Imagine spending eight years underground and living to tell the tale. This is not a Barbara Walters expose` with an ex-hostage, but the lifestyle choice of Melbourne designer and shopkeeper, Christopher Bril.
Since 2003, Bril has been submerged beneath Flinders Street Station and while you might expect him to be intimately acquainted with discarded met tickets and yesterday’s MX, you’d be mistaken. Instead, he operates and designs jewellery for his store Corky Saint Clair in Campbell Arcade (aka Degraves Street Subway). “In a city of laneways and alleyways, Degraves Street Subway must be one of the strangest,” he says. “Part of the appeal is the sense of discovery. It surprises people that a shopping arcade is here.”
Corky Saint Clair is “the forest meets gift shop” where delicate jewellery, accessories and gifts in the form of woodlands creatures are “made by fashion literate elves.” The head elf being Bril, who independently designs and manufactures for his in-house label Corky. He was spurred to forge a career in design by his ex partner who encouraged him by duly appointing him “retarded” for not having previously done so.
In its infancy, the label primarily focused on Bril‘s DIY screen printed t-shirts and perspex jewellery, but his repertoire has since expanded to include porcelain, silver, crystal, resin, wooden clocks and display sculptures. “I’ve been training part-time as a silver smith since 2008, but I’m also lucky enough to know a group of wonderful artists and technicians who have become part of the Corky family,” he says.
Corky is distinctive from its contemporaries largely due to Bril’s capacity to experiment with varied materials and unearth innovative designs with cheek and flair. “Design is nothing without exploration,” is a mantra that underpins his design ethos. He is currently working with a carver to make interactive jewellery that spins, moves or opens. “It adds another dimension of engagement for the wearer if they can play with their jewellery.”
Bril is not afraid to diverge from the archetypal and admits to having “pushed the boundaries of good taste”. He notes a series of silver identity bracelets that had ‘manwhore’ and ‘bicurious’ engraved on them as some of his favourite designs. “There is a strong sense of play and humour in my work,” he offers. “I couldn't have run the business for eight years without it.”
Borrowing its namesake from Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman, Corky Saint Clair provides a unique retail experience for its customers. Upon entering Bril’s subterranean lair, patrons can’t resist the sparkly siren call of the infamous Corky Saint Clair Crystal Tree, a sculpture covered in found jewellery and crystals. Perhaps a device to lure the customer in, Bril explains that customers often have trouble leaving the shop “without falling in love with at least one thing and the pain of leaving without taking something with them.” This insatiable desire is the product of purveying goods from various international trade shows and design markets that cannot be referenced anywhere else in Melbourne.
Bril describes the astute balance between his professional and social life in an enviably casual manner, where an ordinary day might involve: “Writing in my journal; answering emails; trying half-heartedly to do the workout my trainer made up for me; eat something plant-strong and animal-friendly; go to my studio to do some silversmithing; wander into the shop, arrange some flowers; light some candles.” Though his thoughtful designs and innate curiosity would suggest that a little more complexity pans out behind the scenes.
Spending the better half of a decade in one of CBD’s subterranean nooks does have its misgivings, confesses Bril. “I look sallow in winter, if I go into direct sunlight I have diamond skin. Sometimes you get so used to being underground you don’t want to go above,” and for the sake of Melbourne independent design, let’s hope he doesn’t.
Shop 3 Degraves Street Subway, Melbourne
(03) 9633 5559
Mon to Fri 11am–6.30pm