By Triana O'Keefe, editor Australian Hotelier
'Mr John' Hemmes
10 September 1931 – 1 March 2015
John Hemmes was a migrant who overcame extreme hardship in early life to become one of Australia’s most remarkable entrepreneurs.
Born on 10 September 1931 in Surabaya, Java, to Dutch parents, John was barely 10 when World War II arrived at the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese imprisoned the whole family – John’s parents, himself and his younger sister – and about a year later John was separated into a men’s camp. Here he endured deprivation and physical abuse.
John remained imprisoned and apart from his family until 1945 when the reunited Hemmes clan moved back to Holland – John seeing it for the first time.
At the age of 19, John’s father sent him to New Zealand, where he took any job he could find. In 1954, frustrated by lack of opportunity, John decided to return to Europe, a journey that broke in Sydney.
As John watched his fellow passengers boarding the ship Otranto he spotted a beautiful young blonde woman called Merivale, a self-taught milliner from the Sydney suburb of Burwood en route to Paris to work. By the time the vessel arrived in London they were engaged. Shortly afterwards they wed.
Within a year John and Merivale were back in Sydney, living in a converted garage at the back of her parent’s home. Merivale created beautiful hats which John, working in a series of jobs around Sydney, sold to high-end outlets in between shifts. When one department store kept removing Merivale’s labels and replacing it with French couture labels, John took matters into his own hands and launched his first business.
By 1957, they had opened their first shop in Sydney’s Boulevard Arcade. John ran the business and served customers while Merivale designed hats and, later, clothing.
Within two years they opened the first House of Merivale fashion store in Sydney’s Theatre Royal building on Castlereagh Street. House of Merivale would expand into three stores in Pitt Street, two in Melbourne and one in Canberra.
In 1970 John purchased 194 Pitt Street, using it to sell fashion but also launch his first foray into the hospitality business with a Thai tea café. A year later he bought the Angel Hotel, opening it as a multi-level fashion outlet with a restaurant and espresso bar.
House of Merivale lit a fire beneath Australia’s staid fashion scene, introducing not just 'modern clothes for people with a zest for life’ but a new concept to local retail. Aimed squarely at 18 to 25-year-old women, these eye-popping outlets styled by Merivale, introduced Sydney to the specialty fashion boutique.
John brought the Swinging Sixties into the Australian retail world; music pumping, youngsters lined up to get in and experience a series of firsts – first chance to hear the Beatles music in Australia, first place to buy the mini skirt or Merivale’s famous crocheted swimwear – all at prices they could afford.
House of Merivale produced a continual turnover of novel, limited edition in-house designs and stocked fashion by other cutting edge young designers such as Prue Acton, Kenneth Pirrie and Norma Tullo.
Realising that the boyfriends of his female customers were borrowing their House of Merivale shirts, John also launched the ‘Mr John’ label to cater for the emerging male fashion market.
Celebrity clients ranged from Cher, Marlene Dietrich, Liza Minnelli, Mick Jagger, Barry White and Jose Feliciano to Eddie Fisher. Sales staff included Chrissie Amphlett (who would burst onto the music scene with the Divinyls), Stevie Wright (from the Easybeats), and Dale Tryon.
As retail conditions changed, John reoriented the business to exploit new opportunities. The early 90s saw the opening of Merivale restaurant in Potts Point’s Macleay Street and by 1996 the last Merivale fashion outlet closed.
John and Merivale then turned their attention to expanding the Merivale Group in tandem with their son Justin and daughter Bettina. Under Justin’s leadership as Chief Operating Officer and Bettina as a designer and director of the group, Merivale is now a multi-million dollar hospitality and entertainment business with a growing portfolio of more than 50 restaurants, bars, pubs, hotels and function spaces in Sydney.
John’s lifetime of achievement generated considerable acclaim.
Apart from numerous hospitality awards – including the Vittoria Legend Award in 2010 (SMH Good Food Guide Awards) – House of Merivale was honoured for its outstanding contribution to Australian fashion in 2013 with a bronze plaque on Australia’s Walk of Style at the corner of Oxford Street and Glenmore Road, Paddington.