Apartment’s Ben and Nick Chiu | Close Encounter

By Sophia McMeekin
14th Mar 2014

Apartment store in Brisbane's CBD is a well-kept secret among this city's cooler kids. Home to cult street wear labels like Carhartt WIP, Comme de Garcons, and Neighbourhood, owners and brothers, Nick and Ben Chiu, have created a very chilled and unique destination retail space on Charlotte Street. Not only are they responsible for bringing Japanese street style to Brisbane's sartorial landscape, these multi-taskers are also doing their bit to foster Brisbane's underground street culture with their A Love Supreme parties. We sat down with the guys from Apartment to talk beanies in summer, why sneakers aren't cool anymore, and why working with your bro' rocks.

apartment close encounter brisbane city

TUL: How does this store compare to your first store?

Nick Chiu: 'It's like the complete opposite. If you saw the store before this it was all custom fit, and this one we went for the complete opposite. The other store was pitch black, sleek and sexy. This one is all high ceilings, lots of lighting. We went for something bright with lots of sunlight. 

TUL: Do you find that changed the mood?

NC: It's a lot less intimidating. 

TUL: And you had a lot more shoes back then? 

NC: Yeah we were a lot more sneaker focused back then. That was before Hype and everyone else moved in. We had a different focus and a different vibe. 

TUL: Are sneakers not as cool as they used to be?

NC: Back when we did it at the start it was more of an underground thing, and there were a lot of older guys that were more into the whole 90s, hip hop thing. It then blew into the more mainstream field with kids with super high-coloured stuff, and then Hype came and Culture Kings came and that's where we kind of faded out.  

TUL: Can you tell me about how Apartment came to be? How you got the idea?

NC: The background or the idea came when I lived in New York for six months in uni doing an exchange back in 2003. They had a great underground sneaker boutique scene and when I came back I thought, I'd love to do something New York-inspired, so we opened a New York style sneaker store, with New York labels, and then it kind of just evolved into focusing on Japanese labels. So that was the transition. After focusing on American street wear, the next step was to focus on Japanese labels as the customer's tastes mature. 

TUL: So Japanese street wear is at the forefront of street fashion?

NC: Yeah Japanese street wear is a lot more experimental, a lot less boxed in. A lot of the brands don't get pigeon-holed into one category and a lot of the clothing can be turned into high-end, fashion street wear, rather than just street wear with big beanies and oversized t-shirts. 

TUL: So this is your third Apartment store in Brisbane?

NC: This is the third one, yes.  The first one was in Elizabeth Arcade. There's been a lot of changes. 

TUL: So it was your idea to start the store in 2006, and then you dragged Ben into it?

nc: Yeah, Ben was working in another store in Elizabeth Arcade at the time anyway, and also, back then there was no competition for our particular niche. 

TUL: You guys are quite out of the way in your current location. Do you find that you have to rely a lot on word of mouth?

NC: Yep, it's all word of mouth, and the talk about the brands that we do so people will come and hunt down the brands we have here. Even if we were in a high traffic location people wouldn't necessarily come in off the street, because the brands we have are something you have to be into or show an interest in to actually come in and have a look. 

apartment brisbane city

TUL: How do you choose who to stock in store? 

NC: They're all brands that have their own following. If you're in a hard-to-find spot you need brands with a bit of pull. Most of our stock is cult, underground Japanese street wear. In our scene they're the biggest brands but in mainstream fashion they wouldn't do well at all. 

TUL: Do you guys go on any buying trips?

NC: We go to Japan about four or five times a year, which is a good perk. We used to do Europe but it was too much — it was too expensive and too far. It was fun and worth it for the trips but you would end up spending anything you earned from selling the actual clothes, on the buying trip itself. You have to be a big store, moving big volumes to justify European buying trips.  

We've gone through a lot of phases and brands in store. We've stocked a lot of New Zealand and Australian brands in the past, such as Josh Goot. 

TUL: So you're definitely not afraid of changing up your style? 

NC: No, we've changed completely. At one point we basically completely flipped our customer base. We went from one clientele to actually forcefully trying to distance ourselves from that to kill a market. When we got rid of sneakers, we had to rebrand and reposition. 

TUL: Well you've got a cool store, so it definitely worked. Did you have a vision for this space when you were designing it? 

NC: We wanted something completely opposite from the old place. The old place was dark and had no light. For the new place we wanted to introduce a lot more natural light; we wanted something lofty, with a light feeling, natural, and good for showing clothes off. 

In the old store, a lot of people couldn't feel at ease because it was so slick. Whereas here, people feel a bit more comfortable hanging out for longer. That was also the idea when we first opened our store that we wanted it to be a bit more comfortable, which was why we called it Apartment. So it could be somewhere where people could hang out. We actually had a lounge set up in the old store, but it ended up just being used by high school kids loitering, so we had to get rid of it! This location's good, high school kids don't find us. 

Apartment Brisbane City

TUL: What do you like about working for yourself? What are the pros and cons?

NC: Oh there are heaps of pros! There are heaps of cons too, but the pros are you get a retail timetable, which is very relaxed and cruisey, and you can sleep in every day. It's nice being able to control your own destiny and decide where you want to go, for better or for worse. 

