Bene Culture is a concept store based in the creative district of Digbeth, Birmingham. Stocking and selling a range of local and international brands, as well as offering their own range of products. The Digbeth space plays host to many events and exhibitions throughout the store. I spoke with managing director, Hemal Chauhan about his Bene Culture story and journey.
G: Can you tell us a bit about your background before starting Bene Culture?
H: So my brother was the one who actually started Bene Culture. He was studying fashion at University, he then graduated and just got a normal job but he always wanted to create a brand. We tried to think of a name for the brand and how to come up with it. We have always wanted to be a good company with good customers and promoting good values. So there came Bene Culture; Bene means good in Italian so it just tied in with it.
G: So how did it kick off in 2015?
H: So it sort of all started back in 2010 really. We got the trademark and everything. We had no idea what to do next. We had no idea how to get stuff manufactured, how to take product shots, how to use a camera properly for any campaigns. So the skill level was literally at 1%. Because we knew nothing at all we would go into shops and ask people like “oh do you know any good printers in the area or do you know X Y Z” and people would just be like I’m not telling you.
G: Really? That surprises me a bit.
H: Honestly they were like ‘it’s a secret, sorry I can’t let you know’ but I feel like it’s a connection you don’t want to give it out to anyone because that could mean your work slows down so I understand why they did it. I was in my second year at University at that point and my brother had just graduated. We just decided nothing is really coming of this so lets just leave it. Then our mate, Has, who is our other partner. He was sort of like the reactive thing that made us want to start and try again. So initially I wasn’t involved, it was just him and my brother, but they were basically selling vintage products on Depop but they always wanted to stock and sell actual brands. So imagine no skills with regards to communication, no skills on how to put together proper e-mails and stuff like that. They had got in touch with a bunch of big brands, just basically asking if we could stock their stuff. We got really nice emails back but they all said the same thing like ‘Yeah we’re good for now, maybe next time.’ Luckily we got two brands in. One was called Heresy which we still stock to this day. The other brand was called Tealer, which the guys actually had to get a same day return flight to go meet these guys, win them over and secure a contract.
G: Where were they based?
H: Paris. So they had such a sick store and had an office upstairs so my brother and Has thought, wow this is amazing but the minimum order was £2,000. We didn’t have £2,000. We were scrambling around to get that money together and then that’s where I became more committed and involved. This was probably the point where we decided we needed to be all in and make it work. At the same time our Depop account was slowly running. Depop at that point was kind of big but it was more like people were just selling stuff, it wasn’t so much about brands building a community. We then decided to set up a Squarespace site so it was a pretty basic website to start, got all the product shots done which were taken on an iPhone so you know the real minimums. We launched it and we didn’t get one sale.
G: For real?
H: Yeah not one, I think our first sale came after two months. We had literally no idea what we were doing and didn’t know what was happening. The only thing that was selling was the vintage on Depop. We got our first sale in August but we lost money on it because the order was two items that had to be shipped to America and postage was quite a lot so we lost a little bit on it but at the same time we had a sale.
G: Yeah you got one so it was a win either way.
H: Exactly. At the same time Depop was growing more and more so we got more vintage stuff and went to this place, which I always forget where it was based, I think it was in Scunthorpe or something. We picked up a whole lot of vintage stuff for around £150 and the stuff was sick. We used product shots that were shot on our phones again, made a shit collection lookbook and then we posted it on Depop and it sold really well. My brother just killed it basically, we went from like 5,000 followers to 15,000 followers, our reviews went from 100 to 200. It just sort of blew up. Around December of 2015 we decided we needed to launch our own stuff. So we got some green gildan hoodies and just put Bene Culture in some basic type and it was vinyl done which isn’t cheap but it is low end in terms of production wise. We also did white long sleeve T-shirts and just released them. We had no idea how it was going to do because we didn’t have the stock, we were doing it based on order. We sold like 10-15 on the day and then after release we were selling 10-15 in a week. We were like shit, this has gone well. Depop also did this search feature when you search for people to follow it appears in alphabetical order so because of our name we were like one of the first to follow we went from something like 15,000 to 100,000 within a short amount of time and we were really gassed because we felt established on this platform now. Following on from that it was always a dream to open our own store so we thought that was the natural next step.
