Earlier this season on Silicon Valley, we learned that Erlich Bachman, the loutish owner of the incubator that launched Pied Piper, had the nickname “Kool-Aid” in college. The character, played by comedian T.J. Miller, believes it’s because he was cool. A former classmate reveals that it’s because he would constantly come bellowing into a room when he wasn’t wanted, figuratively busting through the wall.
Now the cult of Erlich is in full bloom–replete with multiple Reddit threads and a wondrous Twitter parody account. Erlich is both supremely self-confident and often hilariously un-self-aware–a combo we’ve seen in a slew of memorable contemporary characters, from Ricky Gervais‘s squirmy boss in the original Office to Stephen Colbert as Stephen Colbert. But Erlich is not all boor–he’s obviously savvy enough to have founded the airline booking aggregator Aviato and sold it for enough to incubate other startups; he’s pulled Pied Piper out of as many scrapes as he’s gotten them into; and he’s had his share of success with the ladies. And then there’s his style: high schlubbiness at first glance, Erlich’s wardrobe is one of calculated leisure, equal parts geek, stoner, and earth mother. He’s not afraid to let himself or his clothes take up space, and his style is part of how we know that he’s the only member of Pied Piper who’s truly comfortable in his own skin.
“He’s regally comfortable,” says Silicon Valley costume designer Christina Mongini, who joined the hit show this season and has been critical to the evolution of Erlich’s character. (Mongini was also the brains behind the identical wardrobes of the parade of venture capitalists wooing Pied Piper in the season premiere.) “He enters the room, he has this sort of kingly quality about him. He’s commanding, and he’s regal, which makes me laugh even saying that.”
Mongini calls Erlich “a good bad dresser,” and says that one of the challenges this season was figuring out how the character, who in season one usually stuck to ratty robes and Birkenstocks, would deal with dressing up for meetings with VC firms.
“We decided that he’s just always going to wear his black cargo pants,” says Mongini. “Black cargo pants are dress pants. And then, we would just give him a different kind of earth-tone shirt and some sort of textural blazer that’s not sharp and crisp, but kind of soft. He’s weird, but at the same time you know that there is a good heart in there and he’s soft. There’s a softness, and I like that contrast.”
According to Mongini, Erlich probably has “more clothing in his closet than the rest of the guys.” She says that when she got to the show, “it was sort of like, look, these guys, they’re not out shopping. For him, though, to me it feels like he would be the one that would have the most gear that he just gathers from people over the years, keeping things, finding something. I don’t know if I’d say at the thrift store, but finding something and then keeping it and adding it to his collection. Nothing would surprise me that he would say or come out wearing. You could put him in anything, and somehow it makes sense because, ‘Oh, of course you have that.'”
One of this season’s funniest episodes actually used Erlich’s almost sacred relationship with clothing, in contrast with his fellow hoodie-clad coders, as a plot point. When Pied Piper (very temporarily) moves out of Erlich’s house, he gifts mousy CEO Richard Hendricks with a kimono as a gesture of respect (a kimono that Richard looks like he would rather die than wear). Preparing for this scene, says Mongini, turned out to be surprisingly stressful.
“We had to find multiple kimonos, because they had to be specially prewrapped in that beautiful wrapping and could each only be opened once,” says Mongini. “We had to try to find them quickly, and none of them could match the kimono that Erlich was wearing. It sounds like the simplest thing, like ‘just go with some kimonos,’ but it wasn’t. It was kind of an event, actually.”
Then there are Erlich’s T-shirts, emblazoned with nerd humor like the element “Nintendium,” the message “I Know HTML (How To Meet Ladies),” and the binary code for bitcoin. Mongini says that none of the shirts were designed for the show, but rather found on the Internet. (The shirts of the invented companies can be bought at HBO’s online store.)
“There’s a danger that you’ll stare at his T-shirt instead of watching the show,” says Mongini. “I never want it to be distracting. But I know that in the first season, people loved the Atari T-shirt. So I just wanted to find T-shirts this season that could play along with that theme, not be distracting, and not be so stupid, because there are so many out there. It’s also up to [showrunners] Mike [Judge] and Alec [Berg] to decide if the shirts work or are just stupid.”
But over those T-shirts invariably come flannels, the chunky sweaters, and the kimonos that represent the many layers of Erlich Bachman. “There’s a paternal element there, too,” says Mongini. “It’s like, you kind of do maybe want to hug him.”
So hug away, but be warned: it might take a while before you can wash the patchouli off.