Strike a Pose: iconic Australian designer Jenny Bannister talks Rennie Ellis

Ahead of the Strike a Pose panel discussion on famed photographer Rennie Ellis’ life and career, I had the mad idea of wanting to talk to panelist Jenny Bannister.

An iconic Australian fashion maven of her time, Jenny has always been kind to me in passing, so I knew it wouldn’t hurt to ask. She gracefully accepted my request, the only proviso being that it was a phone interview (she hates emailed questions).  As it happens, chatting to Jenny Bannister on the phone ended up a pure delight.

I always had a feeling she was a woman of wild stories, and regale them to me she did.  Tales of hedonistic golden days filled with revolutionary punk attitude, and with far fewer rules than there are today. I found listening to Jenny’s adventures so uplifting that when our time was up, I had a feeling that it may have been that very same punk attitude that brought us together.

A transcript of our conversation:

JB: I much prefer you to hear my voice rather than doing questionnaires. We’ll both get a lot more out of it.

TGW: I’m so excited that you’re coming back from Byron Bay for this talk on Saturday.

JB: Yeah? They’re flying me down and putting me up!

TGW: As they should. Royalty, I say, royalty.

JB: <Laughs> I offered to pay and they said, “Oh no.”

TGW: What are you most looking forward to talking about on Saturday on the Strike a Pose panel at the State Library?

JB: Well, I’m excited about coming along on Saturday to see the images again, and also to reminisce I suppose, about the fashion and the culture of the times of the images that will be on show.

TGW: Were you in many of the images?

JB: Yeah I’ll be in some of them. I’m on the invitation… The girl in the red dress is me. [TGW note: I couldn’t get permission to publish the image, sorry, click here to see it].

TGW: I’m sorry I didn’t even realise. That’s fantastic!

JB: All the girls are wearing my dresses. That’s the Melbourne Cup in 1978, in The Birdcage. The Birdcage wasn’t corporate marquees back then, it was just a car park basically.

TGW: With posh casks?

JB: <Laughs>

TGW: During the 70s and 80s did you identify with being extravagant and/or outrageous, or is that a retrospective view written by someone who wasn’t there?

JB: Oh no! Back then there weren’t very many rules, as there are now. There weren’t security cameras or anything. And, we just made it up as we went along. The more extreme the idea, the more fun we had. And we carried through.

About 7 or 8 of us all went in to that day wearing Jenny Bannister plastic dresses. I don’t know if they’ve got an image of all of us, but I do somewhere. Because it was the 70s, during the Punk era – punk’s not just music but a way of feeling and acting, which doesn’t seem to be around as much anymore.

Punk’s not just music but a way of feeling and acting.

There were fewer people around and they all wanted to follow their hearts and minds and they weren’t afraid to express themselves. There would have been people around who were shy and didn’t but we didn’t know who any of those people were because we belonged to a movement of people who wanted to have fun.

I think part of it too was that the gay people were coming out of the closet at that time and I had guys ringing me up saying ‘look, we’re going to the film festival and we’re going in the best costume competition, and we want to dress In drag, will you make our dresses?” Beautiful ball dresses and stuff – two of them won! They won a trip to the Hobart casino – they had their hair done, their make up – not like drag queens now – these were really offbeat lookin’ crazies.

TGW: Oh there’s still those too.

JB: And the parrrrrties. Like, I suppose because we all lived in shared houses back then. I don’t know if it happens so much now – people live at home with their parents much  longer. But we were all out on the street by the time we were 17 or 18 sharing houses, so we could all do whatever we liked with no parental restrictions. No one was saying you can’t do this or you can’t do that.

TGW: Well you wouldn’t have listened anyway, I don’t imagine.

JB: No. The gay boys would have the best parties. They’d have themes and we’d all dress up in the theme and Rennie just knew what was going on. He’d always just turn up at the parties and the fashion parades. And he’d always come out the back of the parades, and as time went on, by the time everything got really serious and mundane.

Rennie just knew what was going on. He’d always just turn up at the parties and the fashion parades.

JB: I mean they were having fashion parades at Crown Casino in the early noughties, and Rennie was trying to get out the back as usual. They were saying, “He’s trying to get out the back. Get him away! Get him away!” So I’d give him my backstage pass so he could get out there. <Laughs> I thought, “fuck everyone else, this is Rennie Ellis.”

