As reality competition shows have risen to popularity in the past two decades, much of the crews of these shows remains underappreciated. One of these individuals is Erin Hirsch. Erin has accomplished a lot since she joined “The Voice” in 2011, clothing hundreds of contestants in that time. Even before joining the team, she already had made a name clothing music superstars like Kanye West, Rihanna and Eve. Erin sat down with me to discuss “The Voice” and her incredible work. We discuss her career as it has unfolded, and how designing for moguls and superstars prepared her for the pressure of the show.
AF: So I saw you began your career as a dancer before transitioning to dancing. How did you begin that transition?
EH: Well I was choreographing at the time and I found that I really enjoyed the process of clothing the dance pieces. It was another element that came to me as I was doing my own choreography, and that was really the beginning of it.
AF: Do you see the world of dance as similar to that of costuming?
EH: Absolutely, it can definitely go in that direction when you’re talking about the avant-garde.
AF: I always find it fascinating when artists are able to transition from one creative outlet to another. Do you still draw from the things you learned in dance and choreography when you design?
EH: I do, and I think about it in terms of composition. I think my dance training allowed me to take a lot of choreography, which is really about taking something out of context. That applies to any art form. When you take something out of context you can add to it, or take away, and change its value. So in that respect, one lends itself to another.
AF: What were some of your big breaks before landing on “The Voice” in 2011?
EH: Well my first big break was working with the rapper Eve. I had only worked for about a year, and a girlfriend of mine told me that she was moving to LA and needed a stylist, so I quickly pulled everything together I could think of to muster what I could to look like a portfolio. I faked it until I made it and I got it. I learned a lot on the job. We traveled to Europe with Gwen Stefani, we did the Grammys and I designed costumes. That was my first big break.
My second big break, I got a call 3 days before a photo shoot and there was this thing for an unknown client. I had to sign an NDA and was given some sizes for two men, one with short arms and one with long arms. I had to create all these costumes, and it turned out to be Gnarls Barkley. From then on I was doing costumes and some art direction. I was able to add props and that was a fun point in my career. Shortly after, another friend referred me to Kanye West, who was about to do a press tour. That turned into a wonderful working relationship for years.
AF: How involved was Kanye in his clothing at that point? I know he’s designed his own clothing at this point, but how about then?
EH: He was extremely hands on. I don’t know if he knows how to not be hands on. It’s really a collaborative effort when you’re working with him. The time I was working with him, I would happily take a phone call at 3 AM. He’s an idea machine, he cannot stop. It was very collaborative. It was also some of the hardest work I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding. I was able to stretch the limits of what I was comfortable doing.
AF: Now you started designing for “The Voice” back in 2011. How did that opportunity first come to you?
EH: At the time I was designing costumes for Rihanna, and her stylist used to contract me out to do custom work for her. So one of the stylist partners was a producer on the show, and they put my name into the hat to be one of the designers on the show. At the time, I had never done TV before. I remember speaking with the EP Audrey Morrissey and she asked me “Can you do normal?” She was wondering if I could do every day, and I said “I think so, you just gotta take a chance on me,” and they did.
AF: How does that transition go for someone like you who is making a bullet vest for Rihanna, to making hundreds of costumes a week?
EH: Well you know, it’s a really natural progression. The stage is something that I’m so comfortable with. It’s about looking at an artist and kind of drawing out from them where I think they can go and with potential. The difference is really the time, and not having the luxury of having a few extra days to make stuff like Bullet Bras. I don’t have that luxury and now speed design. I work well under pressure, I just speed it up.
AF: What do you find is the most important aspect to take into account when designing for the contestants on “The Voice?”
EH: Well the first thing to take into account is the song choice. That dictates everything around them, and what they’ll be wearing. After that, it has to do with what works well on their body. You have to work with their silhouette to best execute a design and make something flattering.
AF: Was there ever a song that someone picked that really stumped you?
