Spotlight On: Costume Designer Erin Hirsh gives ‘The Voice’ the Winning Look
By Valli Herman
Erin Hirsh was once a lot like the performers she dresses now as the Costume Designer on NBC’s “The Voice.” Through 178 episodes since 2011, she has outfitted hundreds of contestants through eight of nine seasons on the blockbuster singing competition, which logged more than 17 million viewers at its peak.
The reality series features four notable musicians–lately Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams–who help select and mentor undiscovered singing talent. The Emmy-winning series (21 wins and 55 nominations and counting) has earned Hirsh two nominations.
From the packed offices at the NBCUniversal Studios where the show is shot, she oversees a crew that includes tailors, shoppers, supervisors and assistants, outfitting the contestants and Shelton’s on-air wardrobe. Shelley Viall oversees the wardrobe of dancers and musicians on the live show.
In the early seasons of the show, Hirsh, mother of a 6-year-old son, worked seven days a week, a schedule that resembled her stylist days working with touring musicians including the duo Gnarls Barkley, Rihanna and Eve.
Putting in grueling hours and weathering tough working conditions, Hirsh applied her talent and energy toward a career she didn’t always know was a perfect fit. Here’s how she rode the wave of the ratings blockbuster.
Q: How did you discover your career?
A: I used to be a professional dancer. I never thought I would do anything other than dance. My grandmother was a textile designer in New York in the ‘30s. When I would choreograph pieces, I would always call her and she would ask me questions about the color palette of my costumes and lighting design and we would have these really in-depth, creative conversations that somehow hit a place that felt…like home. It was fulfilling.
I came into this business with complete naiveté. I think I was 25, waitressing and dancing, when I decided that at 30 I couldn’t work in a restaurant any more. Very naively, I said, ‘I like to clothe my dance pieces. I think I’ll become a stylist.’
Q: How did you find clients?
A: I got a very lucky break early in my career with a rapper, Eve. I heard she was looking for an up-and-coming stylist. We went to the Grammys and on tour. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I winged it. I probably was working 18 to 20 hours a day. You don’t know what you don’t know. So I was double-thinking things, triple-thinking at that time.
Q: How did you get to “The Voice?”
A: I worked with Rihanna and designed a couple of her tours. Her stylist contacted me to design her second tour–they did styling and I did the creatives. The stylist’s girlfriend was a producer on the show when they were first starting out. I went in for an interview with [executive producer] Audrey Morrissey [who said] I was perfect for it but I didn’t have any experience in television. Audrey took a look at my stuff and she called me one day and said, ‘Can you do normal?’ Because everything I’d done was avant-garde. I said, ‘I can do normal. I swear to you! I can make someone look great in off-the-rack clothes.’ She took a chance on me.
Q: You have hundreds of contestants and two shows a week. How do you keep the machine running?
A: Oh, it’s crazy. This is the way a typical week works. Monday is a performance show; Tuesday is a results show. Every department gets creative briefs on Wednesday. My department…does the majority of shopping on Thursday. Contestant fittings are on Friday. We have dress rehearsal Saturday for Monday and Sunday for Tuesday.
We really only have less than 24 hours to turn around two shows a week, which is crazy when you think of the time stores are open and the time we have to shop them.
The turnaround and production value on this show for all departments never ceases to impress me. For what we do in 12 to 24 hours to me is crazy, more so to me on the sets. I don’t know how they do it. It’s like elves come.
Q: Do you work every day during the season?
A: I used to work seven days a week for many seasons and then I got smart. You know what? The world still spins, everything is OK and everyone knows what they’re doing. It’s a really well-oiled machine at this point. Our whole department is incredible and impeccable at what they do. It makes my job really easy.
Q: Was it always that way?
A: The first three seasons was–the only way I could describe it–was anarchy. I think I might have had PTSD. That’s why I took season four off. I was like, ‘I can’t do this.’ In season one, I did every single position. I was the designer, supervisor, key costumer, quick changer and Blake’s stylist. I did everything. I had about a week to crew up the department and put together our wardrobe room. We didn’t anticipate the show getting as big as fast as it did. We were working out of a room in the Marriott. We were just so ill-equipped. We got smart and figured out how to work smarter and use our time more efficiently.
Q: How do you build a persona? Do you think in terms of character arc?
A: Yes, but the song choice really informs the feeling and tone of everything across the board–the lighting, the costumes, the makeup. That sort of sets the pace. Then from there, our job is to present them options, to try to push the envelope and get them to see our vision for them. We try to give each contestant a specific ‘lane’ so that when they leave the show, they have a career ready for them. This is how America has seen them; there is no transition period–at least from an image standpoint of where they can go. They’re there. When they leave the show, they have a career image.