EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Cobra Kai Costume Designer Talks Color Symbolism

Lumos PR

Frank Helmer is the costume designer for “Cobra Kai.”

As fans are aware, “Cobra Kai” is a continuation of “The Karate Kid” film franchise. The acclaimed series, which is available to stream on Netflix, focuses on the longstanding rivalry between martial artists Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William “Billy” Zabka). Frank Helmer has been the show’s costume designer since the show’s first season. Read on for Heavy’s exclusive interview with Helmer, where he discussed color symbolism, how he finds inspiration for characters’ outfits, and what fans can expect from the upcoming fourth season.

HEAVY: Hi, how are you?                                                                                                                           

Helmer: I’m doing good, how are you? 

HEAVY: I’m doing well. Thank you. Thank you for taking the time to do this. I love “Cobra Kai” so I’m very excited about this.                                                                                                   

Helmer: Oh great, I’m excited to talk to you about it 

HEAVY: So first off, how did you get involved with the industry?                                                                                

Helmer: Years and years ago after college, I designed a line of clothing, but I was always volunteering with the Seattle Film Festival because I just love film and television, and I always wanted to be around that world. And one year, I met an indie director and some producers, and they said, “Hey you should meet my friends who are doing this student film and you should come from LA to Seattle to design it, do the clothes. You’ve got good style, you have a fashion line.” I was like, “Okay sure I’ll try that.” I had no idea what I was doing and, uh, I came down and slept on my friend’s couch for two weeks and did this film, and fell in love with the industry and working on movies and films and tv and uh, moved down and have been doing it ever since. 

HEAVY: Oh wow, that’s incredible! And how did you get involved with “Cobra Kai”?                                                        

Helmer: I got involved with “Cobra Kai” through some producers I’ve worked with in the past. They had this project coming up, and when they called they were like, “Hey we’re going to do this kind of reboot of the ‘Karate Kid’ series called ‘Cobra Kai’ picking up where the original characters are in current day,” and I said immediately “Yes 100 percent yes.” I grew up on this, on the films, and I just jumped on the opportunity to do the costume design on the show.

HEAVY: Oh, that’s awesome! I was about to ask if you were a fan of the franchise before joining the project, so the answer is yes [laughs].                                                                            

Helmer: [Laughs] Yes, big fan, big fan, you know. I grew up with it. It was a big part of my youth. I just loved the story and the spirit of everything. 

HEAVY: And how is it to work with the original cast members like Ralph Macchio and Billy Zabka and Martin Kove with your history with the films?                                    

Helmer: I have to say the original actors and all the actors on the show are phenomenal. It is such a lovely little happy family we have here. I feel very lucky, very blessed to get to work with all these folks because there’s not a stinker in the bunch. The whole cast and crew as well. It’s really just a charming, delightful show to work on.

HEAVY: And how large is the costume department on “Cobra Kai”?                                                                                     

Helmer: I have a permanent staff of about 11 to 12, depending. It gets bigger when we have heavy crowd days like you know, like in the first All Valley in season 1, we have the All Valley Tournament, you know, we had probably 250, 300 extras, so I bring in additional costumers for that. But my main crew is — there’s a core crew of about eight and then it blows up to about 11 to 15.

HEAVY: Okay, and what is the collaboration process like between the other departments like hair and makeup? 

Helmer: That’s actually something I really love. One of the things I love about working on film or television is the collaborative nature of it all. So I work very directly with the writers and the showrunners and the directors and the actors, as far as like creating the characters and what needs to happen clothing-wise for any given episode. But then I also bring those ideas to the hair and makeup department. And they see all my fitting photos, all that has been approved by the showrunners. And you know, I get to collaborate with them like hey I think this would be the hairstyle or they will bring out ideas that I didn’t have that makes the costumes even better, so it’s a really great creative back and forth with everybody from production design to hair and makeup to even props. 

HEAVY: Oh wow. And do you usually come up with the looks, or do the showrunners give you an outline with what they would like?      

 Helmer: When I’m given the script — I read the script, I come up with concept boards — I guess you call it little collages of inspiration photos of when I have a new character I’ll show them — I’ll present them, “here’s what I’m creating for a character. Here’s all these cool skater girls in Southern California, here’s all these nerds in high school or what have you,” and I’ll pitch my ideas to them, so they know will say yes or if they have their own vision for something and it doesn’t translate in the script then, you know, I’ll do some more research and then I’ll go out and create the looks and go the fitting and present the fittings for approval.

