Costume Designer Erin Slattery-Black Tells Us How To Get To Sesame Street

Erin Slattery Black

Celebrity Interview: Erin Slattery Black

How did you get your start?

I started as a costume designer. I had plans to go to Europe to go to the summer, and the day before I left, the Jim Henson company called me and said they would have work for me in the fall. Not an hour later, my friend said that his roommate was moving out and I could have that spot. So I actually got off my plane on its layover with my backpack because I had been in Europe all summer, and then the next day started my job at the Jim Henson Studio.

It’s amazing. I thought I would live here for a couple of years and then my first day I met Eric, my now husband, who was working in the television division, and now here we are, still in New York, 18 years later and with four kids.

So what were you doing at Jim Henson?

Honestly, I started out at the very bottom of the totem pole. I was ironing Big Bird’s feathers. Every one of the feathers on Big Bird is hand-ironed and steamed, sewn on to an individual piece of ribbon, and then individually glued onto the costume. So you can imagine the time it takes to do it. There must be thousands of feathers on the costume. And then every year they replace about 300-400 feathers on Big Bird. I did that for two weeks, and then they were building a new character, a walk-around one that someone gets inside of, for a television show in the UK. They asked if I wanted to work on that team and I thought that would be a great skill to learn. But I was really interested in the costuming. I had loved Sesame Street as a child and had grown up on it. I kept asking how to get on to Sesame Street but they told me it was a very small team of four people who do that work. As luck would have it, someone asked to see my portfolio and then by the second year I was with Jim Henson, I was doing the costumes for Sesame Street.

What has it been like for you?

I absolutely love it. I think people might feel the same way if they costume Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift, but I’m like, “It’s Ernie!” [laughs] “It’s a costume for Snuffleupagus!” I can’t imagine being more starstruck than to work on them.

Do you costume the live actors?

No, I just do the puppets. There’s a whole separate team that does the actors. So if Ernie is going fishing, I’ll make a fishing vest. Or if Elmo is going to bed, he’ll wear pajamas. It’s a funny way that Sesame Street works because Elmo doesn’t usually wear clothes, but if he goes to sleep or if he does something fancy, he’ll put on a tuxedo.

What have you learned from working on Sesame Street in relation to your business?

I’ve learned so much. It was such an honor to be a part of such an established television show and still be creative and have a new voice in it. I’ve learned a lot about whimsy and monsters and to have a wacky creative idea and follow it through.

Erin Slattery Black

What is it like being a mom of four and a businesswoman?

It’s great and it’s hard. I feel so fortunate because I can somewhat call the shots since I’ve worked at Henson for so long. And they’re so wonderfully flexible with me. We only shoot Sesame Street one-quarter of the year, so sometimes I do work there for other projects but mostly for Sesame Street. But they’ll let me decide how many hours I’ll work, like how many I’ll be in the shop for and how many will be working from home. And I’ve been working with these people for almost 20 years, so it’s like working with family. It’s a luxury to be in a job that I love and still be available for my children the way I want to be. I didn’t want to sacrifice either one.

I’ve had three of the actors on the covers of Celebrity Parents, and it’s so hard not to be starstruck. For one thing, they are exactly the same in person as they are on the show.

They are totally the same. And I know what you mean about being starstruck. One of my first days working there, they told me I could go into Hooper’s Store and I was like, “I can go into Hooper’s Store?!” [laughs]

So how did Lyla Monsters come to be?

When Lyla was 3 ½ years old, I asked her what she wanted to give Daddy for a holiday gift. Without missing a beat, she said, “A monster.” I asked her why and she said that Daddy likes monsters. I’m all about empowering the kids and especially gift-giving, since they need to learn how to give a gift, not just receive it. So she wanted to make it and sat down and began to draw a monster, but a three-year-old version, with a big body with two round eyes, long legs and big feet and hands. She wanted me to help make it real. Our garage is filled with fleece and foam and anything I need to do my work so we went out and she rummaged through the bins and picked out the yellow fur and the striped fabric for the legs. She wanted it to wear a t-shirt with a teddy bear on it and she drew the patterns on the back of the fabric.

