Mr Draper

Words by Lillie Thompson
Photography by Lillie Thompson
Handmade in Melbourne, Mr. Draper products are thoughtfully crafted from quality materials with a preference towards local, sustainable and ethical suppliers.
Mr Draper Interview - Lillie Thompson - Image 1

Alistair Birrell crafts fine linen bedding and homewares under the Australian label, Mr. Draper. Handmade in Melbourne, Mr. Draper products are thoughtfully crafted from quality materials with a preference towards local, sustainable and ethical suppliers. Alistair dreams of creating an ethical and sustainable business that is inclusive and supportive of the community.

Alistair’s work is not only humble, honest and of the finest quality but has developed a real sense of community.

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How did Mr. Draper first come about?

I started Mr. Draper in late 2014 after leaving the military and completing the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS) program at RMIT University. I have always liked sewing and making things with my hands and prior to starting Mr. Draper, I had done some work in fashion. Bedding and homewares felt like a space due for a change. While plenty of items are designed in Australia, very few are made here. I couldn’t understand why we need to import something as simple as tea towels. I mean, really!?

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What inspires you and sustains your work?

Two things I guess, the first is that I really enjoy making. The second is the vision I have for Mr. Draper. We’re still in the early days but I know how special it can become if I stick with it.

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How do you find a work/life balance?

I am still working on the life balance thing. Starting a business with very limited resources is tough and I have been working almost full-time on the business alongside part-time work to help pay the bills at home. It has been close to seven days a week for well over a year now. I very nearly burned out last Christmas and am now much more aware of how hard I am pushing myself. However, I think I am beginning to turn a corner. I am looking to hire a helper when I release this next collection and move towards Christmas.

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How does your environment nurture your process and work? What elements do you enjoy most?

My studio, the ‘Boffice’, is a small space above a jewellery store on Gertrude Street in Fitzroy. I moved there in July 2015 after taking over the lease from a friend. Having a dedicated making space has been transformational for the business and me. It helps to de-clutter and delineate my mind (and life) and allows me to focus on the work rather than all the other things that distract me from getting stuff done. My favourite part would definitely be the light. The huge floor-to-ceiling north-facing windows are amazing.

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How has the community developed around Mr. Draper since starting the business?

I am slowly earning my place in the Melbourne and Australian maker community. It is actually quite a small community and everyone seems to know and work with each other, which is nice. Instagram has been a great tool in getting Mr. Draper out there. Apart from connecting me with a bunch of people who turned into customers, I’ve also met a lot of really cool makers and made some great friends.

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What are your thoughts on local and mass production?

I think it is important to have hand-made products as it keeps us connected to the people and processes behind them. Like the slow food movement, we are rediscovering the materials and processes in our products. It is nice to get to know the designers and makers behind your most treasured items.

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Where do you source your materials?

My linen is sourced from Europe. I currently use two suppliers, Merchant & Mills in the UK and Siulas in Lithuania. I would love to buy my linen from a local mill, however, they do not exist in Australia. Once upon a time you could get linen milled in New Zealand, but that is also gone.

Almost all of my other suppliers are local. I work with The Social Studio in Collingwood and more recently W.H. Ahmad in Coburg to assist with manufacturing.

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For anyone starting a small business of his or her own, would you have any advice to share?

Take the time to put a plan together and as early as possible get out there and start talking to your customers. You need to talk to your target market not just your friends and parents. Getting constructive feedback early is critical. Too many businesses make excuses about why they can’t start selling and instead spend an inordinate amount of time preparing. Test your product or service early and often.