Every single space we looked at we just got a no from. Funnily enough we went to see a space in the custard factory and on the day someone else rented it so we missed out on that. We went to see places in city center and they were either too expensive or they wouldn’t work with us. Luckily enough we got this space because our cousin knew the lady who was here before and mentioned that she’s moving out so as soon as we heard that we just grabbed it.
We had literally no money to do anything with the store because we still had the Tealer stock that wasn’t selling that well. It was just me and Has, my brother was celebrating his 30th birthday in New York which he had planned before knowing we were getting a space. So we got his brother in law to help fit the store. The railings were from another store which had just closed down next to us. Everything table wise was like pallet boards and spare wood we found but somehow it worked and it came together nicely. We also needed to launch that same week we were putting the store together as we needed to start making money. So day 1, made a profit. Day 2, made a profit. After a few weeks it was then about chatting to people and build a community. It’s coming up to four years since we opened which feels weird to say.
G: Yeah I can imagine, has it gone fast?
H: Honestly like a blink of an eye. I remember I was 23 when we launched the store and now I’m coming up to 27. Shit, that has gone very fast. You look at all the mistakes you made too like oh yeah that was 2 years ago.
G: I suppose it’s good to look back on that though because it’s been a learning curve. You mentioned like not making a sale for two months, you sort of needed to go through those things and make those mistakes.
H: Yeah and I think the issue we had was we were in the group of brands that emerged around the time BigCartel was popular so we came in at a weird period. Brands like Dropdead and Hype came through there. If you had BigCartel you were most likely making money. We just had to progress and keep pushing forward. I’m not saying we make a million pounds now but we’re consistent in what we do, we’re putting out more Bene Products which is important to us. One thing I would say to anyone now is when you think ‘oh yeah we’re doing alright now’ then you’re gonna fail straight away do you know what I mean?
G: Yeah like if you’re settled or comfortable then you’re never going to move forward.
H: You’re never going to grow. Like having those mistakes like doing shit product shots. Not knowing how to use Photoshop or using threshold way too much. They’re the mistakes I’m glad we made because now we look at the stuff very differently now. One thing I would always say for us is having that connection with someone that spends hardly nothing in store is the same as for someone who spends hundreds.
G: Yeah I kind of get that feel from the times that I have come into store for example I only brought the Workshop Studios keyring the other month which I think was only like six pound but you know you still made me feel welcome.
H: Oh nice! **** for me and my brother we were like in that Hypebeast era of fashion and we used to go into stores in Brum and we felt like we were being looked at and judged so when we launched Bene we thought we need to be the exact opposite of that, we wanted to be as open and warm as possible. However for me as a shopping experience I don’t want to be spoken to, I want to look at the product, look at the magazines and fuck off. But then some customers do like to be spoken to, so we kind of judge it when someone walks in. We don’t want to be all about sales because at the end of the day if you like something you’ll buy it and if you just want to chat for us for like 20 minutes then that’s cool too.
G: I know you spoke a bit about the difficulty finding a space for the store but was Birmingham and more specifically Digbeth always the location idea or was it a case of wherever is available?
H: Pretty much wherever was available. I think we always wanted something in Digbeth, we thought it was a good area and a good fit for us. Our dream location was where Candy Store used to be back in the day. Other than that Digbeth always made sense because we always used to come down here, go to Ideal and stores like that down here. It was sort of weird how we got it because of family but now we’re trying to make a community which is basically like a family.
G: What do you think of the Birmingham scene at the moment?
H: It’s good when a city is growing. In the past five years the city has grown really. The food scene wise is one of the best in the country or getting there. DDC is one of the best street food venues in the country. You’ve got some real good independents here like us, Liquor Store, Autograph, Project 21, Ideal who are all doing some real cool stuff and it’s not like basic stuff like we’re all doing our own shit but say if you go to London you might get ten stores which are pretty similar. Then obviously the growing population is good because that can result in more platforms, agencies, projects being built.
G: You mentioned London there, what is it like running a streetwear store outside of the capital?
H: I think the Internet has made it a lot easier to do it because you can connect with someone a lot easier and faster. It is obviously a lot harder in terms of getting more traction and footfall with London being the busiest city in the UK but it is what it is. One day we might have a London store, that is a very big dream but then so was having a store in Birmingham. We love it in Brum and we’re happy with the way things are going.
