Photos: Earnest Capangpangan
We first met Chris Low, owner of Sydney-based retailer Big Trouble Store, in the fall of 2014 at the Jumble Tradeshow in Tokyo. This was our first market week in Japan and it turned out that it was Chris' first as well as he was preparing to open his first shop. With over a decade of retail experience - including a stint at a former account of ours in Sydney - Chris brings with him a wealth of lessons about the Australian market, which we are certain will come in handy as he does his best to introduce customers to brands that he loves and is passionate about. We particularly enjoy the product mix that Chris has brought into Big Trouble Store, a creative blend of military and workwear inspired companies from both the USA and Japan. We got together with Chris to chat about some of the challenges and opportunities he faces with his new venture.
You’ve spent a considerable amount of time in retail with various shops and companies before opening Big Trouble. What were some lessons you took from these previous positions?
I think the important lessons that I've learned are to have some integrity in your business, to respect your brands and customers and don't underestimate people's desire for something different. You will never know if something works unless you try it. Be prepared to take risks; they can be calculated but like they say, "nothing ventured, nothing gained." Have a story or narrative to your shop - some common thread that holds everything together. For example, everything we stock is here because it fits into one of three categories: quality, utility and design. Either it's built to last, it has utilitarian use or the design is timeless or a modern update of a classic piece. Be aware of the market but ignore hype. It's fleeting and you can't build a lasting business around it. Ultimately believe in your products, brands and your business. If you don't, why should anyone else?
Australia has been described as a difficult market for selvedge denim and heritage-inspired clothing as a whole. Do you feel that this was due to a lack of education or simply a limited amour of retailers to accommodate enthusiasts? How have you seen the market change?
I think it's a mix of both of those things. Australia is such a small market when compared globally; we only have a national population of 2.3 million. That's less than the population of big cities like Tokyo. So it's a small amount of people that are going to be into heritage inspired clothing, which directly reflects on how many stores are out there. The market is changing slowly, though, primarily thanks to the internet. People are becoming more educated about American and Japanese brands. I see more and more small retailers opening that are pushing denim and heritage influenced clothing in Australia. Finally, I think people are seeing past the high price tags of these garments and realizing the craftsmanship and quality that goes into each piece. They are seeing that these garments are made by small companies and by creative and passionate people who really care about what they are making. They also realize that they are going to still have these garments long after they have forgotten the price that they paid for them.
Since Australia’s seasons are reversed from those of the brands you stock, how have you shifted your operations in the stores to keep customers satisfied and up to date with offerings from your brands?
Traditionally, Australia has always been at least one season behind the northern hemisphere. Nowadays with customers being able to use the internet and having access to retailers all around the world, it's simply not a viable option to be running a season behind everyone else. It can be a little tricky as we end up receiving jackets in summer and shorts in winter. Generally, I try and buy lighter pieces from the winter ranges and heavier pieces from the summer ranges. I feel that our customers understand this and shift their buying habits. This way we are able to offer the same season as everyone else.
Tell us about the neighborhood that your shop is located in.
The shop is located in Sydney's Chinatown, which is located in the CDB in the suburb of Haymarket. Although not as big as SF or NYC's Chinatowns, it is Australia's biggest and has been here since the 1920;s. There are a lot of old buildings and history here, and a great mix of people and cuisines as it's bordered by Korea Town and a small strip unofficially called Thai Town. Some people think it's a bit grimier than other parts of the city, but I find it to be a very unique area that has its own sense of style. It's the best place to get dumplings, noodles or buy a gold watch!
What are some of your favorite small businesses in your area that you like to support?
If I'm not in the shop chances are I'm across the road at Kingswood Coffee. It's a great little place that concentrates solely on coffee; they change their blend of beans regularly and the staff are super friendly. For lunch I'm normally at Mother Chu's. They specialize in Chinese temple food, so its all vegan and they don't use garlic or onions in their dishes. The owner's mother is always there reading at a table set up for her. Darmua is the local Japanese izakaya. They have a great selection of small food and import Japanese beer and sake. It's usually filled with local Japanese people and is the closest I can get to feeling that I'm actually in Japan without being there. Although not in Chinatown, I have to mention Marlowes Way. Its a funk/soul influenced cafe/bar up near Wynard. They do great coffee and meals and also sell records. I'm normally there Friday nights spinning rare groove records.