We were part of a gang who all knew there was a world out there. Only a tiny pocket of it was in Sydney. Sydney had been pretty boring. I’d been at East Sydney Tech doing dress design, and it was a very old-fashioned type of design school where they wanted you to make little shirts, and it wasn’t at all inspired. It’s an inspirational place now, but it really wasn’t in the early 60s.
Me and my girlfriends knew what we wanted was in London. It was a need to express ourselves and we just wanted action. Heading to London was just the thing. You didn’t fly then, so you had to get a boat—six weeks to London—and sailed on the high seas. There was no stopping us.
I got onto British soil in the beginning of December. We docked in Southampton, and the very next moment I could, I got on the train. All I wanted to do was to get to the first Biba, the amazing shop, the very latest boutique, in Abingdon Road, Kensington. That tiny corner store was full of rust and plum and mulberry and blueberry, and the walls were painted navy blue. The windows were adorned with long sumptuous William Morris print curtains and mini smocks and stripey t-shirt dresses, trouser suits, red-dyed football scarves and socks hung on brass hat-racks. Amazing.
I went to work at Biba soon after, and then into working at the Chelsea Antique Market. I went from stripey jersey dresses, which was the coolest thing—everyone from Marianne Faithful to Princess Anne wanted to wear them—and straight into chiffon and velvets and paisleys and Indian and 1967 hippy. It was the very beginning of wearing retro.
Every day was like a party. We were going into work at 10 o’clock and Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis and Bob Dylan would walk up little crickety stairs to these amazing little Aladdin caves, where I worked. All this exquisite clothing, hanging from chains in this tiny little room: cut velvet and embroideries and Moroccan and Rajistani Indian and South American and African, mixed up with these amazing label dresses from the 30s and 40s. There were no changing rooms. Everyone had to just drop their clothes and try on what they needed, right there.
Around this time, I met my partner, then husband: a beautiful artist called Michael Ramsden. I’d been in London from the ages of 18 to 25, and the fun was going out of London. Punk was starting and it was sort of getting dark: think Johnny Rotten.
We really had this big desire to go back to Australia. Whitlam had just gotten in, and the creative country was starting up. I wanted to create things in Australia no one had ever seen. It began with koala bears on hand-knitted jumpers, because that was the closest thing I could get to something that could be purely Australian: merino wool, hand-knitted and Australian imagery.
Coming back to Sydney just did it again. I opened my Flamingo Park frock salon in the Strange Arcade in 1973, and I was 26 years old. And I didn’t think twice about it: I just knew I had to have this beautiful little room in an unusual place. At that time, there wasn’t one fashion shop there. It was full of cobblers and workshops, so I was the first one.
I like to impress on young people that there never will be another time like that again. It’s the time when the world did change, in terms of ideas and style and fashion and music and art. Music changed. That’s why young people—15-year-olds—still listen to Jimi Hendrix.
If you’re on a creative path, go for it. Don’t try and build an empire. Do things with integrity, in a small, meaningful way. If you’re really creative, create little businesses, so there’s lovely choice with original talents. One can make a living doing that.