The cons being working six or seven days a week, but I guess in the end that is beneficial to us as well, and we enjoy doing it. We just love the culture of street wear, the clothes, the music, the surroundings and the people. The people especially — we've met a lot of cool people over the last seven years. They've been influential. And we also throw events and block parties — they're really fun. 

TUL: Is that how you stay connected to Brisbane's street style culture?  

NC: It's how you cultivate a community. In Brisbane we don't have a meeting point for people who are interested in similar stuff. For example, in New York you have a lot of local stoops or local venues that do a lot of the music we're into and it all kind of melds in together. Whereas, in Brisbane, you don't really have any places that have that all together: like skate, art, street wear, that type of community. There are not many outlets for people to congregate; it's very separated. 

So the parties we throw are good. There's diversity and all types of people all hanging out in one place, gathered together to enjoy good music and similar interests. 

In Brisbane we've found the groups are very separated. For example, you've got the Teneriffe/New Farm group, then the West End types, then the clubbers; it was all very separate and not a lot of crossover. So the parties were about making that crossover and bringing the groups together. All different types of people shop here, so we throw parties where they can come, too.

Apartment Brisbane City

TUL: And they go well? 

NC: Yeah we've thrown nine of them now and they're generally with international artists from the genre we're focusing on at the time, so there was a lot of overlapping with the music and the fashion at the time. We've had a lot of diverse music genres, just not mainstream. 

TUL: Do you guys skate yourselves?

NC: No — we actually had a skate section briefly in the old store but we don't skate ourselves. I'm terrible, I'm bad on wheels. We stick with basketball. 

TUL: What do you like about working with your brother? 

NC: Oh, it's the best! You can be honest. You can say whatever you want and don't have to worry about stepping on eggshells, and we don't disagree much anyway. We complement each other. Generally, on overarching big ideas, we have the same opinions anyway, so that's good. Plus, I have to live with him, so that's a lot of time together! But it's still good. 

TUL: Where about do you guys live? 

NC: Windsor. There's still not a lot happening there. Do you know the Low Road? It's near the train station and it's a decent little café. 

Back in the day, around 2004 and 2005, Kedron Brook Road was meant to be one of the spots, the go-to streets for food. They've all gone now. 

TUL: Do you have any other secret or favourite cafes or gems? 

NC: Okay, so my favourite coffee shop is in the city — Strauss — it's our favourite, but we try to support all the local spots and go to all of them. A lot of our favourites are run by our customers.

Little Saigon is good too. 

TUL: Where do you like to go out on the weekend to drink? 

NC: We got to a lot of gigs. There are a few crews in Brisbane doing a lot more adventurous gigs, bringing more musical culture to Brisbane, and we try to support that as much as we can as the music scene is a hard thing to build in Brisbane. Otherwise we get to Depo or Super Whatnot a fair bit. 

The gigs kind of lead us everywhere. 

TUL: So what does a typical day look like for you guys? 

NC: A typical day? We can't really pick the days. Because we're a destination store, some days can be really busy and other days quiet; it's inconsistent. We always have stuff to do, but, yeah, we don't have a 'typical' day. We're always trying to do things, whether it's for us or our customers. When you work in retail there is also a lot of sitting around, too. There are only so many times you can rearrange stuff, but my folding is very good!

Apartment Brisbane City

TUL: What about menswear and men's style scene in Brisbane? How do you think Apartment compares? Have you seen any big changes since you've started here? 

NC: Men's style is conservative. It's a very Cloakroom-style, much sharper. Or otherwise it can be daggy. Two ends of the spectrum. 

It can be like a vicious circle. Good style comes with having good places to go at night, too. So if it's a more cutting edge style you need more cutting edge places to go to, or more fancy things to go to. But how often do you get to go a red carpet event or how often can you wear whatever you want and not be worried about not getting let into a venue in Brisbane? I think that comes with the territory as well. Sometimes in Brisbane you can't get in with a certain type of shirt, or shoes, so different factors come into play. The climate comes into play as well.


Apartment Brisbane City

TUL: Do you sell a lot of beanies?

NC: Surprisingly, we do. Beanies are weird though, because a lot of people wear beanies when they don't really need them. I've never understood why skaters wear beanies in summer because their brains must be baked. I've never understood that, but they love beanies! 

Obviously we're not either end of that spectrum of daggy or super-sharp suits, so there are a lot of people like that. But we're still in the niche and catering to young creatives. 

TUL: What's next for you guys? Do you have any plans in the works? 

NC: Just keep trucking along I think, keep doing what we're doing. We don't have any major plans at the moment. 

TUL: Any parties coming up?

NC: We'll have to get back to you on that one. We usually wait to be offered or discover an artist before we do anything. Plus a lot of other people are throwing parties, and it's always more fun to go to other people's parties than throw your own!

TUL: Well let us know when you're throwing another one!

NC: Yes definitely! There's usually a lot of dancing; that's what we push. We push people to enjoy the culture and music rather than just going to just drink and sit around.

Image credits: Daniel Maddock 

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