‘I’m not humble’: Artist Ken Done delivers colourful speech as 2022 Australian fashion laureate

<span>Photograph: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

Ken Done, the artist known for his riotously colourful Australiana paintings and prints, has been named the Australian fashion laureate for 2022. The lifetime achievement award honours individuals for their significant contribution to the Australian fashion industry.

“I’m not humble, fuck it,” Done said upon receiving the award at a ceremony in Sydney on Tuesday.

“I’m 82, I’ve been working really hard for a long time.”

Done reflected on his career highs and lows in an off-the-cuff 10-minute speech that elicited laughter and some uncomfortable silences from the event’s attenders, including from one member of the industry who took offence at Done joking about his Japanese assistant.

In May, Done’s art was projected on Customs House as part of Vivid Sydney. The fashion laureate was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the same location where Vivid’s opening night is staged. Done mentioned the Vivid event in his speech.

“I’ve got a Japanese assistant, Kyoko, she’s been with us for 30 years. We were in this room on the first night of Vivid, and Kyoko went down to see the very first piece and she sent me a text, straight away while we were up here. And she [said]: ‘Oh Ken, we’re so proud. It looked fantastic.’ She said: ‘When it finished, everybody crapped.’”

“And I know what she meant. It was dark and I thought maybe a brief smattering of applause, but for everybody to crap came as a big surprise to me.”

Host of the podcast Wardrobe Crisis, Clare Press, who attended the event, found Done’s joke offensive.

She said he should undertake anti-racism training.

“Why did everyone clap?” Press said after his speech.

“Clapping politely is enabling. I don’t think we should brush it off with the excuse that he’s old. Nor do I want to troll him. But I think we should invite him to undertake anti-racism training.”

Done also used the speech to reminisce about previous high-profile collaborations, including one with the late Olivia Newton-John.

Related: ‘A friend of mine accosted him’: a Ken Done napkin doodle drawn for a superfan

“I’d done the designs for Koala Blue. Olivia [Newton-John] always wanted to open that shop in Los Angeles and so I did the logo for that shop and some things like that. We just used to have little notes going back and forth. She’s a nice girl, I liked her very much,” he said.

“And then she said, ‘You know, we love these koalas … We want to use them for lots of different things. And I said, ‘Well that’s a licensing arrangement, you have to pay me something if you use it on other things’.”

“And the next letter I got back was a letter from American lawyers, one of those letters where you have all the lawyers’ names down one side, and basically they were saying, ‘look, you gave this to Olivia and she can do as she likes with it.’”

“I was slightly annoyed, in fact I was quite disappointed, but there’s nothing you can do about it, so I said alright, she can have it.”

The artist joked at his own expense about a primary school student telling him he should “try harder” at painting; and said that the simplicity of his work was probably why it was easily copied.

Though Done’s naive takes on Australian iconography inspire cultural cringe in many who remember his 1980s heyday, his work has been embraced by a younger generation of Australian designers. In May, his paintings of tropical sea life were translated into glittering embellishment by Sydney-based label Romance Was Born and shown at Australian fashion week. In his speech, Done described this collaboration as a “marriage made in heaven”.

Towards the end of the speech, Done said he spent all of his time painting. “Colouring in, going over the lines. I can get away with it.”

Done’s speech was a break in form for an industry that is typically taciturn, or at least tightly scripted.

Designers Marc Freeman and Camilla Freeman-Topper of Camilla and Marc
Designers Marc Freeman and Camilla Freeman-Topper of Camilla and Marc. Photograph: Richard Milnes/Rex/Shutterstock

The Australian fashion laureate also awarded established and emerging Australian designers across six categories. Siblings Camilla Freeman-Topper and Marc Freeman of Camilla and Marc, who have previously received the lifetime achievement laureate, were named designers of the year.

Laura Thompson of Clothing the Gaps was named Indigenous designer of the year. As she accepted her award, she said that on first arriving at Australian fashion week, she was not sure she liked the event. “For me it’s a new space,” she later told Guardian Australia. “Indigenous fashion still feels like a new industry, especially when we’re part of mainstream events like this.”

Thompson said that the pathway to her win had been paved by other First Nations designers, including the category’s previous winner, Julie Shaw of Maara Collective; and her fellow nominees Liandra Gaykamangu of Liandra Swim and Teagan Cowlishaw of Aarli.

“We’re at the point now of still elevating Indigenous fashion. We’re still building comfort in all Australians to embrace 60,000 years of fashion history … I would like to always see a category that highlights Indigenous designers. But I’m looking forward to seeing Indigenous designers integrated and as part of the broader categories as well.”

Australian fashion laureate winners, 2022

Australian fashion laureate for lifetime achievement
Ken Done

Designer of the year
Camilla Freeman-Topper and Marc Freeman, Camilla and Marc

Emerging designer of the year
Lesleigh Jermanus, Alémais

Indigenous designer of the year
Laura Thompson, Clothing the Gaps

Sustainable innovation of the year
Sarah Munro and Robert Sebastian Grynkofki, Sarah and Sebastian

Carla Zampatti Award for excellence in leadership
Leila Naja Hibri, CEO Australian Fashion Council

People’s choice
Rebecca Vallance