The trip that changed me

Home is where the heart is but it's travel that broadens the mind. Four women talk about the journey that gave their life direction and meaning.

Jenny Kee, fashion designer
Sydney in the '50s was a bland place. We wanted to break out. We formed little packs of groovy young kids who wanted action. To find pockets of artistic people, that was like finding gold. Meeting the Beatles [on their Australian tour in 1964] was the catalyst for us young things to say, "Hey, something's going on in London and we want to be part of it." I was a little mod and [fashion boutique] Biba was the shop that was happening in London, and that's where I was heading in 1965. Working at Biba was an amazing experience because we were told to be cool and to be offhand with customers. We'd all just stand around looking louche in our little minis – and freezing to death! All of us got cystitis wearing tiny minis in December.

I was probably there for a year, and then the whole vintage thing started. I started going to the shops in King's Road. To me, the pinnacle was the Chelsea Antique Market [where she worked]; it was like, "I've come home." There was nothing like that moment when I discovered the beauty of vintage. The market had '30s bias dresses in chiffon, sequins by Schiaparelli, beautiful old clothes in mint condition. Things that now are in museums, we were wearing them.

Design school in Sydney was very staid. You were almost told what to design and what colours to use. Whereas being in this library of clothing was the most liberating, amazing experience. This is where I was being educated. I had people like Bernard Nevill, who was the head of textiles at the Royal College of Art and a head designer for Liberty, come into the market and tell me, "That print's from the '20s ..." I didn't have any idea. And his big passion was collecting these '30s bias scarves.

Now this is what I'm revisiting in my new scarf collection. It's amazing to come full circle; here I am bringing back the '30s scarf we wore in the '60s with my designs from the '80s into 2011.

I used to get lifts to work with Grace Coddington. She'd come by in a Rolls-Royce or Bentley and I'd be waiting at the bus stop. Manolo Blahnik had a shop around the corner from the market. These people who have become the biggest names, we were all hanging out together as young people in the late '60s and early '70s. The market was a hub for people who were creative. All the designers used to come in: Kenzo, Gaultier, Issey Miyake.

The other thing about the market, from, like, '67 to 1970, we dressed all the rock stars. If you see crushed velvet on Jimi Hendrix ... he used to buy six pairs at a time, in every colour. He was like a peacock because he had the most incredible style. He came into the market the night he died. We were just shutting and that darling man, he came in. All our clothes used to hang off chains, so he'd look up and say (softly), "Oh, I'd love to have a look at that." He had this big collection of things that he'd bought and then sort of just wandered out.

Him, Mick and Marianne, Anita and Keith, and before that Bob Dylan, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, all of them were coming in because obviously it was a look, wearing retro. Everyone wanted to have something different and there weren't two things the same, ever. Everyone used to sit in this fabulous cafe next door and there would be Keith and Mick and Marianne and Jimi having cups of tea and toasted sandwiches. The nightlife was going to the Speakeasy [Club]; there'd be amazing jam sessions there. One night, and this is really true, there was John Lennon and the Monkees just jamming - it was a pretty good scene.

By the end of '72, the punk era had started. London was starting to get an edge to it, a Sid Vicious dark edge. And it wasn't the London that I'd been excited by. Michael [Ramsden, her artist ex-husband] had an exhibition in Melbourne, so we were coming back to have a bit of a holiday, but as soon as we arrived – the Whitlam government had just got in – the energy that was in Australia ... we just thought, "This is now the place to be." We thought we were going back [to London] but we never did. And six months later I opened Flamingo Park frock salon in [Sydney's] Strand Arcade. I just thought, "Whatever I do with this little shop, it's got to be absolutely unique." And that's the thing that London gave me - being original.

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Visit Jenny Kee's website at jennykee.com.

Sibella Court, interior stylist
My mum [Dee Court] used to take decorative-arts tours around the world. She was a textiles expert. I had the good fortune of going on one of her trips in 2005. Mum and I always had a great relationship, but to go on a trip with her, where she's not mother, wife, teacher, friend ... where she's in her own element, was something I had never witnessed before. Her confidence and knowledge were contagious. She was always saying, "If you're not interested in people, or curious, you're not an interesting person", and you could see her living that. I think when she died [in January 2008], I definitely took on a lot of her attributes.

We went throughout Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and she took me to archaic papermaking mills. We went to seventh-generation ceramicists. We went to the puppet master in Khiva. It was lovely going into marketplaces with her in Bukhara or Khiva and you'd hear, "Dee! Dee!" – everyone knew her. She was really into meeting the people who made things.

Rather than just scratching the surface, she made me understand that even as a casual observer you can still, if you've got the curiosity factor, ask questions of people who live there and get to that depth of a country. And I don't think I'd considered travel like that before. That was an inspiration for what ended up being a whole book for me, Nomad [to be released next month], about how you can bring all your travel memories into your own interiors once you get home. I don't think I would've had the eye or the understanding if I hadn't been on a trip like that with her. I feel fortunate that I got to spend that time with my mum; we had a ball.

