Back in the early 90s, my fashion icon was the rainbow; specifically, the rainbow from the Rainbow Showbag.
If anyone else remembers, the Rainbow Showbag was adorned with a drawing of an open-armed Moschino-esque bear, ready to welcome little children into a glittering world of fabricated femininity. Given that rainbows were the bomb.com, I sought to dress like one at any given opportunity. Take one look at my work and you’ll notice this affliction has haunted me to this day.
During a family holiday to Sydney, my Mum and I stumbled upon a boutique in Mosman that sold THE most incredible rainbow printed clothes, shoes, bags and accessories. Tropical fish looked up from the fabric and smiled. Frangipanis exploded in supernovas of yellow, white and pink. Abstract shapes danced in bright hues of green and blue. It was fashion HEAVEN and I was obsessed. How could a sewn-together piece of cloth make one look – and feel – sublimely happy?
Naturally, I begged for the jacket (which was 10 sizes too big so I could ‘grow into it’, as per the mentality of every thrifty Australian Mum in the 90s) and was granted that rare bird of a treat: the early birthday present. Sydney-based Rebecca Pierce, whom I promptly put on the pedestal of artistic genius from the lowly depths of Unley Primary School, was the designer of the jacket. I promised myself I would go back to Sydney and find Rebecca one day, letting her know how fabulous her work was.
So that’s exactly what I did.
A mere 20 years later, I found myself sitting opposite Rebecca in Neutral Bay, nursing a coffee, chatting about her art, work, creative process and production methodologies. Read on to discover what it was like to be a designer in the 1980s and operate a successful national and international fashion business that all started from one single t-shirt.
All photos are from Rebecca's personal archives. The tropical fish shirt below is a dead ringer for my beloved jacket! [ NB - I also traded some Babysitters Club books for a scrunchie in the very same design from a kid at school, who also went on a holiday to Mosman]
Rebecca, can you tell me how you started your label?
It was totally by accident. I was 18 and applied to study law and architecture, but ended up starting a degree in Law at The Institute of Technology at night as I needed to work during the day. In the morning, I was breakfast waitressing in Kings Cross. During the day, I would hand paint t-shirts and also worked at a shop.
It was with the hand painted t-shirts that I approached a small boutique in Hunters Hill. They wouldn’t let me invoice and would only take the t-shirts if they were sold on consignment. I was very lucky that there was a film being shot in Hunters Hill and the production crew spotted the shop and bought all my t-shirts. From there, I was able to invoice the shop and afford one screen for printing for future orders. I did the rest of the process by hand painting, until I could gradually afford more screens. The t-shirts were the initial product, which evolved to printing rolls of yardage and the label developed from there.
Was it true that Sportsgirl placed your first big order?
Yes, that’s right - Sportsgirl were amazing to me. I couldn’t afford to produce 300 t-shirts without their help. They purchased the base 100 % cotton t-shirts made by a Chinese manufacturer under the label Double Swan. I could afford two screens by then to create a map design and wrote ‘The Lucky Country’ by hand on all 300 shirts. There was a tongue-in-cheek piece written in Column 8 (The Sydney Morning Herald front page RHS column), noting it was interesting indeed to have ‘The Lucky Country’ written on t-shirts that were made in China!
Yes, that is Lisa Curry Kenny wearing Bec Pierce's 'The Lucky Country' hand-painted t-shirt on the left!
Woah that’s harsh! Did you get any good publicity from the article?
There was no internet at the time, so articles didn’t go viral, news travelled very slowly. Whoever might have read the column on the day may have remembered it. There wasn’t any negative feedback that I knew of, it was a humorous prod and it was a step in having the name of the label recognised.
How did you develop your artistic style, from one text-based t-shirt slogan, to the incredible universe of kaleidoscopic colours and symbols that informed the visual style of your work a few years later?
It wasn’t orchestrated. Everything just evolved. I didn’t know I had a business until 5 years on, and my accountant said that I will need to form a company. I happily muddled along. This was during the recession – not that I was even aware of that - I probably wasn’t reading too many newspapers. I was 18 and having a lovely time painting t-shirts. It wasn’t planned, as far as where it went. For me, it was always colour that was important. I’d always drawn at school, but it wasn’t as if I had a 1 year, 2 year or 5 year plan. It just evolved organically. What I was doing in the first 5 years was working 18 hours a day and taking every opportunity that arose.
Why do you think you were attracted to using Australian symbols in your designs and celebrating those motifs?
I would not describe them as symbols but more like elements that encapsulated Australia’s unique flavor, these elements were not always identifiable but embraced colour and a rendering that was quite liberated, with a no holds barred approach. It was the 80s and excess and pride shone through, tourism was a commodity that was being tapped into and in particular geared toward the Japanese tourist.
I think the look of the label developed on two levels that often overlapped: fashion in general and the rise of tourism from Asia. Australiana became a fashion statement. Australia hosted the Olympics and when we were bidding I was commissioned to do the design for the silk scarf that was a gift to IOC Delegates and manipulate the ‘Flash’ design for ties.
