In researching a piece for Still WFNY on the Cavaliers’ new mascot, I discovered that the company who made Sir CC was located in Indianapolis. I was immediately intrigued as to whether they would allow someone to come and see the mascot creation process. After a few emails I was set to visit Avant Garb, and as luck would have it, Sir CC would be in for some upgrades.
Avant Garb is the creation of Jennifer Smith, who has spent years in costume and theater design. She is an artist, and a self-proclaimed ‘free spirit’ who has spent time living all around the country, including long stops in New York City and Berkley. Though she wouldn’t call herself a ‘sports person,’ she does think that there are a lot of similarities between the sports world and the theater as “they are both very passionate about what they do.”
Smith moved to Indianapolis with her family and started Avant Garb in 1987. Avant Garb makes mascots for corporations, sports teams, or whoever wants a custom fuzzy creature to promote their product or industry. They make approximately 40 characters a year these days, all out of the Indianapolis office.
And what an office it is.
They have a suite in the Stutz building in downtown Indy. The Stutz building used to manufacture Stutz automobiles back in the 1930’s and 40’s. Evidence of that production was all over the building, from extra wide halls to garage doors everywhere and even a car museum on location makes the building itself worth a look.
Avant Garb’s office is reflective of the women that dominate its walls. Greeting you at the door is fuzzy, the pink fluffy mascot of the company itself. Inside is a series of tables, sewing machines, and racks of foam, fabric and notions. (Notions are a trade term for plastic pieces, ribbons, googly eyes and everything else that you may need to decorate a mascot.)
The process of making a mascot starts about how you would imagine. Once contact is made information and ideas are passed around until sketches can be made. These sketches may go through several revisions, for as Jennifer said, “It’s easier to change a drawing than a mascot.”
Once approval is reached, templates or patterns are made. Foam is used to get an initial shape and size of the mascot. Modifications are made throughout the process as the team gets the shape and overall design in place.
The ‘team’ includes Akron, Ohio native Laura McFarland, who is the cobbler and milliner for the group taking care of the shoes/feet of the mascots as well as the headgear. Believe it or not, the performers inside these mascots wear their own shoes, and the feet or shoes of the mascot are strapped in around them. Laura says this is necessary for the performer to feel the most comfortable and stable while walking around in all this foam. A performer that isn’t worried about their footing is able to better focus on interacting with guests and potential clients. makes sense to me.
Also part of the Avant Garb team is Tonie Smith, who is an expert seamstress and accomplished costume maker herself. Tonie traveled along with the touring production of The Phantom of the Opera making and repairing costumes for the performers. She still gets the itch to work with theater groups and is called upon often when large shows come through Indianapolis.
There are more members of the Avant Garb team. They include consultants, like the designer that helped the team conceptualize Sir CC (who happened to design Sparty, Michigan State’s mascot.) They also send fabrics out to be custom dyed for particular clients. The ‘Muppet Fabric’ as called it, comes in white and must be dyed to match the customer’s exact specifications. Even the ugly condiment colors of the Cavaliers. (Those who read here enough knew that shot was coming!)
While Sir CC was the first NBA mascot Avant Garb has made, they have made several hockey and baseball mascots for minor league teams including the Portland Beavers, the Indianapolis Indians and the Grand Rapids Rampage. They made The Patriot and Gunston for George Mason University, among others including mascots for the NCAA themselves. If you’ve seen the Tivo mascot anywhere, they made that one too. Ten of them in fact. (One was in for repairs during my visit. It seems a fierce Texas storm knocked the antennae off of one.)
At any one time, they may be working on four or five projects, all at various stages of development. While they have work to keep them busy all year long, the beginning of the busy season is upon them. Whether it is teams getting ready for their summers or corporations looking to launch new initiatives, the team is hard at work from now until late May.
One of the mascots that was being created during my visit was ‘Rexy,’ a dinosaur for the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. The museum has used Avant Garb several times. In fact, this is the fifth generation of Rexy that they have ordered. Each time the dinosaur gets a few tweaks, such as a smaller head for easier movement and stability. The tail of Rexy has presented problems in the past as well. Unlike your standard purple dinosaur outfit, Rexy’s tail goes up. This is not the easiest feat to accomplish with foam as it turns out. Avant Garb has taken a backpack and altered it to strap to the performer holding the tail in place from the inside without the weight of the tail tugging and pulling on the costume itself. These are the innovations that 23 years of experience bring to the table.
Tweaks like this are what brought Sir CC back to Avant Garb. The performers found that Sir CC’s cape was getting twisted and caught on the costume, and so it came back for a flexible layer of foam to be added to help it retain its shape. There were a few other details that seemed quite minor to me, but were important enough for Jennifer, who wants every client to be completely satisfied with the product they receive.
“The mascots Avant Garb produce are part of a family,” Jennifer said. They certainly seem to get attached to them. Photos of the mascots adorn the walls of the office.
Jennifer also said that the office has an unwritten no swearing policy- they consider the mascots their children, and don’t want them to hear.
I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of Avant Garb’s handiwork in the NBA when word spreads about the quality of work they produce, and the great service they provide for their clients.
Jennifer and her staff couldn’t have been nicer or more accommodating to WFNY. We thank you. Make sure you check back tomorrow to see what I found on the way back to Ohio.
(All photos Grayshock/WFNY use only with permission and citation)