HEAVY: You mentioned this, but the show takes place in the Valley, and I’m from Southern California, so I know it’s a very specific look. Where do you find the inspiration to dress the characters, specifically the teenagers?                              

Helmer: Oh well, my inspiration for my Southern California teenagers is mostly informed by the fact that I live in Southern California, so I know all these kids, I see all these kids out on the street. And there’s a few places when I’m out and about when I’m not working — if I’m out at a mall or a street festival or just walking along in the neighborhood, I’m stealthily taking photos. A little stalker-y, a little creepy, but I’m always taking photos of like kids who look really cool, like oh that kid looks really cool, I want to steal that for the show. I want it to look like these kids are real kids right, but they came off the street of Reseda, Tarzana, or where have you.

HEAVY: Right.                                                                                

Helmer: Like you said, it is a very specific look, and you know, I even think like where would these kids shop like they are going to shop at the Galleria, they’re going to shop at, you know, at Fashion Square, they are going to be at these malls and shop at places like PacSun and Vans and Tillys and all that stuff. Like I think about where they would actually get their clothes which helps inform their look and then the street style I see.

HEAVY: And do the actors get any input on how the characters dress?                                                                           

Helmer: Oh sure, yeah, yeah. It depends. One of the things I love is that I am also collaborating with the actors and creating the look, you know, and it’s important to me. For them to feel like a lot of times they rely on me like, here’s how to help flesh out the character. It’s a very collaborative part with them because I could help really intensify the character that they are trying to get. 

HEAVY: And who is your favorite character to dress?

 Helmer: Oh gosh. I mean, they are all really fun in their own individual ways. I mean I love — I mean Johnny seems kind of straightforward kind of average Joe guy, but also I mean I put a lot of thought and a lot of detail into all of my characters. So, you know, Johnny, in my mind, he’s never evolved in his dressing past high school, so he’s kind of still dresses a little bit like he dresses in high school. And, um, you know Amanda [played by Courtney Henggeler] I like to dress as a strong powerful woman in her business attire because she runs the whole business. Tory [played by Peyton List] is really fun because she’s a little tomboyish, but she’s also tough, but she’s also a beautiful girl, and she like kicks a**. They’re all super fun in their own way. 

HEAVY: I’ve noticed that Sam [played by Mary Mouser] wears a lot of purple on the show is that supposed to symbolize anything or was that just the character’s favorite color?              

Helmer: Oh, I do a lot of color symbolism with all my characters really, but Sam, in particular, um, when she is aligned with Miyagi more strongly in the beginning, she’s more in like cool tones pinks, like cool pink blues things like that. But as she becomes more enamored with and develops a relationship with Miguel [played by Xolo Maridueña], first in Cobra Kai and then Eagle Fang to show the red and black, they combine with the blue to make purple. So as she gets more — as she makes an alliance with the two dojos more, she gets to be more purple. And then the reverse happens when she goes on her own way. 

HEAVY: I love that, and what is the process like to determine that the clothes are going to withstand the fight scenes?

Helmer: Oh boy [laughs]. Believe me, there’s a lot of work that goes into that. The keyword with how to withstand the fight scene is multiples, and doubles, and triples, and quadruples. I need to make sure that I have enough clothes too — that I have multiples of each of the outfits for when there is a big heavy stunt scene because when I put it on the actor, I need to put it on their stunt double, and they might have to be rigged with a wire or a harness there might have to be holes cut into a garment so there might have to be tripled. Or if they have to go into the water, I might have to have four or five of any given whole outfit from head to toe. 

HEAVY: Oh wow!                                                                         

Helmer: And even with all that in my fittings with the actors and the stunt players, I make them go through the motions, I make them throw a punch, I make them throw a kick at my head so to make sure that they can do the action in the clothes because if I create a great outfit and they can’t do a high windmill kick in it, then the outfit is not doing its job. 

HEAVY: Right, and how often are you typically on set?

 Helmer: I mean, I’m on set every time there’s a new outfit about to go on camera for the very first time. I’m there to make sure that it looks exactly how I wanted it to look, and then I rely on my set team, which is amazing, to maintain that look throughout the scenes and throughout the whole series, and then I’m back in my office doing fittings and doing research and reading the new scripts and all that other fun work I get to do.

