackson took their Flower series to Europe; Diana, Princess of Wales, wore the Blinky Bill koala jumper to the polo, making it an instant hit; and in 1983, Kee’s Opal designs became a major subplot for Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel collection; the print was splashed on silk blouses, mini-dresses and the linings of tweed jackets.

That marvellous body of work, counting more than 150 garments, textiles, photographs and paintings, many unseen, will serve as a rich visual treat for museum audiences in the October exhibition, and will likely inspire a new generation of creatives to search closer to home when it comes to brand identity.

Meanwhile, Jackson and Kee, lifelong friends, continue to make their art modern. It has become their habit to mentor young designers; the duo has fostered a special connection with Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales of the label Romance Was Born, and last year were made Officers in the Order of Australia during the Queen’s Birthday Honours in recognition of their dedication to industry. “I don’t want to be restricted by fashion whims – it’s too temporary,” Kee stated early on in her career, and she couldn’t have been more prophetic: “I think my work is about lasting.”

Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson: Step Into Paradise shows at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum from October 17. Go to www.maas.museum.

This article originally appeared in Vogue Australia’s September 2019 issue.

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