I realised how adventurous she was and not to lose sight of how exciting life can be, which she instilled in me. We travelled in a bus to the most out-of-the-way place, which overlooked the Aral Sea. We were staying up there in these camel-felted yurts at the top of these ruins that were once a lake palace and she said, "When I was your age, I never thought I would be looking over a sea like this. I'm so excited about where my life has taken me and that I've been able to make this happen." And I thought, that's a life lesson for you right there.

I think she had that ability to make people curious and excited, because her passion extended so far and touched so many people. At the funeral there were, like, a thousand people there. I have the same sort of get-up-and-go and travel bug that she had.

Ronni Kahn, founding director of OzHarvest
One morning changed my life. I was spending two days in South Africa with a friend, Dr Selma Browde, whom I hadn't seen for a long time. I knew she'd always been an activist but didn't know the details because we'd lived in separate countries. And she said to me, "Ronni, what are we going to do? You're here for a morning. I will take you with me to Soweto where we will be visiting an AIDS clinic that I set up." And as we drove, Selma casually said, "Oh, by the way, I was responsible for electricity in Soweto." Now Soweto then would have been a city of maybe two million people; today it's probably got three to four million people. And what struck me was, "What can it feel like to know that you've made that kind of difference to that many people?" And of course I couldn't possibly know, because my life had been committed to doing things that would benefit me and my family.

That was really the beginning of the dramatic light-bulb moment that became an important part of my life. By the time we got to the AIDS clinic and I saw what she had done there, I had made a decision that my life would never be the same again. I couldn't come back to Australia and live the same life I had lived before.

During the rest of that trip, what I did was soul search and see what could I do. One of the things I had been doing in my business - and my business was about creating waste – was putting on events and there was always food left over. So I thought, "That's what I'll do; I'll start rescuing food and get it to people in need."

I thought it would take a month to set up OzHarvest, but I soon realised it might take a bit longer. But I was certain it didn't matter if it took me the rest of my life, now I knew what my purpose was. And the rest is history – we are about to deliver our 10 millionth meal. We've expanded from Sydney to Newcastle, the ACT and South Australia. We've saved more than three million kilograms of food, and for every kilo, we save two kilos of greenhouse gases and 143 litres of water. We've changed the way disadvantaged Australians eat.

If you could see me, my eyes are filled with tears. It's overwhelming to know that just one little person, and I'm just an ordinary person, could have started something that has made an impact. I want everybody to feel it. Everybody should get involved in doing amazing things. [Before], I was dealing with petty problems, like what colour ribbon should go around a napkin; what I'm doing now is more meaningful. I now know that giving is way better than getting.

Christine Manfield, chef
I was invited as a guest chef [to India in 1996], so it was my first opportunity to do a guest residence in a restaurant outside of Australia. It was a cultural exchange initiative set up by the Department of Foreign Affairs. I was already a lover of spice, so that was the attraction – I'm going to the heartland of spice. I went to Chennai and worked there for a week, taking over a restaurant and showcasing what was happening in modern Australian cuisine.

I can remember them being wide-eyed in wonder that I was using tamarind and things they take as second nature. It hadn't even occurred to them that anyone from Australia would even know those ingredients, let alone how to work with them. I've always had a strong affinity with the flavours and techniques of Asia and India.

Food is a great connector; it's a universal language. On that trip, I had chefs teaching me how to prepare the yoghurt on a nightly basis for the next day and how to make paratha and idli. And that journey is still ongoing. Everyone looks at Indian [cuisine] in a very one-dimensional way: that it consists of tandoori, vindaloo, madras curry and nothing much in between. But it has an extraordinary, infinite variety. Each place has distinctive food, and that's what I write about [in her new book, Tasting India, published by Lantern]. Every recipe has been given to me throughout all my travels there, and it's a celebration of that. It's a place you never get on top of – there's always more to discover. I've lost count of how many times I've returned, probably 20.

I liked the challenge of putting myself into a different country and having to produce a menu like I would in my own restaurant. I've done that in many countries since, so that really kick-started that aspect of my working life. That was the beginning of where I saw the connection between food and travel.

Travel is my reason for being. It's important to stay fresh and to remind yourself that you live in a very small place. It's humbling and nourishing at the same time – you can't ever get too cocky. It's always lovely to come home, but it's equally lovely to be able to leave for a while to appreciate it more and to bring back new experiences and ideas.

JENNY KEE CREDITS: Styling by Kelvin Harries. Hair and make-up by Natasha Severino. Jenny Kee wears Jenny Kee scarves; Romance Was Born leggings; 2 by Lyn and Tony headpiece, green necklace and bead necklace; Easton Pearson gold neck cuff and sandals; Map Vintage red glass necklace and ring; and Dinosaur Designs bangles.

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