Words by Madeleine Dore
Photography by Harold David
“How well did you live, how well did you love, how well did you learn to let go?”
– Jenny Kee
The iconic Australian fashion designer and artist Jenny Kee is about to turn 70, so when she reveals her greatest lesson in life, you listen.
For the past two years, adrenal fatigue has forced Kee into a period of creative lull. “My mind hasn’t been creative and I’ve had to accept that and learn to let go. That is the greatest lesson in life.”
Kee credits a strong spiritual path and having a committed meditation practice as allowing her to hone the valuable skill of letting go:
“Those who have not delved into a spiritual path often experience lots of confusing emotions and unstable reactions to life’s circumstances. Whereas, when you have your own spiritual journey, you have a certain awareness of your own emotions and your situation."
Kee does not preach this insight, but rather through sharing what has been helpful for her, is able to reveal the lessons found within her own flaws:
“I saw myself flaring up the other day and reacting in exactly the way I used to when I was young. It's like ten steps forward and 50 steps back sometimes, and that's part of the journey.”
An important part of letting go is learning not to beat yourself up about your own shortcomings, flared emotions, and relationships to people and work:
“I feel that if I didn't have a spiritual path, beating myself up would really be a problem. Because of my practice, I can identify a flare up, see it, and say, ‘Jen, you don't need to do that again,’ or, ‘that happened, this is how it is, let it go.’ That is a mature way of being a human being.”
After all, it’s how we react to things in our day-to-day lives that matters. “As well as cultivating awareness, try to see your family, your friends, even your enemies as teachers on learning how to live with difficulties.”
Mastering the art of letting go also relates to our creative practice and feeling free enough to navigate the inherent uncertainty:
“When starting a new project, the mystery is probably the most exciting thing of all. The work takes its own mind, its own form, and that's what I think is so great about feeling free – if I’m feeling free inwardly then hopefully that's going to translate into my work."
“Other people can be crippled by that uncertainty, but you can find that meditative flow and let it just happen.”
Kee describes this as the luxury of being 70 – being able to let go, slow down, and be free.
“I'm not on a treadmill anymore, I don't have to produce things. So when I do produce something I want it to be really exquisite and timeless.”
Any observer of Kee’s work would agree there has always been a timeless quality. This could be a credit to her sheer originality and strong will.
“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."
“I never looked to other people for inspiration in the way I dressed. I knew that I didn't want to look like anyone else. I wanted to look the way I looked – I always had completely my own style and was confident in that.”
Despite such a strong will and confidence, Kee admits she was often incredibly insecure – but that didn’t stop her. “In a way that insecurity drove my will because I was determined to overcome it and do what I needed to do in life.”
Again, it comes back to learning to let go of the things that you think you can and cannot do. “I couldn't sew, I couldn't knit. But I could dream up things. I would design these unbelievably complicated jumpers and then I would search to the end of the earth to find someone who could do this amazing thing.”
At times we even need to let go of our own strengths and capabilities – or at least not let them get in the way of creating something truly original. “If I could knit or sew, I would never have made such complicated designs.”
Kee can see the pressures put on young designers and artists now to keep churning out new material, preventing them from really exploring and creating something amazing. “Young designers are having to do four collections a year and it's very hard to keep that up – of course you're going to burn out.”
Perhaps what young and emerging creatives can take away from Kee’s impressive life and insight is that you don’t need to be part of everything – it’s okay to let go and step off the treadmill once in a while.
“I was always under pressure in my creative life when I was in the absolute stride of my career, but I feel that there's so much superficial information now with social media – you feel you've got to be part of everything that's going on. But you need to be able to let go to delve deeper.”