HEAVY: So the show has become known as having a ton of Easter eggs. Do you dress characters in ways to reference the original films?                                                                        

Helmer: Oh, 100 percent. We think about that a lot. We’re all big fans of the original series, so it’s like anytime we get the stories ourselves of sneaking in something that maybe only four or five super fans or maybe like 100 of you will notice. We get off on that, it’s just really, really fun to do that 

HEAVY: And do you design the gis? And if so, what does that process look like?                                                               

Helmer: The gis — there are some things, like the Cobra Kai gis for the All Valley, like the competition gis are all designed but they are based on actual real proper gis we get from Champion Martial Arts — or Century Martial Arts, but then the embellishments and the things that I add to them are all on me. 

HEAVY: That’s super cool. And what has been the most difficult look to put together?                                                

Helmer: Oh boy, the most difficult look to put together. I actually haven’t thought about that one. Oh, you know, the most difficult look to put together is something that was really, really simple. I had a scene in which I didn’t think I would have stunt doubles, so I just dressed everybody in just their standard, you know, workout wear there all very specific to the character wearing things, but one character ended being stunt doubled, but I didn’t have any multiples of it. And I hunted, and there was no — I couldn’t find it online, I couldn’t find it in stores. I couldn’t find it anywhere, so I had to find — basically, I had to remake a hoodie from like five different hoodies because it was five different colors, and so, I had to find hoodies that matched and that I could then cut apart and Frankenstein back together so I would have something for his stunt double. And that was the last time I only bought one of anything. I always buy seven of everything if I can [laughs]. 

HEAVY: Oh my gosh. And what has been your favorite look on the show?                                                                                 

Helmer: I mean, I would have to say I really do love — I really get such a thrill out of the gis I’ve gotten to make over the years. That’s really thrilling. That’s probably my favorite part is getting to create, because you know, whether it’s interpreting the old look of the Cobra Kai gis making it a little bit newer for modern-day or re-interpreting it all together and creating something from scratch, it’s very satisfying to create something that’s going to become part of the canon of the “Cobra Kai” series.

HEAVY: Yeah, that is very cool! So, in season 3, there were quite a few scenes that took place in the 1960s. How much research went into determining the looks, and were any of those pieces actually vintage?                                             

Helmer: A lot of it was vintage, and a lot of it was made to look vintage. Um, I do a lot of research, but anytime when there’s a period piece — whether it’s the 1950s diner or the Vietnam era army uniforms. It’s critically important to me to get them right because there are people alive who were in Vietnam that fought Vietnam, or their family or their relatives were part of that conflict, and they — it’s got to be right. Anytime you’re doing something like that — for me, it has to be 100 percent right because I don’t want anyone to pause the scene and say that’s a modern-day uniform, you know. 

HEAVY: Right.                                                                               

Helmer: So I put a ton of research into anything period so that it’s completely accurate. It’s as accurate as I could make it. 

HEAVY: Those are some of my favorite looks by the way. 

Helmer: Oh, thank you! I had such a good time making them. Especially the 1950s stuff like when Young John Kreese [played by Barrett Carnahan] gets beat up in the back. It’s so great. 

HEAVY: I loved it! Can you tell us anything about the costuming in season 4? I know everything is very secretive. 

Helmer: I can only say that I think everyone is going to be really excited — it’s a really great season. We do a lot of stuff, and I’m really excited for everyone to see it because I’m having — we’re having a blast. 

HEAVY: Oh yeah, I’m very, very excited. Have there been any challenges during production due to COVID and all those regulations?                                                                      

Helmer: You know what, there are a lot of challenges just that we work in very close quarters with a lot of people, just getting used to wearing masks and face shield all the time and gloves and hand sanitizing. It’s not been my favorite, but it’s been — we’re just so grateful to get back to work, so you know, if this is the price we have to pay to get to be able to make another season and hang out with my film family then I’m happy to do it, and you know, happy to do a little bit of masking and put up with that testing. We’re happy to pay the price 

HEAVY: And I just have one last question for you. What has been your favorite project that you’ve ever worked on? 

Helmer: Favorite project that I’ve ever worked on — I mean “Cobra Kai” is high up there. There’s another great movie that I did — gosh, it’s been 20 years now — the director Cheryl Dunye for her first film for this film we did for HBO that was called “Stranger Inside,” and it was a women in prison film which doesn’t sound very exciting from a costume standpoint but I got to really, really delve deep into these characters and this story is such an important story that I was really thrilled to be part of it. 

HEAVY: Oh, that’s amazing!                                                

Helmer: But “Cobra Kai” is the highest. 

HEAVY: Yeah it sounds like it! It sounds like a super fun time. Well, thank you so much for taking the time for this interview.                                                                                      

 Helmer: Absolutely, my pleasure!

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