Interview by Madeleine Dore
Photography by Harold David
Fashion designer and artist Jenny Kee has filled almost seven decades of life with magnificent highlights.
A career in fashion began with modelling and later dressing pop stars at Chelsea Antique Market in London, before she went on to open a celebrated fashion boutique Flamingo Park in 1973. She’s done everything from make out with John Lennon to making iconic, colourful knit jumpers with long-time collaborator Linda Jackson.
Such incredible life experiences stem from a drive to throw herself deeply into projects, as well as a strong determination to cultivate her own originality.
“I had extraordinary will to achieve and that came from growing up with racism in the early '50s in Australia. I realised quickly that being different, being an original, was a great asset and I used it."
This drive was seen throughout her career. “When I was in my late twenties, Linda Jackson and I were able to throw ourselves deeply into our design career and Flamingo Park. I think the reason there is a long lasting quality to our work is because we were able to delve deeply into what we did.”
Seeking a slower lifestyle, Kee has lived in Blackheath near the Blue Mountains since 1976. “I didn't want to live the way city people live. When I was in the prime of my work I was in the shop in Sydney from Tuesday through to Friday, and then my designing would happen on the weekend.”
For decades, Kee has been following a spiritual path. “I did yoga for a few years, and there I was exposed to chanting and meditation and I guess I really liked it – I loved the chai and the cakes afterwards! Then my life took me to Buddhism and I met a forest monk in Thailand in 1996 and he seemed to answer my questions about living close to the earth, being one with nature, and helped me to interconnectedness of things. I felt very, very drawn to that way of looking at things.”
Describing her own daily routine as ‘higgledy-piggledy’, a dedicated dharma practice, exercise regime and regular rest shapes Kee’s days as she recovers from adrenal fatigue, while allowing room for more surprises as she enters her 70s.
Reminded of Blaise Pascal who famously said, “In difficult times carry something beautiful in your heart,” Kee teaches us that we can both accomplish extraordinary things and experience hardships, but still have a curiosity for what might be around the corner.
Like Kee, we can have an evergreen lust for the magnificent. “There are always surprises in your life and for me, the highlight is always coming.”
I set the alarm to go off just before I need to leave the house. If it’s a Monday or Tuesday, I jump out of bed at six-thirty and walk to my yoga class in town.
After class I have my coffee and then I walk home, so I get quite a bit of exercise.
I'm very food conscious. My usual breakfast is barley porridge because it really suits my digestive system. I have it with lots of almonds, pepitas, flax seed oil, kefir, linseed, Goji berries and a special green powder that I love, along with some blueberries and kelp.
That's a serious thing that happens in the morning. Some days it doesn't. Some days I go up to my favourite coffee place and have scrambled eggs. Or I might have my daughter's fabulous organic homemade bread toasted with miso.
I’ll do my meditation practice looking out onto a beautiful view. On a typical day I do some prayers and then sit for 20-40 minutes. It’s a vipassana meditation and I’ll concentrate on the breath going out.
Sometimes I’ll do a retreat near my house and that involves twenty-minutes sitting, ten-minutes walking, and twenty-minutes sitting, then you are served tea and you do the drinking and the accepting of the tea as part of the meditation as well.
If it’s a Tuesday, I spend the rest of the day looking after my health – I’ll swim and I have acupuncture. I do not engage with work or email on a Tuesday.
For the rest of the week, I don’t have a routine, except either walking or swimming. I have a severe dysfunction in my sacrum, so if I don't stretch my body every day I'd be crippled and my back would seize up.
I'm higgledy-piggledy, but that's how I am. I like my day to be a bit free. When I stopped the shop and the strict routine that went with it, I just started drifting and letting life just come to me. I'm nearly 70 and I don't think it's going to change!
One constant in my day regardless of the hour is to spend time managing my online and retail business selling my knitwear and silk scarves. This can involve responding to emails, packaging orders and updating the website.
I haven't been doing a lot of art lately because I haven’t been well, but previously I liked to get into creating after meditation and try to push the regular business of the day aside until I've done something. Often if I'm working on a project or a new design I don’t stop – I dive in and could spend ten hours doing that, but then nothing the next day.
For the past two years, I’ve had adrenal fatigue and have been too exhausted – my mind hasn’t been creative and I’ve had to accept that and learn to let go.
When you get to this age and your body gets weaker, you have to learn to let go. This is the great lesson in life, letting go. How well did you live, how well did you love, how well did you learn to let go? It's a great saying.
"I'm higgledy-piggledy, but that's how I am. I like my day to be a bit free. When I stopped the shop and the strict routine that went with it, I just started drifting and letting life just come to me. Now I'm nearly 70 and I don't think it's going to change!"
Of course there might be an interview, photo shoot, emails to answer and there's been a little book in the making and lots going on – I should not let you think that I've just completely pulled back, it's not the case. It’s just not as constant.
Every Wednesday I work with my assistant, Sue and we go through all sorts of different things – my email is always full of questions to answer and travel to arrange. There might be a talk I have to prepare and things like that. I’m selective in what I do – I don't go out on a circuit.
I don’t typically have lunch as I try to keep it light in the middle of the day, but I’ll have some nuts and go to a juice bar uptown and have carrot, apple and lots of ginger, or a green juice.
I also have my family living with me so there are always granddaughter duties, and we just got a puppy!
Dinner will be at seven o’clock if I'm eating with family but if I'm eating on my own, I’ll eat at five o’clock. That's not all the time, but I never eat late, I'll say that. My daughter is a fabulous cook and always makes something very nourishing. We might have Japanese, Korean, Mexican and she makes fabulous pastas and brilliant bread and cakes. I like to eat grains and greens as much as I can.
These days, my social life is my dharma life – my Buddhist practice is the most important thing in my life. I've got friends that I go and have dinner with, but I'm not a dinner party girl – I used to go to everything that came my way, but it’s not so now.
From my mid-40s I started dropping out and not attending every opening. I'm not on a social register. I'm on a dharma social register. It's given me the life I want. Of course it’s not either-or, other people can have a dharma practice and go to dinner parties and go to openings and do it all, but I just prefer to have a quieter existence.
"This is the great lesson in life, letting go. How well did you live, how well did you love, how well did you learn to let go? It's a great saying."
Read more: Jenny Kee on the great lesson of letting go
I always have a meditation practice in the evening – that's not to say I won't watch Australia's Next Top Model! I often watch that type of TV with the family and then I go and do practice.
I'm also a movie addict and love both new and old films. Sometimes I get involved watching something on SBS On Demand or on YouTube. Then I always like keeping my Instagram going – there's always stuff to do.
If I've got something creative happening then I'll go back into the studio in the evening. Because I haven't painted for quite a while, I am so excited to be starting out on a new project.
Bedtime is never before ten. If I’m good, it’s eleven o’clock, but when I’m naughty and I’m watching a movie till the end or I’ll hop on the email, it’s later. That can be a problem with adrenal fatigue, so I’ll have to sleep in later the next day. Maybe that’s what got me in trouble!
"There are always surprises in your life and for me, the highlight is always coming. What is it going to be? That's the mystery of life. At this point in my life and at this time for the planet, my aspiration is to live simply so others may simply live. I hope I can inspire other people to do the same – it's possible!"
Read more: Jenny Kee on the great lesson of letting go