G: You do a lot of events, exhibitions, collaborations and support a lot of local creatives, why is that so important for you guys?
H: I think it comes back to what I was talking about earlier it’s something that we never got and how we never got any advice. We agreed at the start that a very big thing we need to do is put events on. With these events we help the person set up and everything. We don’t just say here’s the space and leave them to it, we give them all the advice and help we can and I think that’s something we never got. We’ve done something like 44 events in the past 3 years and we’ve not charged anyone for the space and allowed them to make money off it. Some people have their first exhibition here so they can get their family down. To us what means more is say for example, a 15-20 year old kid got massive and then his first exhibition happened to be at Bene Culture. We gave them that platform to get started, many people don’t get that chance. We found it so hard to find a space to showcase our stuff so to give that kid the space for a night or a weekend is special.
G: Have you got a personal favourite event, exhibition or collection that you have launched?
H: The Bene Cult collection. I think that was the first collection we did that sold out in a day.
G: That’s the design with Bene Culture repeated three times isn’t it?
H: Yeah that’s the one. We got the design of a friend of ours and we wanted to do a whole collection on it. It was really weird because we chucked the lookbook together one weekend and didn’t really think much of it, it was just going to be another drop. We dropped it and it sold out within an hour and bear in mind there was quite a lot of stock too. We were like ‘Shit. This might do well.’ We had a few black hoodies lying around and just went to our printers because we thought you know what print on these too, let’s see what it’s like in black. We started wearing them about but it was just like us, family and friends kind of thing. People kept coming up asking ‘what’s that hoodie’ and just explained they’re just spare ones we had.
G: That’s when you know you’ve got a good product when someone comes up to you asking where you got it from.
H: Exactly but we were like it’s just a hoodie, nothing serious. Few weeks before Black Friday we thought it might be cool to release them in black so we quickly ran to the printers and got some printed. Did some product shots on the iPhone again and released on Black Friday which we had never done before, so we didn’t really know how to work it. It must have been around 25-30 hoodies which we put online and they sold out fast. Then the following year we thought we should do it again because people ask for it throughout the year, we must get like 40 messages asking when is it being restocked. So we did it again but shot an amazing lookbook for it but we limited it to 70 hoodies this time which we at the time thought we’re not going to sell all of these but again it sold out. People bloody love this hoodie. Then the following year we did it again but made a bigger thing about it so pushed it to like 100 hoodies and some tote bags. Again we doubted it, thinking people must already have this hoodie five times or something by now but I remember being in bed and launching it a bit early, we must have sold out before it turned 12 and I thought this is so sick.
G: So every year you upped the stock but always thought it wouldn’t be like the year before?
H: We always doubted ourselves yeah. We sort of realised more this year that people really love our own products so every month we’re trying to put something new out there. I think especially next year the stuff we put out is going to be very different to what people see Bene as now. Right now you’re looking at the in between stage.
G: Is there a dream event or collaboration for Bene, I know you mentioned opening a London store but is there something right up there?
H: Yeah our big dream is to open a department store. A big focus at the moment is being environmentally friendly so I think the end goal is to have a business that is fully sustainable, providing a living wage to everyone who works for it and have the ability to be a platform for loads of designers, fashion people etc. Having a store but it not just being a store if you get what I mean. The vision is a ground floor which would just be clothes, the second floor being a gallery space, the third being a workspace and then another floor being a music venue or something. Obviously it is a pretty big goal to reach but we think we can get there one day.
G: You’ve just launched the autumn winter collection, can you talk a bit about the inspiration for the designs?
H: We thought about it a year ago. We try and tie our collections to stuff that is Bene so like community, growth, culture so a very big one was like 70s and 80s in America where in college you would be put in houses, teams and stuff like that so you were a part of a community. We associated the team values aspect with Bene Culture. We normally go for quite edgy lookbooks but for this one we thought let’s just be friendly and happy, this is what it is about. People seem to really like it.
G: Yeah how’s it doing?
H: So we’ve sold out most of the stuff. On release we sold out on four or five items but we’ve still got bits and bobs of stock left.
G: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced and how have you overcome them?