TGW: Absolutely.

JB: How many people read your blog?

TGW: It’s only a real niche blog, but everyone who reads it – they’re genuine. I don’t like the word ‘influencer’. I don’t have thousands and thousands of readers.

JB: Yeah you don’t buy followers?

TGW: Oh eff no, eff no.

JB: <Laughs>

TGW: I’m just going to do my own thing and swing in the breeze until they come.

JB: That’s good!

 

TGW: What’s your favourite aspect of Rennie’s photography style? Is it that the images are candid, or is it the fashion?

KB: Yeah it was all candid. I think he was quite serious though. I mean he’d photograph football, policticians, rock concerts, he went to everything. He wasn’t just stuck in one tribe. Like, he was a surfer in the early days and I think he went on the first Bali travel Co. Tour going to Bali in the late 60s, those organised tours when you couldn’t even fly in there from Australia. You went on a yacht from Darwin, to go surfing. He was in to every genre you can think of I suppose. He’d photograph old people, young people, kids, lots of different things, really.

TGW: What do you enjoy about the images looking back at them now?

JB: They’re not censored in any way – and he hasn’t been told by a newspaper editor or anyone to go off and do this story for us. He just did his own stories. He’d just go around and he had a very wide range of friends, so he was always out and about. I think it was his second wife Kerry said that going out of a night with Rennie wasn’t just about going to one thing in a night, it was four or five things. You’d have to keep up with him!

[Laughter]

JB: He’d know what was on. I don’t know how. I mean he used to read the newspaper every day – he had a studio called ScuPix on the corner of Greville and Izett Streets in Prahran, so he was part of café society of Greville St in the early days. Greville St always had something happening since I can remember when I came to Melbourne in 1972. There were the hippies and the marijuana lobby, all sorts of underground things. Prahran Tech was just up the road. That’s where you get all your art school students and bands – lots of live music and stuff happening as well. So Rennie was just going around taking pictures of what was going on, and his photographs have turned into pictures of our culture, of all of us and what was going on in Australia, in free fall.

Rennie Ellis was part of café society of Greville St in the early days. Prahran Tech was just up the road. That’s where you get all your art school students and bands – lots of live music and stuff happening as well. So, Rennie was just going around taking pictures of what was going on, and this has turned into his photographs have turned into pictures of our culture, of all of us and what was going on in Australia, in free fall.

TGW: Do you miss those days?

JB: Melbourne these days just seems to me to be like one international student school. You walk down the street and there’s all these sky scrapers and they’re knocking down the beautiful old buildings. And we don’t have many live music venues. When my husband and I both retired – we lived in St Kilda – we realized that Melbourne had nothing left for us, really. Because my husband worked in Collins St and he loved having lunch in the city and riding his motorbike in to work every day and having drinks with his mates, but when I finished work too, cos I wasn’t in the fashion realm anymore, there wasn’t really much left to do in Melbourne. We don’t have children and we’d go down to the Espy sometimes to watch a band, but everything’s so regulated now, and organsied, and stuck in all these boxes, like even the Melbourne Fashion Week – all those things – you know, you’ve got to apply to go in it and you’ve probably got to sell at David Jones to even get a tick in the box and all this bullshit.

In the old days, I knew guys and girls who were sort entrepreneurs. They weren’t businesses, they’d be working out of their house, before the internet. They’d think of having a fashion parade and live music at the club in Smith St, Collingwood. So this girl would go around and ask labels if they wanted to be in the show – we’re gonna get this hairdresser and that make up artist, and we’re gonna have this band playing. It doesn’t cost you anything to go in it. That’s a big thing. And then she’d share the door takings with the guy who owned the club! The band would be payed. It was all a big gamble, but she’d make money – there was another guy, he’s dead now – Laurie – he used to book bands at the Crystal Ball Room and all round the place. He might ring you up and say we’re gonna have The Church playing (80s band), do you want to do a fashion parade, we’ll go halves in the door. But I never did that with him because I didn’t know how much I was gonna make, or I might lose.

TGW: I’m pretty sure that beyond the official, heavily sponsored fashion festivals in Melbourne there is still that independent tribe.