At it’s peak, how many stores did you have?
There were over 500 Bec Pierce Australia wholesale accounts around Australia, plus a few overseas, so I was predominantly a wholesaler. There were 5 retail stand-alone flagship stores in Sydney and 2 franchises, one in the ACT and the other in Auckland, New Zealand. Within a number of major retailers such as David Jones, Sea World , Crown Casino and DFS (Duty Free Shoppers) there were concept stores.
That’s huge. Did you have a core team you worked closely with, or were you a hands-on solo operator?
It was very hands on and I had a great team, the company produced all the clothing under contract. It went from me doing the artwork, to then working with the printers, going from strike off to strike off and then I’d work out the ranges from there. I would hold a minimum of two Licensee meetings a year. There were 12 Licensees who produced affiliated products such as bags, totes, footwear, napery, umbrellas, scarves, ties, jewelry, stationary and the like. We would meet to decide what the key prints were that we would utilise to form concepts, so that the print would run through all the different product lines. That particular concept would then be sold into major players like DFS, Taronga Zoo, casinos and places who would take all the products as one fully concepted line.
Did you have to overcome any significant challenges throughout the time the label was operating?
I think a business always has day-to-day issues. I ran the Company for over 20 years with the Bec Pierce label and a number of sub labels, no business is without its hurdles. I was very lucky to work with people that were passionate about what they were doing. I had my first store when I was 19 and had 20 wholesale accounts, there were some incredible people that today would probably be labelled as mentors but very generous people willing to share and impart knowledge, a number of them I still keep in touch with today. Very strong bonds were built. My own team were all older than me when I started and were great communicators.
Looking back at your body of work, is there a particular design or print that is your favourite?
I’m aligned to a print or item if it was difficult to create. There was one print that was really challenging to draw and VERY difficult to print, as I wanted the key-lines to work in a number of different reverses. It gave the printer headaches and took me…I don’t know how long…to get what I wanted out of the print. So I’m probably aligned with that print more because it was a hurdle to produce and ultimately was one of the most successful and longest running. Working together with the printer - and again with the makers - to make sure that when the print was cut in a certain way, everything lined up, they were the challenges that made certain designs favourites.
I never wore the product - only when I had to! I was very lucky with Maggie Tabberer [Women’s Weekly], Judy Johnson [Daily Telegraph] and Melissa Hoyer as they knew that I had modelled in the past and would ensure I wore the clothes in magazines and newspapers, which was the only part of the process that I really disliked doing! It was all part and parcel because it was cost effective for them, as they didn’t have to hire a model for the shoot. That was the only time I ever wore the product.
How would you describe your style in the 80s? What did you wear?
Because I was dealing with colour, which was every day, my wardrobe was pretty much a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and boots ….I love boots ! Everything was blue, navy, grey and black. Everything was incredibly plain.
That’s fascinating because your work explodes with colour! It’s like you had an adverse reaction to what you were painstakingly creating everyday!
Maybe I was allergic to my own products [laughs].
What did you transition into after your career as a designer?
I decided after about 20 years that I wanted to have a break, but didn’t want to sell the business; so I created another company where I developed specific concepts for clients and in turn designs for Licensees. I signed contracts with people like Taronga Zoo, Crown Casino and DFS and sold this company with the contracts. It had a more corporate orientation, meeting the needs of niche markets and did not affect my general domestic market.
With the domestic market, when the shop leases came up for renewal, I ended them. I kept the Licensees going until the end of each Contract and I still own all the IP for every design. Just in case I ever wanted to start it all up again, it’s all there ready to go.
Very clever. Is that something that’s potentially on the cards in the future?
I’d probably like to do it, twisted in together with what I’m doing now with my art. It wouldn’t look exactly like my old prints, but would incorporate how my artwork has evolved on canvas. All my artworks under the Bec Pierce label derived from working with pen and paper. I would mentally ‘drop in’ all the colours within either a black or white key-line. My current creative process in making art is very different it is almost sculptural and everything has to be scanned to pick up the texture and shadowed areas. I am working on a 3D platform no longer 2D.
What are your passions and inspirations at the moment?
I work as an artist. I’ve been working in the Asian market for the past 8 years and my next exhibition is in Singapore this November. I’m preparing an exhibition based on thick, heavily textured flowers that you may have seen on my Instagram account. I have just turned one particular work, an ice cream cone filled with flowers, into oversized silk scarves. They have all sold out. Maybe it is all starting again?!
Thank you Rebecca for sharing the story of your label and bringing some much-needed colour and vibrancy into Australian art and fashion!
Thank you Stav!
Follow Rebecca on Instagram @becpierceaustralia to marvel at more vintage design gems from her personal archive!
To discover Rebecca's artistic body of work, follow @pierceartanddesign and @trafficjamgalleries on Instagram.