Australian fashion and food icon John Hemmes has died, aged 83

John Hemmes in 2009. Photo: Getty Images

John Hemmes, the Sydney fashion retailer everyone knew as “Mr John” has died. He was 83.

The Hemmes family announced this morning “with great sadness that John Hemmes passed away last night”, at his Vaucluse home, The Hermitage, surrounded by family, following a long battle with multiple myeloma.

John Hemmes changed the way Sydney dressed. His family would go on to change the way the city ate and drank, shifting from fashion to hospitality and setting the trends in the city’s dining and drinking landscape through hotels such as the Establishment and Ivy.

The honorific Mr John came from the ground-breaking fashion house he established with his wife, Merivale, nearly six decades ago.

His success is one of Australia’s remarkable immigrant stories.

John Hemmes was born Surabaya, Indonesia, in 1931, and spent four years in a Japanese POW camp when a teenager. His Dutch father was a doctor who, after the family had returned to Holland, gave his son $20 when he was 19 and sent him to New Zealand.

Hemmes didn’t understand English. One of his first jobs there was in an abattoir. He convinced himself “it was for the best, because I needed to survive”.

Hemmes moved to Australia in 1952 and one of his first jobs was as a waiter. He met Merivale and after marrying launched a fashion label that began in the garage of his parents-in-law’s Burwood home, where they lived and made clothing. The duo would go on to conquer high street fashion as The House of Merivale at 194 Pitt Street. Merivale designed clothing worn by celebrities and a new, exuberant generation. It became a cultural phenomenon: the place to head for the latest trends in music, fashion and make-up. They gave the city style.

During the 1960s, Mr John and Merivale revolutionised Australian fashion, opening nation’s first specialty boutiques, selling the first miniskirts and putting music in shops, including an unheard of band called The Beatles.

Mr John’s talent for picking trends was passed on to his children, Bettina and Justin. As the fashion side of the business began to wind down, it shifted to music and hospitality, beginning with Hotel CBD 20 years ago. The Merivale Group then bought the Slip Inn three years before a Danish prince was to meet a certain girl from Tasmania there.

The family’s first big gamble came in 2000 with the Establishment hotel in the burnt out ruins of the former George Patterson House on George Street. It included a nightclub, a sushi restaurant and est., a three-hat restaurant that would become the cornerstone of the Merivale Group’s culinary reputation. Hemmes knew how to spot talent and the patience to get what he wanted. He spent 15 years wooing Jeremy Strode, who now runs Bistrode CBD, to come work for him.

Mr John could be found dining in one of his restaurants on most days, but he kept a sharp eye on the balance sheet and into his 80s, studying the day’s taking, he was notorious for firing off emails to management in the middle of the night demanding explanations for what had happened that day.

His son Justin, CEO of Merivale Group, had a close bond with his father, while his daughter, Bettina, has her mother’s eye for style and designed many of the family’s restaurants and bars.

The family rolled the dice again 2007, opening the landmark Ivy on George Street just as the GFC hit. It rewrote the rules, with its rooftop pool and several restaurants. While industry rumours swirled around constantly that the business was on the precipice, it thrived and the Merivale Group’s buying spree has continued, with an empire that now stretches from Manly on the north of the harbour to Coogee in the eastern suburbs.

The Hemmes family company now controls more than 50 bars, hotels and restaurants across Sydney, employing thousands of people. The value of the business is believed to exceed $1 billion.

Mr John had been living with the blood cancer multiple myeloma for several years.

“It’s not being an immigrant that makes you succeed,” Mr John told Fairfax Media in 2013. “Whatever country you live in, or are born in, or immigrate to, the key is having a hunger and passion to make the best of your life.”

John Hemmes is survived by his wife, Merivale and children Justin and Bettina.

* The Hemmes family would like to invite all who wish to pay their respects to Mr John to join them at Ivy Ballroom, 320 George Street, Sydney between 4pm and 6pm, Friday, 6 March 2015.

They have requested that instead of flowers, donations are made to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital LALTHAM Fund, supporting blood disease research and patient care.

Bettina, Justin and John Hemmes in 2012. Photo: Getty Images.

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