JB: Oh yeah, there’s the underground tribe, but they don’t form part of the main program. Like the one in March – VAMFF.

The former Melbourne Spring Festival has rebranded to Melbourne Fashion Week and it’s totally cofusing – people will think it’s the one in March. I haven’t even seen the program. I’ve only seen flashes on Facebook of the major shows, where you have to pay to go in at Town Hall. The cultural program at VAMFF – that’s where you find the underground stuff, but you have to pay to have your name on the program. A lot of those young people have got no money whatsoever. They find it very difficult, and they’ve got the best stuff!

TGW: I agree.

JB: I used to love going to Penthouse Mouse but I don’t think they have it anymore, because in the end it became so commercial in itself that some of the really out there designers didn’t want to be in Penthouse Mouse anymore, because there was a bit of commerciality creeping in to it because they could afford to pay to go in it – retail brands – and some would say they’re too commercial, we’re not going in it – Fuck off!

I loved the one that my friend Lia did – Pattern Nation at the Carlton in Bourke St.  She got everybody from Reg Mombassa from Mambo, Linda Jackson from Flamingo Park, me, Sarah Thorne – she went out and got older ones who had made their names in the 70s and 80s, Ken Done! He’s even older than us! They all wanted to go in it. It didn’t cost us anything and the Carlton sponsored it – we had a ball! Kate Durham was in it. She was in my time in the 70s and 80s. Lia didn’t have any money – we all pitched in – I even had my husband drilling holes in to the walls to hang things up – people were helping paint the walls and get it together. I think one person came from the fashion festival and she had no idea. She was too young. She had no fucking idea and left after 10 minutes. The head honchos of the festival never visited the show… and it was fantastic!

TGW: Everything thinks they’re a photographer now. Do you have any advice for people wanting to carve a niche for themselves, as in, what could they possibly do? In what style would they take photographs to be different?

JB: The big thing is to be yourself. Do your own thing. It’s a bit like if you’re learning to sing or play a guitar or be an actor. The secret to the recipe of success is to be yourself. I mean I know Vinny Tran, he’s a Vietnames kid from the housing commission. He makes these little videos, and I don’t get them cos I’m too old. I just don’t get his sense of humour. But in real life, I just love him. He’s a real sweetie. And he’s very clever. Sometimes I just don’t get it but’s because he’s not 30 yet and he’s got all these funny little videos that his friends understand and reckon are funny. I’m just not with the program.

TGW: But they live in a different world to anything that we would know from the past. In your opinion, is there anything original left to do, or will we just see copycats and tributes from here on in?

JB: I think it’s just going to go on, because technology is driving it into unknown areas – like there is this girl called Iris Somebody whose made computer printing images – you put it into the machine and it comes out. It looks very uncomfortable, but it looks good on the runway. And I saw McQueen things that he has done back in 2001. They were pretty amazing – I remember Daphne Guiness wearing some of those things  – he was a groundbreaker, McQueen. But all of these things keep going round in circles all the time.

At the moment, they’re all looking in to the early 60s. When I was in primary school my Mum used to make our clothes mainly – she loved clothes too – I can see the trends that come around. I’ve been watching the French President’s wife, Brigitte Macron, she wore two great mod, twiggy era shapes – she’s 60 odd now, but in great shape – the dresses had the zip front, capped sleeve, press stud fold down collar – it’s very Norma Tullo, Prue Acton early 60s Australian, but it was all around the world, Pierre Cardin, Mary Quant, all that sort of stuff. It’s just what goes around and it’s the feeling the designer’s having too. Like, some people go right out on a limb and do something completely different and that’s good because there’s a big swelling now of people who don’t even want to wear Gucci or Prada, or wear their perfume for instance, because everyone else can have it as well. More people are looking for specialised, hard to get things.

Strike a Pose is a sold out event that is part of Melbourne Fashion Week. It will be Chaired by Janice Breen Burns, renowned fashion journalist and editor of fashion and pop culture blogzine Voxfrock, the panel will feature fashion designer Jenny Bannister; fashion photographer Monty Coles; and Rennie Ellis’s assistant and close friend, and Director of the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive, Manuela Furci.

 

 

 

 

 

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