H: I think the hardest thing has been balancing work with business and then with life because we all work our day jobs too. Another thing is how crazy the clothing industry is. Nothing is written. For example we had this one hoodie last year that didn’t do that well on release but then like a month later they all sold out on a day, you can’t predict how something is going to perform. Have you read Bobby Hundred’s book?
G: Yeah ‘This Is Not A T-Shirt.’ I’ve just finished it actually.
H: It’s a really good book. There was a bit in it about Frank Ocean with a Hundreds T-Shirt, which wasn’t seeded to him so he must have brought it from one of The Hundreds’ stockists. A photo was taken of him wearing the T-Shirt and then after the photo is shared online that T-Shirt sells out.
G: Yeah I know what story you’re on about. It was a win-win in a way for the Hundreds because somebody like Frank Ocean bought that T-Shirt because he obviously loved it and then also that photo gets shared and helps sell it out.
H: Yeah it’s like perfect but the thing is those people probably didn’t know the brand, they bought it because Frank Ocean wore it.
G: Yeah which means they get to learn more about the brand and then they become more attached to it.
H: But it’s mad because the clothing industry is one of the most fickle industries around because you can be hot one day and in the gutter the next day based on people’s views. Look at The Hundred’s now, people say a lot of shit about them.
G: Yeah like they say they’ve sold out and all that.
H: Yeah but not really because he prints half the shit that most companies in LA do, he’s able to support his family, he’s able to support multiple designers and factory staff. As long as he is happy then that’s all that matters.
G: I think he mentioned in the book about admitting that being stocked in huge shopping malls was a mistake because of how he lost a core audience. It relates back to earlier talking about making those mistakes and learning from them.
G: Can you talk a bit about the relationship you have with other independent labels and the process to get them stocked in your store?
H: Yeah usually it starts with an email or we see the brand on Instagram and think yeah let’s get it in. We could also meet someone at a tradeshow and get their details. One of our favourite brands that we have stocked for nearly four years now is SCRT. We really get on with the guys that run it, they’re just genuine nice people. For us if your brand sells out for us then that’s amazing but on the other side if you’re not willing to work with us and build a good relationship then it doesn’t matter. We’re more about the relationship than results. We just pick stuff that we love, the best way of putting it is if you walked into our wardrobe this store would be it.
G: Stocking SCRT for about four years and creating such a good relationship, it must be good watching them grow as they watch you grow?
H: Yeah exactly. For example this other brand called Pleasures. We stocked them back in 2015/2016. We were the first stockists in the UK and now they stock in amazing retailers that are absolutely massive in the US, it’s great to see that they’ve grown so much. Even a brand from Manchester called Cult Gloria, Robbie who owns that, he stocked with us from early on but now he stocks with the likes of Size so it is good to see.
G: You talked about turning 23 to 27 earlier whilst running Bene, how would you say you have changed personally whilst running the store and brand?
H: When I just graduated I think I was a pretty anxious, not confident kid. Like I’ve just met you today and I wouldn’t do that back then.
G: Yeah that’s the same as me to be fair.
H: But just like meeting new people, dropping off clothes to people you admire like celebrities and stuff. You kind of have to break that barrier and when I did that it was cool so for me as a person I feel like I’ve become less anxious and more confident in situations. A lot of the kids that come into the store that become a part of the team we learn as much as from them as they learn from us. One of my best mates now, he used to come in the store a lot so it’s that kind of vibe. Two of my favourite customers, I wouldn’t call them my customers I would call them my mates now so yeah I think I’ve become more open as a person from it.
G: Is there any upcoming Bene events or releases you can let us in on?
H: So we are restocking the cult collection on Black Friday.
G: I was wondering whether you would do that to be fair after hearing about it.
H: This one is going to be a bit more special. It’s going to be more of a pack so when you buy the hoodie you’ll get other things too like a print etc. Then we have an event on 21st December with Seymour Sportswear launching their skate video so that should be cool but apart from that it’s just going to be a planning for next year.
G: So finally it’s a question I’m going to ask everyone. Is there anything you’re really into at the moment? Could be a song, album, book, etc.
H: If Beale Steet Could Talk by James Baldwin, great book.
Massive thanks for Hemal for taking the time to speak about Bene Culture.