Community. Nick and Ben Chiu talk about it incessantly. “That’s what it’s about. You’ve got to be builders and supporters of the community in Brisbane,” Nick says.
It plays out right in front of you. Sitting across from the pair out the back of The Bleachers, their latest venue, they’re constantly interrupted by punters. Hands are shaken, embraces shared, promises of catch-ups exchanged. Nick and Ben greet each and everybody by name.
These days it can be hard to get the brothers together. When you do, you notice the differences. Ben, 27, is the talker. He leans forward, hands sculpting his answers and ideas out of thin air. At 32, Nick is older and more pensive, listening and interjecting to sum up an idea or when he feels Ben has strayed off course.
Eight years ago, nobody had heard of the Chius. Ben was working in various boutiques around the city. Nick was at Myer after a six-month stint in New York. Ultimately, it was this trip that informed what they wanted to do with their twenties: open a specialised streetwear store. “There were absolutely no sneaker stores in town,” Nick says.
And so in 2006, aged just 23 and 18 respectively, the Chius leased a space in Elizabeth Arcade and opened a tiny boutique. Named Apartment, it was the first instance of the boys’ impeccable sense of timing.
Hype DC was still 18 months away from a Brisbane opening, and Apartment’s home was a petri dish of the future stars of the city’s fashion set. “That arcade broke in everyone,” Nick says. “Violent Green. I’m pretty sure Blonde Venus started there in the early days. Natalie Denning’s stores: Dirtbox. Everything.”
Apartment was successful enough that a year later the Chius moved down Elizabeth Street proper to a much larger, subterranean store – “Twenty-eight square metres to over 300 square metres. It was a big leap for us” – where they added to their mix of streetwear with more fashion-minded brands, such as Carhartt, Double Taps, A.P.C. and Edwin. “We had the store space and the intent there, and I think those brands recognised that,” Ben says.
The larger store did enough business that Apartment survived – just – both the GFC and being washed out in the 2011 floods, moving to some obscure, come-find-me, second-floor digs on Charlotte Street.
Finally, in 2014 they reconnected with Simon and Kim Sun of Violent Green to share a lease on Albert Street. “It was nice to find a spot with them again,” Ben says. “We had a lot of shared customers. That was really cool.”
But the Chius already had bigger things on their minds. During the three years at Charlotte Street, the brothers used the area’s redevelopment to occasionally take over an adjacent car park and hold music events.
The artists they promoted – Washington DC producer and rapper Oddisee, Japan’s DJ Mitsu the Beats, Brooklyn’s Jneiro Jarel – were top notch, but often obscure for a mainstream audience.
“It was a way of being more present in people’s lives, rather than just being a store they maybe visit once in a while,” Nick says. “It’s more about interacting with them by providing situations where people in the scene can all meet each other.”
Hence the idea for a burger joint, Ben says. What was originally conceived as a weekly pop-up to bring people together and eat some good food was hijacked by opportunity and ambition in 2014 to become Ben’s Burgers.
On a tiny corner in the Valley – surrounded by the creative precinct of Winn Lane, and ably assisted by some of their oldest collaborators – the Chius pump out patties to an endless line of punters. Ben occasionally works the grill himself.
“At the time there wasn’t a good burger joint in Brisbane,” he says. “And it’s the perfect thing to bring people together.” Nick adds: “It’s in a community-orientated area. We could tie everything – music, food – all together in a more permanent thing, and fill a hole in the market at the same time.”
Ben’s Burgers was such a success that they’re repeating the experiment on the other side of the river. The Bleachers occupies the former West End home of Sling. There’s a sit-down eatery at the front of the premises, and the former cocktail joint’s winsome backyard lounge has been turned into a busy bar, with the titular bleachers and a regulation-height basketball hoop.
The flexibility and extra space of The Bleachers was a direct reaction to the cosiness of Ben’s Burgers. “We felt restricted in what we could do in terms of music and the community-building side of things,” Ben says. “We’ve always liked West End, because the whole vibe around here is very community focused.”
It’s the same logic that led to the opening of A Love Supreme in Winn Lane, across from Ben’s Burgers, in January last year It’s a simple space of plywood, brick and glass, selling all kinds of exceptional vinyl.
But why all this effort to help create a scene in Brisbane? Were the brothers ever tempted to just up sticks and move elsewhere? “There were definitely times in earlier years,” Ben says. “Part of the problem is that, traditionally, the work hasn’t been here. But if everyone leaves and no one actively tries anything, it’s always going to stay in this cycle.”
Now the Chiu brothers are part of a new generation of Brisbane creatives who celebrate the city. “We can help affect change,” Ben says. “Within our community, within our scene of people, we feel like they appreciate it.”
“If we were in New York we couldn’t really contribute anything,” Nick adds. “We’d just be a couple of bros cruising around experiencing cool shit.”