Step Into Paradise ★★★★
ABC, Tuesday 8.30pm
A celebration of creativity, friendship and resilience, this absorbing documentary chronicles the lives and the dazzling partnership of Linda Jackson and Jenny Kee. Early in the 1970s, the dynamic duo formed the foundation of the famed Sydney fashion destination, Flamingo Park. Drawing inspiration from the country around them, they turned images of Australia – koalas, cockatoos, opals, Luna Park, the Opera House – into eye-catching features of their wildly colourful, highly sought-after garments. Before them, artist Bruce Goold observes, “it was almost like tourist shops had a monopoly on putting wildflowers on tea towels”. With their rush of imagination and energy, Australiana became cool and Flamingo Park became a pioneering and galvanising force.
Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson photographed in 2019 at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.Credit:Brook Mitchell
Produced by Blackfella Films, directed by Amanda Blue and written by Blue and Jacob Hickey, the feature-length documentary opens with Jackson and Kee wandering through the bush in 2020, marvelling at the regeneration following the fires. As a metaphor for surviving and thriving following devastation, it’s apt given the story that follows. Each of the women faces life-changing crises and discovers ways to navigate beyond them.
After the bush ramble, they share memories over a Chinese meal in a notably red restaurant. Colour is big in this film, as it is in the women’s work. Their clothes arrived like a burst of brightness in a previously pallid landscape. Through the film, interviews with a range of friends, colleagues and loved ones is presented with the interviewees positioned in front of large, lush floral backgrounds created by Saskia Havekes.
Step into Paradise traces the women’s childhoods and formative influences: Jackson growing up in Melbourne’s bayside suburb of Beaumaris, exploring bushland and painting; Kee in Bondi where her Italian-Chinese heritage set her apart and earned her the nickname “wopchink”. While her sensitive brother shrank from the racist abuse, Kee reckons it made her more aggressive: “I developed this strong personality because I wanted to transcend how I looked,” she says.
Linda Jackson and Jenny Kee in 2016 at the National Gallery of Victoria’s 200 Years of Australian Fashion exhibition. Credit:Justin McManus
As young women, they moved in different directions: Jackson meeting her long-time partner, agent and photographer Fran Moore, and travelling to New Guinea and Paris; Kee joining the posse of Australians escaping the country’s conservatism and decamping to London where she established her place as a style-setter and adept saleswoman at the Chelsea Markets. “She was like a light,” says Vogue Italia fashion contributor Anna Piaggi.
Both returned home following the election of the Whitlam government in 1972, lured by the promise of a cultural renaissance. After marrying artist Michael Ramsden, Kee had decided to put her newly discovered skills to good use and open a clothing store in Sydney’s CBD, where rents were then relatively inexpensive. Just before it was set to launch, a friend introduced her to Jackson, who was designing playsuits made from ’50s fabrics.
“We must thank the universe,” says Jackson of their introduction, “because it was highly organised beyond our realm.” The meeting of minds and sensibilities was instant, and a legend, as well as an enduring friendship, was born, with Jackson’s designs steadily taking over the racks in the new store.
The pair was soon at the epicentre of a flourishing Sydney scene, their enterprise a magnet for celebrities and society high-flyers, their fashion shows major events. “They were a perfect combination,” says art curator Ace Bourke. “They loved a lot of the same things, but they brought very different strengths.”
The film identifies what drew the women together, how they flourished and what eventually drove them apart. “Mum was just so hardcore,” says Kee’s daughter, Grace Heifetz. “She was like a bull at a gate, whereas Linda floated.”
As it charts their courses, individually and together, the film incorporates a range of social and cultural issues and milestones, from Beatlemania, Princess Diana and the Granville train crash to commercialisation and the cost of celebrity. So, as well as being a portrait of these extraordinary women and their impact, it becomes a succinct survey of a formative time.
As it ends, Kee smilingly remarks to Jackson, “We know that we’re both goddesses.” So true.
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