An Interview with Michael-Birch Pierce

Originally published in the Autumn/Winter 2016 Issue of Fringe Magazine

Michael-Birch Pierce is a professor, artist, and designer living and working in Richmond, VA. He has worked for both Diane von Furstenburg and André Leon Talley in New York City, yet found himself drawn back to his home state, Virginia. After falling back in love with Richmond, Pierce began teaching at his alma-mater, Virginia Commonwealth University, and concentrating on his fine art pieces. I had the chance to sit down with him in his sunlight Mayo Island studio, overflowing with rhinestones, sequins, and glistening fabrics. Our chat ranged from fashion to art to the power of self-knowledge.

ON FASHION AS ART: “There is a huge proliferation of costume art exhibitions now. People are re-contextualizing fashion as art and saying, ‘Look, these designers are not just churning out clothes for people to consume… these people are artists creating brilliant works of design and sculpture that happen to be things that can be worn.' I think that’s a really exciting thing happening to the industry. I like to take that, and make garments that are garments, but they are saying something more. There’s a story and something deeper in there… With the fine arts stuff, it tends to be using the exact same techniques that I would use to embellish a dress, but to embellish something different and make you see it in a different way.”

ON IDENTITY: “The work now, especially, it’s about identity. It’s about being a gay man in the South. It’s about what you hide and what you show: whether or not you repress the special, sparkly more exuberant parts of yourself. I grew up in small town Virginia and had a very hard time coming out, being a gay kid in a Baptist family… all of that has led to my work. A lot of what I’m doing is what I would not allow myself to do when I was younger. It’s all the stuff that was too feminine and sparkly and too over-the-top. It was the stuff that I felt like I had to hide. So being a lot more comfortable with my identity and investigating the way that people express their own identities, it started as something that wasn’t just about gayness and queer culture.”

ON HIS INSPIRATION: “Things that inspire me… David Bowie. The Spice Girls. Joan Rivers. Dolly Parton. I feel like their aesthetics inspire me in major ways. These are people who are just over the top personalities and identities. The kind of identities and personalities that I’m trying to imbue into the artwork. RuPaul. Researching my thesis paper, half of the quotes that I have are from RuPaul. He’s just so brilliant when it comes to talking about why we act the way we do. How we form our own self.”

ON MANUS X MACHINA: "That exhibition was just completely mind-melting. It was beautiful. It was perfect. It was amazing. It explored all of the things that I have been exploring in my own work for the past five years. I did a lot of work in graduate school thinking about the hand and the machine. How a lot of people think about the machine and digital production and mass production and something that is taking away hand craft and the authenticity or the beauty of craft and hand work. And I’ve always seen it as something that’s just another tool…. I don’t see why people think that machine producing things has to be completely antithetical to hand making. I’m really interested in using machines as a tool for hand creation. The things that Iris van Herpen is doing. The crazy 3D printed and silicon molded things. The laser cut technology in that show. All of those examples that they showed were things that used these technologies in order to enhance handcraft. They are blending them with handcraft, rather than denying hand craft. And then they are using them and pushing them to the limits and using them to the best of their digital ability. That is such an exciting exploration of craft that it absolutely doesn’t have to cheapen hand work. I loved that.”

ON SUCCESS: "I tell everybody that in fashion, as well as just about anything, it’s all about how you talk to people and engage new people that you meet. Networking is more important than actually having a good resume. You have to know your stuff and be knowledgeable about what you are doing... About every opportunity I’ve had has come from knowing the right people and building relationships with those people, making good impressions, and convincing them: I am a person that you want to have around you, so give me this job. Invite me to a party. Let me meet another person that will give me an opportunity... I know people who are way more accomplished than me who are not successful because they don’t know how to put themselves out there and get what they want."

RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS: Coffee or tea? Tea, decaffeinated. Early morning or late night? Early morning. Denim or leather? Leather. Stripes or spots? Stripes. Dog or cats? Dogs. New York City or Paris? Paris. Flats or platforms? Platforms. City or country? City. Unless you are talking Paris versus Province. Then it’s country.

Where to find him? and on Instagram and Twitter @michaelbirch