Then, about a year later, Quinn had a speech therapist who came a couple of times a week and Lyla was downstairs with me, and she said, “Let’s make some more of those monsters.” She knew I was doing a craft show and she wanted to sell some of the monsters. I thought it would be a good thing for us to do while Quinn was upstairs. So we made 15-20 monsters, with pigtails and ribbons, all one of a kind. So then I begged people in the neighborhood to come buy one because she’ll be devastated if none of them sell. But before lunch, before any of the neighborhood plants showed up, we sold out. So part of it was learning about entrepreneurship and then also knowing that half of whatever she made she could keep in her piggy bank for college and the other half would go to charity. If you make money, you have to give back to your community.

Really, it’s all been luck. We’ve followed the business rather than planned the business and pushed it. In between Sesame Street and having the kids and then going back, I taught costume design at NYU for seven years. One of my former students was doing a web design project that needed to have a shop attached to it so she made our website. Our monsters started selling faster and faster, and then the Jewish Museum on 5th Avenue found out about us, and since the monsters are called Lyla Tov, which means “good night” in Hebrew, said that they could sell them in their gift shop. They started ordering 25-30 a month and we got to the point where we couldn’t sell them at the dining room table anymore. Eric suggested doing a KickStarter and Lyla picked her favorite girl and boy monster, Charlotte and Forrest, and we decided to make 1,000 of each of these and we got funded within 7 days. So once we had enough, we made the next two made, so now we have 1,000 each of the 4 monsters, and we’re going to have to remake them, so we’re deciding whether to make two new designs or remake two of the current ones.

How are you balancing it all?

My husband is actually very helpful with the monster business. Lyla and I are much more interested in the artistic, creative side of it, and he’s more of a logistics guy, doing the taxes and setting up the LLC. But once the kids are in bed by 8:00, from 8:00 PM until midnight, it’s the Lyla Tov time.

Erin Slattery Black

Is it hard as the business gets bigger to stay connected to the part of it that you love, which is the artistry?

Yes and no. There are times when things are tedious and we have to do it. But when I look at anything in life, that’s part of it, isn’t it? Even going on vacation; the packing is annoying but it’s great once you get there. There are parts that I absolutely love, like the fact that I have something fun that I get to do with Lyla and when she has won awards we’ve gotten to travel together, just the two of us.

But the other kids are involved in their way. My younger daughter, Tessa, loves to ship. When we have a big amount, we have it shipped from our warehouse. But if they just want one or a combination, we ship from home and Tessa is our shipping department. She’ll carry them on her way to school and puts them in. Quinn is our quality control because he’s all about hugging them, making sure that they’re cuddly and cute enough to ship out!

What are your plans for Lyla Tov?

That’s a good question. In the ideal world, we’re hoping that a larger company has an interest in what we’re doing and would want to license the product from us because we’re not really business people. I’m not sure given four young children and a career that I really love and don’t want to give up that we would be able to take it to the next level. Right now, the business is me and Eric in addition to our jobs, and Lyla, in addition to fourth grade, so I feel that we’ve really taken it to a great level, considering it’s just the three of us. I’m not sure how much further we can go without someone else so we’re trying to show that we can sell well enough and make our presence known well enough but maybe another company would be interested in partnering or licensing.

Since you’re primarily a costume designer, what was the experience like of making the monsters themselves.

It was fairly easy. Since they were designed by a 3-year-old, they’re not super complex. It was easy shapes to pattern and sew but I think that’s what makes them appealing to a child because they were designed by a child. They really resonate with 3-5 year-olds. They’re drawn to it and I think that sensibility appeals to them.

As a designer, do you ever want to tweak the design a little but feel that you can’t because you have to stay true to her design?

The shape is all her, and the pigtails and the horns. And we did talk about it; if we’re going to have a purple one, maybe we shouldn’t have a blue one right away. Together, we made some of those decisions. After the first two, I pulled out a huge heaping pile of fabric that I thought would go nicely with what we already had so she was choosing fabrics from a pre-selected mix. It is totally her concept and idea but we’re working together as we grow.

There are some pretty snazzy Emmy’s right next to us.

I’ve won three of them. The first two I won early on in my career and then I won again last year. But it’s a constant balancing act. I’m a firm believer that in order to be a good mother you have to be happy with your life. For me, I feel so fortunate to have four great kids, but if I didn’t have something that made me me, aside from being a mom, I would go crazy. I’m lucky that I have both, and I just feel that it makes me a better mother.

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