We might have a city, but we wouldn't have THIS city if it weren't for Joff Chappel. The co-owner of Miss Gladys Sym Choon passed away this weekend.
Vale Joff Chappel: Co-founder of the “Empire Records of Adelaide”
Joff Chappell, aged 64, passed away in his beloved Rundle Street terrace home on Saturday April 4 at 3:15am after battling long illness.
With lifelong partner Razak Mohammed, Joff took over the legendary Miss Gladys Sym Choon store at 235a Rundle Street in 1985 and built a new kind of fashion empire.
Well in advance of today’s socio-political commentary around “equality, inclusion, and diversity,” Joff and Razak instinctively built a business around empathy, leadership and style, which attracted some of our city’s and the world’s most interesting and creative talents.
The name of the shop itself is an homage to the South Australian business pioneer CEO Miss Gladys, who incorporated her business selling luxury goods from Asia such as silk, lace and rosewood in the Rundle Street building in 1928.
Speaking with Joff’s Business Manager of some 15 years, Michele Bowler, CityMag understands Joff’s death was expected and he was able to die with great dignity and in the comfort of his own home.
“When we closed the shop because of coronavirus we brought in a hospital bed and set him up in the front room and he was sat up overlooking Rundle Street,” says Michele.
“He had a great night with his brother and his mate out on the balcony on the Tuesday night and then the Wednesday night it all fell in a heap.”
Michele says it was always Joff’s desire not to have a funeral, but to instead throw a party in his wake. Michele tells us there are still plans to hold a Rundle Street party in Joff’s honour once the social distancing measures have been relaxed and it’s deemed appropriate.
Former Adelaide Fashion Festival director Chris Kontos shared his deep respect and admiration for Joff with us via phone from his new home in Melbourne.
“I worked at Gladys Sym Choon when I was 18, 19, straight after TAFE and fashion school.
“I got the dream job. The Empire Records of Adelaide, it was just such a cool place to work and everyone wanted to work there and I was lucky enough to get the job,” says Chris.
As a young, gay man, Chris says Joff and Razak showed him he wasn’t an outsider, that his creativity and his intelligence and his humour was valued by them and was valuable to a business. Chris rose quickly through the ranks at Miss Gladys Sym Choon, ending up as the ‘buyer’ for Level Three.
“They encouraged me and supported me through my fashion career, and they taught me how to ‘buy’ really,” says Chris.
Both Michele and Chris remember the famous people who have shopped the store. Michele recalls Teresa Palmer shopping with her then-partner Stuart Dew as well as Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark.
“I remember serving Usher in Sym Choon,” says Chris.
“We closed the entire store. It was back in the Emporium days and he bought everything for himself and then he bought it all for his crew – it was nuts. And he was like, ‘This is the coolest shop,’ and we were all like, ‘Yeah.’ And then Joff would come around the corner, you know? Freaking out! Serving them all wine and being a fabulous host.
“There was magic in that place. You didn’t feel like you were in Adelaide sometimes, you felt like you were somewhere else – which is what Joff did. That’s what Joff and Razak did with the East End. You felt like you were in a different place,” says Chris.
Joff was one of Adelaide’s most original characters, larger than life, always upbeat, and someone who loved to stop and speak with locals and fellow traders. Joff was known and appreciated as someone who genuinely cared about his family, his staff, his customers and his community.
He and Razak expanded their fashion empire to include Miss Gladys on Sea, MR CHOON & Gladys Corner.
But Joff was first and foremost an “East Ender.” He was a former Chair of the East End Coordination Group and was heavily involved in the evolution of the East End through the 1990s and 2000s.
There will only ever be one Joff Chappel and our city is forever changed for knowing him.