EH: It’s not so much the song that will stump me, but the process that moves so quick. For example, I may have a design in mind, but the contestant will have done staging and they’re letting me know they have to walk down 15 steps. There’s no way they’re going to be able to do that with the design as it is, so you have to pivot on a dime. I think what stumps me sometimes is not knowing the staging. We have to check in with the other pieces involved, especially when the song changes sometimes. It’s more that the staging can dictate what they can or cannot do.
AF: About how much time do you have between shows to make the full costume?
EH: It depends on where we’re at in the shows. Monday and Tuesday we shoot. Wednesday I get my brief, and I really only have Thursday to shop and design. If I have time on Wednesday I try to get started. Friday I’m in fitting, Saturday and Sunday we’re in dress rehearsal. I really have a 24 hour period to execute everything.
AF: That’s an incredible turnaround.
E: It’s crazy.
AF: What are some of the potential roadblocks that pop up in that window?
E: The contestant having a completely different vision, but only have an hour and a half with them. Sometimes we X amount of contestants to dress, and sometimes the contestant has a very different vision and doesn’t want to wear something you already started. It’s about working with the contestant to find a commonality.
AF: How many costumes did you design in this last season?
E: I mean, the way the show works, I customize a lot of pieces to make them stage-worthy. As far as full head to toe costumes, we only do 5 or 6. If you factor in the customization, it’s closer to 300 to 400.
AF: I’ve read that you use “found materials” from unconventional locations, such as Home Depot. How does that factor into your process?
E: I feel like I just follow my intuition. Just this last season, I had to make a chain belt for Chloe Kohanski and I stopped by Osh and picked up a chain. We had to figure out how to hook, and sometimes it just sort of happens. It goes back to the art school mentality about needing to take a material and make it wearable on the fly. A lot times it goes to Home Depot, and get inspired by shapes. You can find out how to incorporate them into clothes or how to use them as a point of departure to make something.
AF: Which contestant from the last season was the most game to go with your vision?
E: Actually it was Brynn Cartelli, the season 14 winner.
AF: What were some of your favorite designs you’ve made this past year?
E: I really enjoyed the process of working with Kyla (Jade). With each contestant, you get to learn what each contestant’s body boundaries to make them feel comfortable. We were able to accomplish that, and often use a pair of dresses to make a new dress that would completely redesign the original dresses worn. That was a really fun process for me.
AF: How important is it to create a unique look for each contestant?
E: It’s extremely important. After all, I came from the music industry before this show and I can see this as the A & R process. I want to create a lane for every artist should they get a record deal from this show. There’s sort of a ready, packaged deal for the record industry.
AF: How much do you use the experience of working with Gnarls Barkley or Kanye that you use when you design in this role?
E: I feel like what has really helped me is that I’m not afraid of trying things I’ve never done before. My experience prior to this show got me out of my comfort zone and I could try a lot of unique techniques in design. I was able to create a lot of shapes that allowed me to try something different, like a structured shoulder. I’ve had a lot of experience in Avant-Garde, that allows me to feel like it’s in my lane when we get to these moments in the show. I know that I can step it up to make a store bought piece look like a custom piece for the stage.
AF: If there’s a single design from season 13, what would it be?
E: You know, I did a piece with an artist Ingrid Allen and she assisted me in making a gem suit and jacket for Chloe Kohanski. I felt like that was a really beautiful piece of wearable art for her. I think it was when she did the song “Thank You” by Dido during the playoffs.
AF: What are you excited about working on now? Are you continuing with “The Voice?”
E: I love “The Voice” and I am so blessed to be a part of that team. I’m also working on a technology project to help costume designers and stylists, which I hope to bring to fruition in the next year. I feel like there’s a big hole in the market. I feel like we’re so archaic to our approach in design, and I hope we can move forward in the new century.
AF: That sounds really cool. I hope it comes out as great as it sounds. Thank you for your time!
E: Thank you! Take care.